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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Funky Diva

ALEXIS TOOMER '93

By Jay K. Varma

Her thesis scared her, but the prospect of starting an R & B music career in risky New York doesn't.

ALEXIS TOOMER LEANS BACK, lays her Dr. Martens shoes on the table and giggles. She can do that now; she's graduating today.

As she speaks in her fluid, clear voice and flashes her small, charming smile, Toomer is the very picture of relaxation.

But for the first seven months of this year, the picture was a bit less tidy. Writing a senior honors thesis in History and Literature, Toomer experienced an emotional catharsis like none she had endured before.

Sixty-five pages of text? No problem; that's just a junior paper times two. Nights devoted to microfiche and Micros World? She could handle it; "ten thousand men" and women of Harvard had before her.

But nightmares and midday flashes of terror. This, the aspiring pop music diva hadn't bargained for.

Toomer was writing an "interpretive analysis" of lynching in the post-civil war period. For her, a well off Black woman raised in the sunny splendor of Southern California, the project became a painful trip into a violent past she had never before confronted.

"I came across an article on lynching [in the spring of 1992]," Toomer says. "I had no concept of how brutal and horrific it could be. It was an image I couldn't leave behind. I thought the best way to work through my feelings was to write about it...I forced myself to think about it even though it was so horrifying."

But Toomer says in the end the difficulties were well worth it. The project became an achievement in both academic and personal terms, a timely opportunity to question her identity.

"It came at a time in my life when I was wondering about taking risks, finding what was important to me," says Toomer, who acknowledges that she considered abandoning the project mid-way in favor of a more traditional topic. "Do I want to devote myself to things I am passionate about or things that I can be rewarded for?"

This was the first time, she says, she had to "think consciously about taking risks...in a significant, profound, personal way."

But the essay was by no means her first experience with taking risks. In fact, Toomer's life to this point has been about creating opportunities and choosing the path most suited to her, no matter what the consequences.

At an early age, she decided, to the shock of her parents, that she wanted to be a star pop singer. She began cultivating a trembling, soulful sound that eventually won her jobs in Paris nightclubs and made her a prominent voice on the Harvard campus, starring in musicals, soloing with a cappella groups and making appearances at jazz and rock shows.

Toomer is heading to New York next year to try her luck in the music business, and she concedes it's a big risk for a woman from the suburbs. Then again, for this brash, impetuous and very talented woman, there's nothing new about that.

UNTIL THE FOURTH grade, Toomer had her career track pretty much decided: the cute eight-year old from Northridge, California planned to become a brain sargeon. But one day, she walked into the kitchen and made a surprise announcement to her parents. "I said I wanted to be a singer, and they were shocked. I hadn't sung before," Toomer recalls.

She wanted to try out for a community group called "A Show of Hands," which performed for deal children. Her parents consented, and she made the troupe.

"Alexis has always been the type of person who decided what she wanted to do," says her mother, Doris Toomer. "We never had to ask, 'Do you want to do this?' She just went with it. She just decided [after trying out in the fourth grade] to take voice lessons, and that's when we found out she had such a great instrument."

In fact, just one year later, she was seen on national television, dancing and singing along with Alvin and the Chipmunks on the Peppermint Patty Float in the Macy's Day Parade. She continued with children's theater in junior high school. She toured the Soviet Union at 15 in "Peace Child" a joint U.S.-Soviet children's musical.

Toomer was, she remembers, a rising star in the City of Angels. Soon she was singing backup in L.A. clubs and fielding offers from people who wanted to manage her.

"I was very close to making a decision to go into music, because the doors were opening up for me," Toomer says, "But I just wasn't ready. I knew I wanted to go Yale."

That is, until her parents pressed her into taking a second look at Harvard. "I visited in 1988 as a pre-frosh and I saw China Forbes ['92] and she was such an unforgettable singer. I had such a huge crush on her that I wanted to come to Harvard," Toomer says.

Her mother takes special pride in landing her daughter in Cambridge. "The only time I ever tried to exert influence on her was the choice between Yale and Harvard," she says. "I asked her to go back to Harvard at least once and if she didn't like it, then she could go to Yale.

"She went to Harvard."

TOOMER is an avowed perfectionist, insisting on only doing those things she feels comfortable doing, those things she can shine in. "It can be a problem," she says. "It's often a disguise for fear. I won't try anything new because I have to get the old stuff perfect. I fear that certain music won't showcase me, and I won't look good."

