At Peabody jazz: discrimination allegations, a forced ouster — and new hope
Mary Carole McCauley
Trumpeter Sean Jones will arrive as the jazz chairman at the Peabody Institute this fall with a long, sterling resume: brass department chair at the Berklee College of Music, artistic director of Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz, board member of the Jazz Education Network, former lead trumpeter with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, eight albums, and performances with the likes of Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Heath and Herbie Hancock.
His hiring — announced Tuesday afternoon — comes not a moment too soon for the jazz department of America’s oldest (and one of its most prestigious) musical conservatories, which has been riven by jarring — some would say calamitous — changes.
The former chairman, Gary Thomas, also is an international jazz superstar who possesses a resume that few other living jazz players can rival. What’s more, unlike Jones, Thomas is a native Baltimorean — a plus for an institution like the Johns Hopkins University, which prides itself on investing in local talent.
Last year, Thomas sent a letter to the conservatory alleging discrimination, amid perceptions that the jazz department had become a poisonous environment. In August, Thomas was forced to resign; he was one of three of the department’s seven faculty members to step down in the past 18 months.
Though jazz is a historically African-American musical form, there have been few black faces in the jazz department’s classrooms. The department’s faculty roster listed just one African-American teacher for the fall semester. Of the 12 students currently enrolled in the jazz program, graduate student Julian Brezon identified three of his classmates as black. (Peabody said it doesn’t release demographic data for small departments.)
During the fall term, students, alumni and observers had hoped that the imminent announcement of a jazz chair would bring stability and growth to the beleaguered department.
“We had Gary Thomas, a guy who is black and who was raised in Cherry Hill and who played with Miles Davis,” lamented City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who has taken private music lessons from Thomas. “When Herbie Hancock needed a sax man, he would call Gary. Now, we have a faculty that with one exception is all white. Even on the surface, that’s really unsettling.”
Jones, 39, is African-American. He was not available to comment Tuesday on the announcement, but said in a news release, “Peabody is at a crucial point in its history as a beacon of music education and curator of American Music. It has the unique opportunity to support the codification and curation of America’s indigenous art form not just in word, but in deed! … I am thrilled to be afforded the opportunity to help lead this storied institution into the future of American music education.”
Peabody’s dean, Fred Bronstein, said Jones’ hiring would bring "new energy" to the program and its recruiting.
“He was just a terrific combination of performance skills, teaching skills, the way he engaged with students,” Bronstein said. “The program is really important at Peabody, and we want it to be absolutely top-notch, so we just think he’s absolutely the right person right now to lead the way.”
Bronstein declined to say whether he and Jones discussed the recent controversy during the hiring process.
“We really focused on the future of the program,” Bronstein said.
Thomas’ departure had sent shock waves through the school. The 57-year-old musician had overcame a childhood in the impoverished Cherry Hill neighborhood to play the tenor saxophone with the likes of jazz greats Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. He founded the Peabody jazz department in 2001 and became the first African-American department chairman in the conservatory’s history.
The upheaval is symptomatic of the historic tension nationwide between classical music and jazz departments in public universities and private conservatories. Some see it as a struggle for dwindling resources between two musical traditions created by different cultural groups and marred by lingering vestiges of institutional racism.
Before Jones’ hiring, Bronstein said that 18 percent of faculty members hired by the conservatory for the current academic year are minorities.
During this transitional year, he said, Peabody’s jazz department has received 52 applications for admission for the 2018-19 academic year,a marked increase from the 29 it received for the current school year.
Nonetheless, the departures of three elite musicians have left in the lurch the jazz students currently enrolled in the conservatory and paying the $46,328 annual tuition.
Many had turned down other jazz schools. There have been complaints that some of the interim faculty members who have been temporarily appointed (one of whom is a current doctoral candidate at Peabody) are professionally their peers, not their superiors.
“The whole point of going to Peabody is who you’re going to study with,” Brezon said last month. “I’m not going to Peabody to take musical theory. I came to study with Gary. Some of the people they appointed to teach on an interim basis are at about the same level of musicianship as I am.”
Thomas began teaching at Peabody in 1996, and he didn’t merely train students — he created disciples. Peabody is part of Hopkins, and in 2012, Thomas picked up one of 13 coveted campus-wide excellence in teaching awards. Former students don’t just praise Thomas. They rave about him.
“Gary Thomas taught me everything I know about music and raised me as a man from the age of 14,” said one former student, Dontae Winslow, a trumpet player who works with such celebrities as Justin Timberlake and Queen Latifah. “Gary not only saved my life, he saved a bunch of other people’s lives.”
Thomas’ forced departure was especially jolting because he occupied an endowed chair, which in academia is the equivalent of a federal judgeship. Absent a compelling reason to the contrary, it’s usually an appointment for life.
Thomas declined to discuss the circumstances under which he left Peabody. But The Baltimore Sun obtained a 38-page letter that Thomas’ attorney, William H. “Billy” Murphy, sent to Peabody. It’s unclear how the claim was resolved; a Peabody spokeswoman said: “We do not comment on personnel matters.”
The letter contains a number of disturbing accusations about the way Thomas was treated by other faculty members who, it says, on at least three occasions mistook him for a garage attendant, waved their keys in the air, and asked him to park their cars.
Jazz guitarist Kevin B. Clark, a former Peabody student, witnessed one of these incidents. He said he saw a faculty member walk through a gated entrance with a student. Thomas was several paces behind him; both men had previously served on the same academic committee.
