After single-handedly introducing jazz to Harvard's campus more than four decades ago and fostering innovative student musicianship through his 42 years of service, Thomas G. Everett will retire on Feb. 15 from his post as Director of Harvard Bands.
“He is basically the reason there was jazz here at Harvard for as long as it has been,” said African-American Music professor Ingrid T. Monson. “It’s hard to imagine Harvard jazz without him.”
Everett arrived at Harvard in 1971 to manage the student-run Harvard University Band, which performs at Harvard athletic contests and University events. At the time, the campus musical scene he encountered was dominated by Western classical music, according to Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts.
Jazz, Everett immediately noticed, was strangely absent from campus.
“The department of music at Harvard was renowned for developing composers, musicologists, and theorists, but had not embraced more music of the people, music with social connotations, in the sense of popular American music and jazz,” Everett said. “I just felt that this was significant music—how could an educated person from one of the greatest institutions in the world graduate without some exposure?”
In an effort to fill the gap, Everett founded the Harvard Jazz Bands and began teaching Harvard’s first jazz course for academic credit through the Extension School. The course, called “The Jazz Tradition,” was later moved to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Everett also pioneered the Jazz Masters in Residence program, which brought a famous jazz musician to campus each semester to direct and collaborate with students. In the past, jazz masters in residence have included Maxwell “Max” Roach, Eddie Palmieri, and Benny Golson.
“I think he changed the culture of music at Harvard in some respects,” Megan said. “Bringing these great jazz musicians to Harvard was an enormous influence for our students and a signal that Harvard is interested in jazz. He made a lot of students feel that they ought to be playing jazz [and] made faculty think that it ought to be part of the curriculum.”
To Everett, playing music with a jazz great was an invaluable step in one’s musical education—an experience he likened to studying science with Isaac Newton. After playing alongside these musicians, he said, students feel that “they aren’t this imaginary sound, they’re a real person.”
Andrew S. Kennard ’13, student manager of the Harvard Monday Jazz Band, said Everett’s immense knowledge and appreciation of specific composers and pieces enhances the quality of sound he can elicit from his students.
“When you know something about the music, it gives you a more mature position from which to play the music,” Kennard said. “It’s so easy to just play the notes, but Tom really helps you to understand what’s going on behind the notes.”
Over the years, Everett has commissioned a number of works from famous artists especially for performances by Harvard’s jazz bands, choosing both well-known pieces and more obscure works that would otherwise remain unknown to students. The practice, Kennard said, encourages student musicians to learn from a diverse range of talents and has made him “more courageous as a music listener.”
“It’s always, ‘How can we make the music sound better, how can we play the music respectfully and still have our own take on it?’” Kennard said. “One thing that I appreciate about Tom is his lack of ego in this job even after 40 years.”
Megan echoed Kennard’s sentiment, adding that Everett’s manner of directing is symbolic of the way that a good jazz band works, with a regimented percussion section that still allows other sections to experiment and improvise.
“My sense is that he’s very precise with his students about what he wants, and at the same time he recognizes that in playing jazz, there needs to be room to breathe,” Megan said.