When she got to Harvard, Toomer looked at the music drama scene, didn't see anything too exciting and sat the year out. She did try out for the Pitches. Harvard's top women's a cappella group only to quit without ever singing a note.

"There was nothing I was really interested in," she says.

It's not surprising then that Toomer's big introduction to Harvard audiences was not of her own design.

The story starts out in May 1990, when, as a freshman, she went to the Eliot Fete with Todd Fletcher '91. She remembers the scene vividly:

"It was one of those nights when it's five in the morning, everyone's drunk and just sitting around the JCR. There were about eight of us, and Todd opened up the piano and started playing. We all started singing, and Todd points to me and says 'You can sing. I know you can.'

"So I started to sing and he began to get all agitated. He stopped playing, pointed at me and said 'I'm writing a thesis. I need your voice."

Fletcher was a special concentrator in Music and Dramatic Arts, whose senior thesis was a musical he was writing, directing and producing. Entitled "The Errols," it was the story of a Southern white gentleman, Lawrence Errols, and his mulatto grandson, Cedric, learning to love each other despite their differences in race.

Fletcher immediately cast Toomer as the leading woman, Cedric's Black mother Elizabeth. She worked closely with Fletcher over the next year, and in late April of her sophomore year, she made her debut at the Agassiz Theatre, igniting rave reviews from audiences and critics.

A review in The Crimson singled out Toomer as the show's star: "Especially notable is Toomer, whose vibrant voice resonates with emotions ranging from anger to sorrow to resigned defiance within a few bars, giving the character of Elizabeth admirable depth."

Toomer, perfectionist that she is, knows why she performed so well: "It was a really fantastic part written for me. The songs matched my range, and it was a perfect arena for me to shine in."

She calls the entire production "something special...a testament to the untapped talent at Harvard."

Toomer's career at Harvard, and beyond, took off soon after her debut at "The Errols." One night after a performance, Toomer met a former Harvard graduate who told her that nightclubs in Paris were interested in singers like herself.

Sensing the time was right to launch her singing career, Toomer seized the moment and jetted to Paris over Spring Break to try her luck at the nightclubs. She auditioned at a different club each night and lined up "tentative jobs" with those she impressed.

After arriving in Paris for the summer, she waited tables and sang in a high-priced nightclub, only to return to California after three weeks for "personal reasons."

The experience, she says, was "exhilarating." But it was also a reality check. "I thought the city would love me and jobs would fall in my lap," she says. "It taught me that you can't be unprepared...My biggest problem was that I didn't know enough, and I was way, way too naive."

Toomer says she was too wrapped up in the romance of the adventure to be "scared," but the same can't be said of her parents.

"She didn't know where she was going," her mother recalls, "And she didn't have an address. I was horrified. I was a little taken aback that she wanted to go to Paris, but she wanted to do it and I just said OK. I am a yesmom."

Toomer's ambition and sense of adventure has, in fact, always been supported--even nurtured--by her parents.

"I've always pushed myself to try new things, to do the most frightening thing," Toomer says. "I always knew I would have the support of my parents. They always supported me in what I wanted to do."

When she got back to Harvard, Toomer again didn't see much that excited her, but, by this time, she had found her niche. She sang in the Sondheim Cabaret, starred in a spring production of "Dreamgirls" (working with Forbes was "really exciting") and, of primary importance, met Benjamin F. Waltzer '93, who had recently transferred to Harvard from a joint program with Tufts and the New England Conservatory.

Waltzer is a talented jazz pianist whom she met in the CityStep Cabaret her junior year. The two have been working together ever since, with Waltzer helping Toomer develop her talents as a jazz singer.

Through this year, Waltzer and Toomer have performed together in Boston area clubs and, most notably, in a concert at Sanders Theatre with the Veritones.

Toomer calls Waltzer the "most interesting person I know," and Waltzer is sure to return the praise.

"She has a wonderful sense of phrasing and a beautiful voice, but she never forgets to sing with a great deal of soul," says Waltzer, who will likely be producing jazz shows at Lincoln Center in New York this fall. "She has so much charm and enthusiasm that she'll be successful in whatever she does."

TOOMER IS TENTATIVELY scheduled to work with music impresario Quincy Jones next year in New York. Jones will begin publishing a monthly magazine of hip-hop culture, Vibe, this September, and Toomer hopes to be on board by that time.

