As the lights went dark at Tishman Auditorium on October 15, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music alumnus Brad Mehldau’s piano began serenading the audience. Martin Mueller, executive director of the Jazz School, looked toward the stage, watching the music connect with the audience. With this year marking the jazz program’s 25th anniversary, school alumni, faculty and music enthusiasts are taking time to look back at its legacy.
Mueller has been the executive director for The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music since its establishment in 1986. With help from former Parsons Dean David Levy and saxophonist Arnie Lawrence, he was able to facilitate a musical environment that not only featured members of academia, but also professional jazz musicians with lifetimes of experience.
Since then, other notable musicians have attended the school, including Robert Glasper, who has played at the Bonnaroo Music Festival; Marcus Strickland, who was ranked “Best New Artist” by JazzTimes magazine in 2006; and Kyle Wilson, who has played on stage with critically-acclaimed musicians such as organist Lonnie Smith.
“With Brad and so many members of the university and city community, it means quite a lot to our school and to our 25 years,” Mueller said. “It’s a chance for reflection, a chance to look back at where we have been and where we go. It’s an association of who we are as leaders in jazz, a truly unique New York art form. We all have a responsibility to project that.”
As a child growing up in Oregon, Mueller recognized the responsibilities of education at an early age. He recalls his mother’s journey as a teacher and his brothers’ subsequent careers as pastors, noting that the ability to weave education, spirituality and community is part of his DNA.
“The broader role of education is an important part of my story,” he added. “It has moved into academia, and it is important to my responsibility. This world needs the spirit of community creativity, healing, and balance between individual and collective.”
Wilson, a tenor saxophonist, believes that the The Jazz School fosters an environment in which more than music is cultivated.
“When I think about The New School for Jazz, I think about family, community and freedom,” said Wilson. “I had a chance to take so many creative paths, and I simply couldn’t have gone anywhere else.”
As the program moves forward, professors such as Richard Boukos finds that teaching at the Jazz School is a constantly changing process.
“I am always changing my curriculum, since the people I am dealing with are always different,” said Boukos. “I’m just rowing the boat, watching over the different corners that we can check out. The only way to get students to achieve maximum potential is to create an ambiance of hopeful interchange. Teaching is an improvisational process, just like a set of chord changes.”
Walking to his office, Mueller nodded his head in appreciation of the shared academic approach. Getting behind his desk, he picked up his vuvuzela, the instrument’s surface featuring his handwritten letters, “Blow the horn! Tell our story!” He blows the horn and smiles.