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Honoring Harvard's roots in jazz

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By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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With rock ruling the airwaves and the fusion movement picking up steam, 1971 was not an auspicious year to launch a jazz program. But when Harvard University hired Tom Everett as the director of the marching and concert bands, the trombonist couldn’t resist the opportunity to slip some swing onto a campus where jazz received little recognition and less attention as a quintessentially American art form.

“The early ’70s was a really difficult time for jazz,’’ Everett says. “There was no jazz on campus except for occasions on WHRB. Student instrumentalists were listening to Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, and rock bands. Acoustic jazz must have sounded old and grandfatherly.’’

The fact that jazz was almost countercultural gave the music some cache that attracted nonconformists, Everett says, and little by little he built the program into a formidable institution, with two 18-piece undergraduate ensembles enriched by an annual Jazz Master in Residency. It wasn’t until 1978 that he taught Harvard’s first undergraduate jazz history course.

Next weekend, the university’s Office for the Arts and Department of Music present “40 Years of Jazz at Harvard,’’ which includes a Friday afternoon conversation at the Barker Center with Everett and Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music, and a concert Saturday night at Sanders Theatre featuring the Jazz Bands with Cecil McBee, Brian Lynch, and returning Jazz Masters Roy Haynes, Benny Golson, and Eddie Palmieri.

From the beginning, Everett brought in veteran improvisers to perform with the Jazz Bands, starting with Woody Herman trombonist Carl Fontana. Carefully researching the guest’s music and playing their newly arranged and commissioned music gave the students a sense of mission.

“Students were working with Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and Nobel Prize-winning scientists, but there was no place to bump into creative artists in Afro-American and American music,’’ Everett says. “It turned into a really rich exchange. The artists don’t just talk about music. They talk about the economics of being a musician, dealing with Jim Crow, and life on the road.’’

The jazz program attained new respectability when the Office for the Arts started working closely with Everett in 1978, supporting the program with grants and publicity. Among the program’s early creative coups were concerts devoted to Charles Mingus’s music, performed just months after his death in 1979, and the Bill Evans Trio and the Jazz Bands premiering the concerto “Gates of Harvard’’ commissioned from the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis.

“Bill and John had not worked closely together before, but had great mutual respect,’’ Everett says. “It wasn’t just another gig for the artists. We always try to create something special.’’

Tenor saxophonist Don Braden, a Jazz Band alumnus who’s also participating in the weekend celebration and Saturday’s concert, exemplifies the way in which a devoted and talented player can use the band as an essential steppingstone to a professional career. An engineering student, Braden got the opportunity to play with tenor great Illinois Jacquet, alto sax explorer Lee Konitz, and saxophonist and scholar Dr. Lewis Porter.

Most importantly, Everett immediately saw that Braden had the drive and ability to contend in the big leagues. As a junior, he decided to take a year off and try his luck in New York City, which led to a decade of increasingly high-profile gigs with Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Roy Haynes. Today he’s an esteemed educator and bandleader who’s recorded more than a dozen albums.

“Tom worked with me any way he could,’’ Braden says. “We learned dealing with the business side of things, being on time, setting up. He looked out for me, and made sure I was featured well. And he always picked classic tunes for the bands. At the time I thought some of them were corny, but he said, ‘You’re going to play this later,’ and a lot of stuff that was in our repertoire are tunes that I still play.’’

Unlike at Berklee and New England Conservatory, virtually no students attend Harvard to advance their jazz ambitions. Nonetheless, the Jazz Bands’ impressive alumni roster includes drummer Akira Tana, tenor saxophonists Joshua Redman and Anton Schwartz, pianist Aaron Goldberg, baritone saxophonist Fred Ho, and the 1994 Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Vocal Competition champion, Sara Lazarus, all of whom have gone on to flourishing careers.

Tenor saxophonist Alex Rezzo, a senior concentrating in economics, is more representative of the students involved in the Jazz Bands. He played jazz in high school, and is serious enough about music that he’s cross-enrolled at NEC studying classical music. Beyond treasuring the opportunities to rub shoulders with Herbie Hancock and play with Golson and Haynes when they were in residency, he feels the program offers a space for students to connect on a deeper level.

“It doesn’t have the rigor of the conservatory, but it’s unique,’’ Rezzo says. “You’re interacting with people who are future doctors, lawyers, and scientists. It bring students together in a venue that allows for creative interaction, and you see students in a different light than you would otherwise.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

40 YEARS OF JAZZ AT HARVARD: A CELEBRATION

At: Sanders Theatre, Saturday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $15. 617-496-2222, www.ofa.fas.harvard.edu/cal