Eager to make the right connections in the music industry, she's pursued the job in typical Toomer fashion. It began--as all her adventures seem to--with an announcement one day. "It was watching MTV [in August 1992] with my father--can you believe that?--and we saw Quincy Jones talking about his new magazine," Toomer says, "Then I turned to my father and said, "That's what I'm going to be doing next year."

When Jones came to Harvard in early March, Toomer had her thesis advisor, Afro-American Studies Department Chair Henry Louis Gates, arrange a meeting. Gates invited Toomer to a luncheon in Jone's honor, and the motivated singer took it from there.

"I walked in and there were all these adults standing around, and [Jones] was over in the corner alone," Toomer says. "No one would talk to him. So I went up and we talked for about a half hour...I asked him for some career advice. He was really, really encouraging."

She's sent him writing samples and has "hush-hush, unofficial" word that she has a job. Even if she doesn't though, she has her sights set on the long term. Toomer wants to sing "pop R & B," preferably "funk and soul." ("Does that sound terrible?" she asks laughing.) She hopes to be both a solid musician and a "great performer." And, above all, she wants to be a star.

"I want to be a big star. I want to be big," she says confidently.

Toomer recognizes that getting to the top will be difficult, a combination of luck and skill. And she worries that the music industry may not take her seriously, seeing her as just another Black girl with a soulful voice.

But she has her answers for that. She will make the right connections working for Jones. She will use her Harvard education to "give back to the Black community if she can." And she will title her first, of many, albums: "Ain't Nothin Special About a Black Girl Who Can Sing."

"There's a certain arrogance, I suppose, that comes with a Harvard degree. People also take you more seriously. I feel that I can use that to make contributions in other areas of the music industry," Toomer says.

IF YOU WANT TO FIND Alexis Toomer this fall, don't bother checking the stacks of Widener. The days of thesis-angst are over, and she's got New York on her mind. So at the end of this month, take a trip to the Upper West Side of New York and you'll find Toomer living the life of a fledgling artist (with shelter provided by a generous Harvard classmate).

Find $1.25 and take a ride on the subway, and you'll find her feeling out the "groove" of the city, getting to know what she calls New York's unique "soundtrack."

Or take a trip to a jazz club, and you'll find her jotting down mental notes on how to improve her musical stylings.

Quincy Jones or no Quincy Jones, New York is where Toomer plans to make her mark. "New York is the best place for me to grow as a person. I want to push myself to try something a little less familiar, a little more daring," the one-time Valley Girl says.

"I have this weird sense it's going to happen for me." She pauses. "I'm going to make it happen."

'I want to push myself to try something a little less familiar, a little more daring. I have this weird sense it's going to happen for me. I'm going to make it happen.'

"I came across an article on lynching [in the spring of 1992]," Toomer says. "I had no concept of how brutal and horrific it could be. It was an image I couldn't leave behind. I thought the best way to work through my feelings was to write about it...I forced myself to think about it even though it was so horrifying."

But Toomer says in the end the difficulties were well worth it. The project became an achievement in both academic and personal terms, a timely opportunity to question her identity.

"It came at a time in my life when I was wondering about taking risks, finding what was important to me," says Toomer, who acknowledges that she considered abandoning the project mid-way in favor of a more traditional topic. "Do I want to devote myself to things I am passionate about or things that I can be rewarded for?"

This was the first time, she says, she had to "think consciously about taking risks...in a significant, profound, personal way."

But the essay was by no means her first experience with taking risks. In fact, Toomer's life to this point has been about creating opportunities and choosing the path most suited to her, no matter what the consequences.

At an early age, she decided, to the shock of her parents, that she wanted to be a star pop singer. She began cultivating a trembling, soulful sound that eventually won her jobs in Paris nightclubs and made her a prominent voice on the Harvard campus, starring in musicals, soloing with a cappella groups and making appearances at jazz and rock shows.

Toomer is heading to New York next year to try her luck in the music business, and she concedes it's a big risk for a woman from the suburbs. Then again, for this brash, impetuous and very talented woman, there's nothing new about that.

UNTIL THE FOURTH grade, Toomer had her career track pretty much decided: the cute eight-year old from Northridge, California planned to become a brain sargeon. But one day, she walked into the kitchen and made a surprise announcement to her parents. "I said I wanted to be a singer, and they were shocked. I hadn't sung before," Toomer recalls.

