A Jazz Musician With the Passion to Teach
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:05
Despite a small music department, Harper ’90 flourished at Amherst with the help of professors and classmates alike.

Darryl Harper ’90 is a jazz clarinetist who has split his career into equal parts jazz performance and teaching. Harper recently released his seventh studio jazz album, a double CD of collaborations with other jazz musicians, and is currently the music department chair at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Introduction to Jazz
Harper began playing the clarinet in his school’s band at the age of six.

“The clarinet, it was fun,” Harper recalled. “It was very social and it just seemed like, ‘yeah, do this! This is great!’ I was a very energetic, mischievous child.”

Harper’s mother had always wanted to study music, but wasn’t afforded the chance, so she made sure that she gave her son the opportunity. Harper’s father, while not musically trained, “would improvise blues lyrics at the dinner table,” Harper said. He said that his father used one of several harmonicas strewn about the house “to flirt with my mother.” It was his father who gave Harper his first saxophone.

Harper’s most vivid memory of music was the first time he saw live jazz at a neighborhood club. Anthony “Tony” Hurdle, Harper’s jazz teacher at Settlement Music School, invited Harper to a local jazz club in the middle of the day when classes were over.

Within the club, Harper said he understood the power of music — specifically the power of jazz — for the first time. Harper credited jazz powerhouses from his Philadelphia neighborhood, such as saxophonist Tony Williams and bassist Tyrone Brown, for showing him what “playing your heart out” meant.

In explaining the experience of watching Williams on stage, Harper said, “He was so earnest about what he was trying to get across to the audience, and the audience was enjoying it so much. They were responding to what he was doing and they were calling out and encouraging him, and that would make his playing get to another level and they would call out more. There was this vitality and joy in the room I had never experienced before, not in the same way.”

Harper said that this experience transformed his relationship with music, jazz and his clarinet.
“I did whatever I could to have [jazz] in my ear or be practicing at all times,” he said. “It was the beginning of me trying to practice with every spare moment that I had. I always had a clarinet with me, and if I had ten minutes, [I’d] pull it out and play something.”

Harper’s real inspiration didn’t stem just from witnessing how jazz could be performed for the first time, but also from being under Hurdle’s guidance.

“Hurdle was a really dedicated player [with a] work ethic that was really incredible,” Harper said. “I’ve never been close to anyone who played at his level.”

Hurdle practiced constantly and directed Harper on the path to becoming a professional jazz clarinetist. Harper recalls Hurdle telling him, “If you want to be good at this, you have to devote yourself to it. That’s the way it works.”

Jazz at Amherst
When Harper decided to attend Amherst College, he wasn’t sure if he was making the right choice as an aspiring jazz clarinetist.

“I was a little afraid because there were a lot of things I wanted to do,” he said. Because Amherst is isolated from major cities, he was unsure of whether pursuing a professional music career would be feasible at the college.

He worried about having venues at which to play and whether there would be other musicians around. Luckily, “there seemed to be enough happening within the Five Colleges,” Harper said. “I feel very fortunate in retrospect.”

The Amherst music department “was much smaller than it is now,” Harper said. He was one of about ten music majors of his graduating class. However, with the program’s small size came benefits.

“What was great about it was that you had a tremendous amount of individual attention, and the faculty was fantastic,” he said. He praised Professor Jenny Kalick, the music department chair and his senior thesis advisor, and Professor David Reck, an ethnomusicologist of classical Indian music.

That Harper’s music career began at a liberal arts college as opposed to a specialized, pre-professional music school proved to be “pretty unusual,” he said, yet fundamental to how he operates today.

“I feel like the discipline of questioning your assumptions, understanding context and really bringing a critical perspective to the work that you do, that was really critical to me,” Harper said.

In describing Harper’s approach to music using a perspective of context and critical understanding, jazz violinist and tour mate Regina Carter said, “Darryl takes his time [to really get] inside the music, listening to the conversation and gathering his thoughts before playing a note.”

Harper described his Amherst education as being empowering for him as a musician. The liberal arts “discipline of questioning your assumptions, understanding context and really bringing a critical perspective to the work [became a] constant thread through [my career],” Harper said.

His early years as a professional musician, however, weren’t free from challenges. Harper’s first obstacle upon graduating from Amherst was that he was behind his colleagues in terms of technique.

“I had a lot of catching up to do, but the thing that was different was that I knew that. I could see it as clear as day,” Harper said.

Honing His Technique
Between Amherst and graduates studies in jazz at Rutgers University, Harper spent three years developing his skills. Harper reached out to a jazz guitarist at UMass and came back with a specific list of techniques he needed to learn to qualify for graduate school.

“He gave me this whole program and said, ‘If you come to your audition and you can do these things, I’d be pretty confident that you’ll have a successful audition,’” Harper remembered.

He eventually enrolled at Rutgers University for his master’s in music, but not before making sure he could play at a competitive level.

Giving Others the Chance
While Harper was practicing for graduate school, he moved back to his native Philadelphia and began admission recruitment work at George School, a private Quaker school, first as assistant director of admissions and later as director of financial aid.
Harper said he saw his time at George School as a chance to “take the education I had received and reciprocate.”

During this seven-year tenure at George School, Harper recruited about one thousand students from inner-city backgrounds similar to the Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up. He also managed two million dollars in scholarships for financial aid.

“A lot of the students I recruited, they’re old now — almost as old as I am,” Harper said with a chuckle. “It’s really gratifying to imagine that you helped bring something to a person that they value and that they’re still using.”

Later, Harper taught and directed St. Paul’s School Ward Center for the Arts. He is now the music department chair at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I just think that schools are a wonderful place where a very intimate human interface happens,” he said.

At Virginia Commonwealth, Harper has the opportunity to play a mentorship role similar to the role Hurdle played for him.
Harper compares his relationship with Hurdle to that of the acclaimed Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim with his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein.

“Sondheim said, ‘If Hammerstein had been a great dentist, he would have been a dentist,’ because he wanted to be just like his mentor. I wanted to be just like Hurdle. He was this great jazz musician and teacher and so that’s what I wanted to become or try to become,” Harper said.

Now at Virginia Commonwealth University, Harper has the opportunity be the one giving inspiration and guidance.
“It just feels like a real privilege to be with students, period,” Harper said. “It felt like a privilege to be a student, and it’s an equal privilege at least to teach.”

Upon reflection, Harper describes his life as one filled with such “privileges.”

“I’m just surrounded by people who have been very generous and filled with such talent and skill,” he said. “I think of where I started just learning the rudiments of the instruments, or even encountering my first poem or whatever it is. To be able to keep developing your skills to whatever extent you can, it’s really a privilege. I’m realizing how lucky I’ve been.”

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