Peabody Conservatory recently announced that seven new musicians would join their Jazz Studies faculty. The program welcomed Director Sean Jones in January several months after the resignation of the former Founding Director Gary Thomas.
Thomas, one of the two black faculty members in the program at the time, cited discrimination as a reason for his departure. He established the program in 2001 to broaden Peabody’s reach, which has traditionally focused on classical music, to include jazz, a historically African-American form.
Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein said that he hopes Jones will take the department in a new direction.
“I don’t know that the program has ever been what we really wanted it to be,” he said. “There’s an opportunity now to really do that. There’s a new energy there and a new commitment.”
Bronstein said that Peabody was hoping to continue the expansion of the program because of the cross-genre influence of jazz and because of the form’s historic roots in Baltimore. He said that the new faculty would allow them to increase connections with the local community.
The new faculty includes saxophonist Tim Green, jazz bassist Kristopher Funn and multi-instrumentalist Warren Wolf, all of whom are African-American Baltimore natives.
The program will also welcome percussionist Quincy Phillips, vocalist Charenee Wade and guitarist Matthew Stevens. Pianist Alex Brown will serve as a visiting artist.
Troy Long, a junior studying jazz piano at Peabody, wrote in an email to The News-Letter that he knows two of the new faculty. Green was his saxophone teacher in high school, and Wolf also coached him.
“I expect them to bring fresh energy,” he wrote. “They’re amazing musicians with great attitudes. Most of all I know they won’t put up with the administrative shenanigans.”
Long added that while he will graduate before many of the changes at Peabody will start to take effect, he was glad to see the department moving in its new direction.
“[The program] deserves life and a fair chance to succeed,” he wrote. “If they’re sincere about trying to improve that, then things can only get better.”
Wolf, who plays the vibraphone, drums and piano, among other instruments, said that the allegations of discrimination from Thomas did not influence his decision to accept the position.
“We’re trying to move on from that. Peabody has pressed the restart button on the program,” he said. “There’s always two different sides of a story, and I haven’t heard everything that’s come out, nor do I really want to hear that. All I can do is just try to take everything in and join the facility and be as positive as possible.”
According to Wolf, the question of white jazz musicians has been ongoing in the industry since the 1930s. He said that, generally speaking, race is not as important as a musician’s quality.
However, he added that it would be good to diversify the department and said that Peabody had taken steps in the right direction in hiring Sean Jones and bringing other black musicians like himself on board.
Green, an acclaimed saxophonist, composer and arranger, said that Thomas was his teacher in high school. He added that he took the circumstances under which Thomas resigned into account while considering the position.
“I was able to overcome that and actually come in and think about the bigger picture with the students and having a new opportunity. I hope that hurdle was able to be crossed over and ironed out,” he said. “Maybe some awareness was brought to that and we can have a fresh start and come at it with some ideas.”
He agreed with Wolf that the quality of a jazz musician crosses racial barriers.
“When it comes to me playing music or thinking about jazz, it’s music,” he said. “People who love it are people who love it no matter what shade, color or ethnicity you come from. It’s all about the music at the end of the day.”
Long agreed that jazz instruction doesn’t have to be exclusively black.
“Music is universal, so as long as that faculty member understands and acknowledges the roots of jazz and teachers with that in mind, then it doesn’t matter who they are,” he wrote.
He added that because of some of the past controversy, promoting diversity is important.
“At Peabody specifically I believe having an African-American faculty for the jazz department is very necessary,” he wrote. “The schools needs more black faculty.”
Like Bronstein, Green said that he wanted to highlight the influence jazz has had on other genres of music.
He added that he hoped to bring a spirit of mentorship.
“I feel like in jazz and in music in general, students need encouragement and need mentorship,” he said. “[Students need to] understand what it takes to actually use what they’re learning in the Conservatory and go out and actually make their living and understand what it means to be a jazz musician.”
According to Bronstein, the Jazz Studies program is very small: They currently have about 11 or 12 students. However, he said that they hoped to expand to around 40 students under Jones.
He hopes this expansion will enrich other areas of instruction as they explore the influence of jazz in other genres. For example, he said that classical students may be taught how to improvise, a technique commonly associated with jazz.
He added that he hopes expanding the program will allow them to further the connection with Baltimore community.
“We’re very fortunate in Baltimore, particularly in the field of jazz, to have people like Warren Wolf that are extraordinary artists,” Bronstein said. “So for us to not tap into that wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”
Wolf said that he shared the goal of connecting more with the community with Peabody’s help.
“With Sean Jones’ leadership, we’re able to possibly do a lot of great things with the jazz program and just give back to the city,” he said. “I’m touring all the time, but Baltimore is my home base. I love the city.”
He said that he wanted to focus on connecting with local students who may be aspiring jazz musicians.
“The music programs in Baltimore City have dwindled so much, at least from when I was a kid,” he said. “We could always play more in the community and try to reach people with the music in areas that most people won’t go to.”
Wolf and Green are both alumni of Baltimore School for the Arts, a public arts high school which offers music, dance, theatre and other programs.
Green said that his experiences as a student were a big part of why he got more involved in jazz music.
He said that he would go to performances with his band teachers, something which he said budget cuts in the City prevented current students from doing.
“We’d see different bands come to town and be really inspired when we heard professional musicians play,” he said. “I’d definitely love for a platform like Peabody to go around to different high schools to play for the kids... to give them hope.”
Trisha Parayil contributed reporting.