She wanted to try out for a community group called "A Show of Hands," which performed for deal children. Her parents consented, and she made the troupe.

"Alexis has always been the type of person who decided what she wanted to do," says her mother, Doris Toomer. "We never had to ask, 'Do you want to do this?' She just went with it. She just decided [after trying out in the fourth grade] to take voice lessons, and that's when we found out she had such a great instrument."

In fact, just one year later, she was seen on national television, dancing and singing along with Alvin and the Chipmunks on the Peppermint Patty Float in the Macy's Day Parade. She continued with children's theater in junior high school. She toured the Soviet Union at 15 in "Peace Child" a joint U.S.-Soviet children's musical.

Toomer was, she remembers, a rising star in the City of Angels. Soon she was singing backup in L.A. clubs and fielding offers from people who wanted to manage her.

"I was very close to making a decision to go into music, because the doors were opening up for me," Toomer says, "But I just wasn't ready. I knew I wanted to go Yale."

That is, until her parents pressed her into taking a second look at Harvard. "I visited in 1988 as a pre-frosh and I saw China Forbes ['92] and she was such an unforgettable singer. I had such a huge crush on her that I wanted to come to Harvard," Toomer says.

Her mother takes special pride in landing her daughter in Cambridge. "The only time I ever tried to exert influence on her was the choice between Yale and Harvard," she says. "I asked her to go back to Harvard at least once and if she didn't like it, then she could go to Yale.

"She went to Harvard."

TOOMER is an avowed perfectionist, insisting on only doing those things she feels comfortable doing, those things she can shine in. "It can be a problem," she says. "It's often a disguise for fear. I won't try anything new because I have to get the old stuff perfect. I fear that certain music won't showcase me, and I won't look good."

When she got to Harvard, Toomer looked at the music drama scene, didn't see anything too exciting and sat the year out. She did try out for the Pitches. Harvard's top women's a cappella group only to quit without ever singing a note.

"There was nothing I was really interested in," she says.

It's not surprising then that Toomer's big introduction to Harvard audiences was not of her own design.

The story starts out in May 1990, when, as a freshman, she went to the Eliot Fete with Todd Fletcher '91. She remembers the scene vividly:

"It was one of those nights when it's five in the morning, everyone's drunk and just sitting around the JCR. There were about eight of us, and Todd opened up the piano and started playing. We all started singing, and Todd points to me and says 'You can sing. I know you can.'

"So I started to sing and he began to get all agitated. He stopped playing, pointed at me and said 'I'm writing a thesis. I need your voice."

Fletcher was a special concentrator in Music and Dramatic Arts, whose senior thesis was a musical he was writing, directing and producing. Entitled "The Errols," it was the story of a Southern white gentleman, Lawrence Errols, and his mulatto grandson, Cedric, learning to love each other despite their differences in race.

Fletcher immediately cast Toomer as the leading woman, Cedric's Black mother Elizabeth. She worked closely with Fletcher over the next year, and in late April of her sophomore year, she made her debut at the Agassiz Theatre, igniting rave reviews from audiences and critics.

A review in The Crimson singled out Toomer as the show's star: "Especially notable is Toomer, whose vibrant voice resonates with emotions ranging from anger to sorrow to resigned defiance within a few bars, giving the character of Elizabeth admirable depth."

Toomer, perfectionist that she is, knows why she performed so well: "It was a really fantastic part written for me. The songs matched my range, and it was a perfect arena for me to shine in."

She calls the entire production "something special...a testament to the untapped talent at Harvard."

Toomer's career at Harvard, and beyond, took off soon after her debut at "The Errols." One night after a performance, Toomer met a former Harvard graduate who told her that nightclubs in Paris were interested in singers like herself.

Sensing the time was right to launch her singing career, Toomer seized the moment and jetted to Paris over Spring Break to try her luck at the nightclubs. She auditioned at a different club each night and lined up "tentative jobs" with those she impressed.

After arriving in Paris for the summer, she waited tables and sang in a high-priced nightclub, only to return to California after three weeks for "personal reasons."

The experience, she says, was "exhilarating." But it was also a reality check. "I thought the city would love me and jobs would fall in my lap," she says. "It taught me that you can't be unprepared...My biggest problem was that I didn't know enough, and I was way, way too naive."

Toomer says she was too wrapped up in the romance of the adventure to be "scared," but the same can't be said of her parents.