But, the other teacher “quickly closed the gate behind him before Gary could walk through,” Clark said. “That sends a message.”
Taken as a whole, the letter argues that though Thomas was the chairman of the jazz department, he wasn’t allowed to function in that capacity in recent years.
Several people interviewed for this story said that Thomas had to scramble for resources for the jazz department ranging from support staff to instrument purchases that they said were easily obtained by the other music departments. In one instance, Thomas was forced to loan students his personal instruments.
“I do think Gary was treated differently from the other department heads,” said Alex King, a former Peabody student who worked for a time as a member of the Conservatory’s support staff. “Everything I got for Gary, I had to fight for.”
The letter also alleges that aspiring jazz students received fewer scholarships and for smaller sums than those handed out to budding symphony musicians, resulting in a decrease in Peabody’s ability to recruit the nation’s most talented young players. As a consequence, Peabody enrolled students of marginal ability who had greater financial resources, the letter said.
The document cites an example from the 2015 auditions in which two applicants received top audition scores of 9.4 and 10 in a 10-point rating system. But the scholarships these candidates were offered covered less than a third of the total cost of attending Peabody, the letter states. Both students were offered full scholarships by Peabody’s top competitors and enrolled in those institutions. Now, one of those students works with Marsalis; the other can be found performing at Lincoln Center. In the end, the Peabody slots went to students who received audition scores of 7.1 and 5.6, though the letter stated that the threshold for acceptance at the Conservatory is generally an audition score of 6.0.
“The environment in the jazz department was pretty toxic,” Brezon said. “Administration was not communicating with the faculty, and the faculty was not communicating with each other. It was quite dysfunctional, and had been for a few years. A bunch of people tried to blame that on Gary.”
Bronstein vehemently denies that a disparity in scholarships exists, and noted that during three of the five years between 2012 and 2016, the average scholarship awarded to incoming jazz students exceeded the average scholarship for incoming students for the rest of the conservatory.
As he put it: “Our level of support for the jazz program is absolutely consistent with the level of support for our other programs.”
Jones will bring strong credentials to support that program. A native of Warren, Ohio, he earned a master’s degree at Rutgers University and taught at Duquesne University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. He is artistic director of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, artist-in-residence at San Francisco Performances and a member of the SFJazz Collective. Though he officially starts in the fall, he’ll appear on campus this semester to attend auditions, run master classes and interact with student ensembles.
Jazz departments have struggled for nearly half a century to receive the respect that its fans argue the art form deserves, and the conflict is often most intense at private school conservatories.
“ ‘Conservatory’ has the word ‘conserve’ in its name,” King noted. “They’re very traditional.”
Peabody didn’t found its jazz studies department until 2001. The Juilliard School in New York didn’t offer a degree program in jazz until 2004. Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music still doesn’t have one.
“It’s gotten a lot better, but there are still some people who think that jazz is a lesser art form, that it isn’t serious music,” said Towson University Associate Professor Dave Ballou, division leader for the university’s Jazz and Commercial Music program.
“Jazz musicians are known as ‘jazzers,’ and in the music world, that’s a very bad term. It implies that jazz musicians are irresponsible drug addicts who can’t really play their instruments. Jazz came out of the African-American community, and you can draw from that whatever sociological parallels you want, because they’re there.”
Not everyone has only positive things to say about Thomas’ tenure as jazz department chairman.
Peabody Advisory Board member Paula Boggs remembers having a conversation with Thomas in which she mentioned that Peabody should do more outreach at high schools nationwide. When a well-heeled donor says she’s interested in seeing a specific program created, that’s code for saying she might consider financing such an initiative. But Boggs said Thomas never followed up.
“I don’t know why it didn’t happen,” Boggs said, acknowledging that she felt let down. “I just know that it didn’t.”
Thomas remembers that conversation, but thought it would be inappropriate of him to contact Boggs on his own.
“I once spoke with a donor directly and convinced him to give the school $100,000 to support a new position for my department,” he wrote in a text. “Development read me the riot act.”
Bronstein is limited in what he can say publicly about a former employee. It would be inappropriate for him to discuss any dissatisfaction he might have had with Thomas.
Boggs said that Bronstein was hired in 2014 partly to make the conservatory as innovative as its competitors. Whether he succeeds and how quickly may be a matter of perspective.
“When I think about what’s gone down with Gary, it’s disgusting and kind of embarrassing,” King said.
“A lot of people don’t know how good the Peabody jazz department was in the past. This is their only version of it. You want to be proud of where you went to school and fly the colors. But I’m not. I don’t want to tell anyone now that I went to Peabody.”
Brezon was so upset at Thomas’ exit that he attempted to withdraw from his second year of graduate work. But administrators persuaded him to stay. Brezon said he was glad he did, though he wishes Thomas was still at Peabody.
“He was one of the best teachers I have ever had or ever will have,” Brezon said.
Now the atmosphere in the classrooms and hallways is less tense and he thinks the department finally is starting to coalesce. In October, the jazz department held an after-concert party — common for other disciplines but virtually unheard of for jazz. In addition, Brezon said that while the students involved in the hiring process were impressed with all four finalists, Jones was their clear choice.
“I'm quite optimistic about the future of Peabody,” Brezon said. “Sean was the strongest candidate in the eyes of the students. I think he’s going to be good for the program. But it’s going to be a very different program.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Wesley Case contributed to this article.