Five years into a rapidly accelerating performance and recording career, jazzman Gary Thomas wanted to shift his life into a different gear. On the road more often than not, Thomas said he yearned for a more stable and permanent existence. Specifically, he wanted to teach.
Altering direction in his line of work, however, was akin to jumping out of a speeding vehicle. It's hard to slow down when you're playing with the likes of Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Joe Lovano and Cassandra Wilson.
It would take 15 years before the opportunity Thomas had been waiting for fell into his lap.
In 1997, Steven Baxter, then dean of the Peabody Conservatory, asked the tenor sax and flute player to start a jazz studies program. Thomas says he didn't have to mull over the offer very long. "Baltimore, being my hometown, is really where I wanted to teach," says Thomas, who grew up in Cherry Hill. And to teach at a renowned institution such as Peabody, he says, "I couldn't have planned it any better."
Jazz courses began in 1998, and a bachelor of music in jazz performance degree was formally instituted this academic year.
To promote the new program, its faculty will perform in a live recording session at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, at Paloma's, a jazz club located at 15 W. Eager St. in Mt. Vernon. The event will be the first public performance of the faculty members as an ensemble and the first-ever Peabody concert at a jazz club.
Thomas described the upcoming concert, which will include student works, as the program's coming-out party.
"We're very excited to show people what we are all about," says Thomas, who will lead the concert. "This is something we've wanted to do from the onset."
The bachelor of music program in jazz performance is designed to provide students with the necessary skills to pursue a career in jazz. The curriculum includes private study, a weekly improvisation workshop, ensemble rehearsals and performances, and master classes with prominent guest artists, plus classwork in jazz theory, arranging and composition. Virtually all classes in the program include performance activity, generally in small combos.
Its faculty, handpicked by Thomas, includes Paul Bollenback, Howard Curtis, Michael Formanek, Ingrid Jensen, Timothy Murphy, Stan Wilkerson and Greg Osby. Standout performers in their own right, each has performed and recorded with a virtual Who's Who of jazz, including Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Shaw.
The program currently enrolls 14 students, nearly half of whom had begun in the school's classical music program.
Applicants must pass an entrance audition on their instrument of study--trumpet, percussion, double bass, saxophone, flute, piano or guitar--and Thomas says the turnout has been greater than anticipated. More than 40 came to the first, held in February 2001. Currently, however, Thomas says the program can accommodate only a limited number.
"We are overflowing at 14 students," Thomas says. "When we heard that first batch audition, there were about 23 that we felt were well beyond the 'accept' level."
Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody Institute, says that for a city steeped in jazz history, the addition of a jazz program was long overdue.
"Peabody is situated in the city that gave birth to a lot of the great jazz musicians from the early part of the century, people like Cab Calloway and Eubie Blake," says Sirota, a self-professed "closet jazzman" who, along with Steven Baxter, championed the program's development. "These performers are such an enormous part of the music history of Baltimore."
Beyond that,"jazz is arguably the indigenous art music of the United States," Sirota says. "If you are going to call yourself an American conservatory, you can't ignore jazz. It has been a serious omission to not have a jazz program at Peabody."
Peabody was not alone, he says, and many of its peer institutions also have added jazz to their curricula.
Sirota says that the jazz studies program owes a huge debt of thanks to Peabody supporter M. Sigmund Shapiro; the legendary jazz artist Charlie Byrd, who before his death gave Peabody his personal collection of manuscripts and recordings; Joe and Elana Phodes Byrd; and Byrd family friend Max Corzilius, who together helped launch the program through gifts including endowment, scholarship and program support.
Thomas says one possible reason that formal jazz study was not offered earlier was the long-standing perception that the music isn't a legitimate art form.
"People think that we, jazz artists, just get together and music just happens, that we lack any real discipline. In fact, many people assume jazz players aren't concerned with technical issues," says Thomas, who studied jazz at Howard University. "Exactly the opposite is true. The better jazz players are very much concerned with every last aspect of their music. Performing jazz requires the same amount of discipline as does classical music. That means hours upon hours of practice and participation."
Students in the jazz studies program learn how to compose, perform and improvise many types of jazz, from traditional to big band music, and from contemporary to experimental computer-aided forms.
Jacob Yoffe, who will receive a degree in classical composition this May, enrolled in a beginning jazz improvisation class in 1998 and has never looked back.
"I never dreamed of being able to play jazz when I first started here," says Yoffe, a saxophone player who will have three of his compositions performed at the jazz concert at Paloma's. "This program is fantastic. The faculty is just amazing. You are probably not going to find faculty of this caliber at any other school, not to mention the amount of personal attention from them we all get."
Yoffe says that before he came to Peabody, his knowledge of jazz was limited to Miles Davis and Kenny G. Today he considers himself a jazzman and wants to make a career out of it.
"That's my dream now," Yoffe says.
But he's not ready to rush off just yet. He plans to return to Peabody next fall as a graduate student to finish his jazz degree. "I feel no need to rush off to New York, or some other big city, because there is so much talent here to learn from."
Thomas says he expects the students whom the program graduates not only to manage their instruments well but to be outstanding composers and improvisers. "We are training them to be leaders," he says.