"She didn't know where she was going," her mother recalls, "And she didn't have an address. I was horrified. I was a little taken aback that she wanted to go to Paris, but she wanted to do it and I just said OK. I am a yesmom."

Toomer's ambition and sense of adventure has, in fact, always been supported--even nurtured--by her parents.

"I've always pushed myself to try new things, to do the most frightening thing," Toomer says. "I always knew I would have the support of my parents. They always supported me in what I wanted to do."

When she got back to Harvard, Toomer again didn't see much that excited her, but, by this time, she had found her niche. She sang in the Sondheim Cabaret, starred in a spring production of "Dreamgirls" (working with Forbes was "really exciting") and, of primary importance, met Benjamin F. Waltzer '93, who had recently transferred to Harvard from a joint program with Tufts and the New England Conservatory.

Waltzer is a talented jazz pianist whom she met in the CityStep Cabaret her junior year. The two have been working together ever since, with Waltzer helping Toomer develop her talents as a jazz singer.

Through this year, Waltzer and Toomer have performed together in Boston area clubs and, most notably, in a concert at Sanders Theatre with the Veritones.

Toomer calls Waltzer the "most interesting person I know," and Waltzer is sure to return the praise.

"She has a wonderful sense of phrasing and a beautiful voice, but she never forgets to sing with a great deal of soul," says Waltzer, who will likely be producing jazz shows at Lincoln Center in New York this fall. "She has so much charm and enthusiasm that she'll be successful in whatever she does."

TOOMER IS TENTATIVELY scheduled to work with music impresario Quincy Jones next year in New York. Jones will begin publishing a monthly magazine of hip-hop culture, Vibe, this September, and Toomer hopes to be on board by that time.

Eager to make the right connections in the music industry, she's pursued the job in typical Toomer fashion. It began--as all her adventures seem to--with an announcement one day. "It was watching MTV [in August 1992] with my father--can you believe that?--and we saw Quincy Jones talking about his new magazine," Toomer says, "Then I turned to my father and said, "That's what I'm going to be doing next year."

When Jones came to Harvard in early March, Toomer had her thesis advisor, Afro-American Studies Department Chair Henry Louis Gates, arrange a meeting. Gates invited Toomer to a luncheon in Jone's honor, and the motivated singer took it from there.

"I walked in and there were all these adults standing around, and [Jones] was over in the corner alone," Toomer says. "No one would talk to him. So I went up and we talked for about a half hour...I asked him for some career advice. He was really, really encouraging."

She's sent him writing samples and has "hush-hush, unofficial" word that she has a job. Even if she doesn't though, she has her sights set on the long term. Toomer wants to sing "pop R & B," preferably "funk and soul." ("Does that sound terrible?" she asks laughing.) She hopes to be both a solid musician and a "great performer." And, above all, she wants to be a star.

"I want to be a big star. I want to be big," she says confidently.

Toomer recognizes that getting to the top will be difficult, a combination of luck and skill. And she worries that the music industry may not take her seriously, seeing her as just another Black girl with a soulful voice.

But she has her answers for that. She will make the right connections working for Jones. She will use her Harvard education to "give back to the Black community if she can." And she will title her first, of many, albums: "Ain't Nothin Special About a Black Girl Who Can Sing."

"There's a certain arrogance, I suppose, that comes with a Harvard degree. People also take you more seriously. I feel that I can use that to make contributions in other areas of the music industry," Toomer says.

IF YOU WANT TO FIND Alexis Toomer this fall, don't bother checking the stacks of Widener. The days of thesis-angst are over, and she's got New York on her mind. So at the end of this month, take a trip to the Upper West Side of New York and you'll find Toomer living the life of a fledgling artist (with shelter provided by a generous Harvard classmate).

Find $1.25 and take a ride on the subway, and you'll find her feeling out the "groove" of the city, getting to know what she calls New York's unique "soundtrack."

Or take a trip to a jazz club, and you'll find her jotting down mental notes on how to improve her musical stylings.

Quincy Jones or no Quincy Jones, New York is where Toomer plans to make her mark. "New York is the best place for me to grow as a person. I want to push myself to try something a little less familiar, a little more daring," the one-time Valley Girl says.

"I have this weird sense it's going to happen for me." She pauses. "I'm going to make it happen."

'I want to push myself to try something a little less familiar, a little more daring. I have this weird sense it's going to happen for me. I'm going to make it happen.'

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