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What Jazz Teaches Us

Ken Schaphorst '82

Was it while I was sitting in a quantum mechanics class during my sophomore year, scribbling a musical staff into the margin of my notebook? Or was it while I was making music with some of the many serious musicians that I met at Swarthmore? Or was it toward the end of my sophomore year, when Professor Thomas Oboe Lee encouraged me to write an ambitious double concerto for jazz chamber orchestra, which was played by a group of Swarthmore undergraduates in Lang Concert Hall? All I know for certain is that when I arrived at Swarthmore College in the fall of 1978, I had no idea that I would end up majoring in music, but, by the fall of 1980, when I started my junior year, I was a music major.

Granted, I had played the piano since I was 6 and started playing the trumpet when I was 9. In junior high school, I started composing music, and, by the end of high school, I had become obsessed with jazz. But when I entered Swarthmore College, I had no plans to pursue a career in music. I wasn't sure what I wanted to study, but music was not even under consideration. At the end of my sophomore year, I was preparing to return in the fall with a major in economics and a minor in English literature. Yet over the summer, I realized that music meant more to me than anything else, and I changed my plans. Now that I've spent the past 12 years advising undergraduates, it seems remarkable that I was able to start work on a music major in my junior year and still graduate with my class in 1982. In retrospect, I appreciate Swarthmore's flexibility in allowing me to pursue my rediscovered passion for music so late in the game. But there was more to it than the College's being flexible enough to allow me to take second- and third-year theory at the same time. I'm grateful to Swarthmore for being the kind of place where I could explore so many different disciplines and, through that exploration, discover the course of study that had the greatest meaning for me.

It seems difficult to imagine now, but at various times I also seriously considered majoring in engineering, physics, and classics. I imagine that most Swarthmore students enter with some questions regarding their ultimate course of study, but, looking back on it, I'm tempted to say that I was probably one of the most confused undergraduates around. I now realize that by exploring so many different courses, I was able to learn about many absorbing, stimulating fields of inquiry and, at the same time, see more and more clearly how my passion for music stood out in contrast. I appreciate Swarthmore's patience with this process of self-discovery. I don't know of any other college where this process of finding oneself is such an integral part of the institution's mission.

For the past 12 years, I've been teaching in a conservatory where most of the students are pursuing bachelor of music degrees. Between 1991 and 2001, I directed the jazz program at Lawrence University, a liberal arts college and conservatory in Appleton, Wis. And in 2001, I was appointed chair of the Jazz Studies and Improvisation Department at the New England Conservatory in Boston. During that time, I've often wondered how my life might have been different if I had gone to a music conservatory instead of a liberal arts college.

I'll never know, but I have trouble imagining my life without Allan Blair's quantum mechanics class; Tom Bradley's Russian novel course; or Phil Weinstein's Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner. Having an intellectual life outside of music has certainly helped me along the way. My Swarthmore education helped me in 1985, when I was setting up the Jazz Composers Alliance, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to new music in the jazz idiom, which is still active. It has also helped me in my academic work, where the ability to think and write clearly has proved to be more critical than I could possibly have imagined. But most important, it opened me up to a world of ideas that influences me every day.

It's the combination of a serious study of music and broad intellectual pursuits that has been the most meaningful aspect of my Swarthmore education. While teaching musicians, I'm always aware that I'm teaching more than just music, more than just how to compose or perform. The best music presents a model of human interaction, a template of the human experience. A Mozart string quartet represents a model of mutual respect, cooperation, and harmony that we would all do well to emulate. A jazz ensemble presents a model of how such a strikingly dissimilar group of instruments as piano, bass, and drums can find a common language and communicate profound ideas through that language. If people could behave the way musicians interact with one another in the best music making, the world would be a better place.

My Swarthmore education has also helped me understand and articulate the meaning of jazz. By reflecting the society in which it developed, jazz can teach us about that society and express its truths to us through music. Jazz teaches us to respect each individual's voice. Jazz teaches us the importance of attentive listening. Jazz represents one of the most compelling examples of the natural dance of soul and intellect.

Swarthmore has shaped me in ways I cannot fully comprehend, much less put into words. It was there that I met my wife, Ellen Argyros '83; we were married in the College's amphitheater on a beautiful summer day in 1989. But perhaps Swarthmore's greatest gift was the patience and loving support granted to me at a time when I needed it the most.

Ken Schaphorst, chair of the Jazz Studies and Improvisation Department at the New England Conservatory of Music, is also a founder and member of the Boston-based Jazz Composers Alliance and leader of the Ken Schaphorst Big Band.