Gazarek Heads New Eastman Vocal Program


“I think most jazz musicians exist in a space where the unknown is actually pretty thrilling,” said Sara Gazarek about putting together the new jazz vocal program at Eastman School of Music.

(Photo: Lauren Desberg)

Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, founded in 1921, celebrated its centennial a year late because of COVID, but it did so in style, commissioning more than 40 world premieres, many composed by Eastman graduates. But the school is not content with resting on past achievements, especially when it comes to jazz education.

In 1995 Eastman began offering an undergraduate degree in jazz studies to complement its existing master’s degree program. It resulted in a dramatic expansion.

Last June, Eastman announced another major expansion of its jazz and contemporary media program: adding a jazz voice undergraduate degree program that will begin in Fall 2024. Vocalist and educator Sara Gazarek will lead the new program, with the tenure-track title of associate professor of jazz voice.

“We began putting together a skeleton of a jazz voice program two years ago,” said Jamal Rossi, the school’s Joan and Martin Messinger Dean. “But we needed to find the right jazz vocalist — someone who’s also a great teacher and has the ability to build a great program. And Sara certainly is the ideal candidate.”

Gazarek has built an impressive resume since releasing her debut album, Yours, in 2005. She now has four additional studio albums to her credit: Return To You, Blossom & Bee, Dream In The Blue and Thirsty Ghost, as well as a recent EP, Vanity. She is a founding member of the vocal group säje, which also includes Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick and Erin Bentlage. Gazarek has earned three Grammy nominations: two for Thirsty Ghost and one for säje’s debut recording. She has taught for the last 12 years at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.

“I’m looking forward to being invited into a space at Eastman where there’s curiosity and openness,” said Gazarek. “They’ve said, ‘We trust that you know how to teach vocal jazz.’ It’s a beautiful gift to hear someone say, ‘We want you in this role. How can we help you?’ That’s huge.”

“At Eastman we realize we’re not the experts at teaching vocal jazz,” explained Rossi. “We’re looking to Sara to bring her expertise to refine what the curriculum will become over the next year. Sara’s a person of energy, intelligence and warmth. I’m so excited about what she’s going to bring to the school.”

For Gazarek, her role in shaping the Eastman vocal jazz program also presents an opportunity to bridge the gap between jazz education and the world of professional jazz performance.

“It’s an opportunity to put together a program to address what our jazz vocal students really need to help them thrive in the world of performance art,” she said. “It’s thrilling to me to have the opportunity to pull from what I’ve learned as a jazz musician and in dedicating my life to this art form, and I want to use that experience to change the way the program is designed, and help students provide what the world wants from them.

Gazarek had the chance to experience what it’s like to be part of a professional jazz tour before she graduated from the jazz program at the University of Southern California in 2005. After winning a DownBeat Student Music Award, she was chosen to join a national tour that included vocalists Karrin Allyson, Diane Schuur and Oleta Adams.

“I learned so much from them on that tour,” she recalled. “How to interface with a sound person. What songs open and close sets well. Even what to do when the merch is lost. Those are all things I didn’t learn in school, which turned out to be really important elements of my success as a professional musician.”

Gazarek is interested in making sure the new vocal jazz track at Eastman is fully integrated with the school’s prestigious instrumental jazz program. Soprano saxophonist, orchestra leader and arranger Christine Jensen, who joined the faculty last year as an assistant professor and director of the acclaimed Eastman Jazz Ensemble, has brought her own fresh perspective to the program — and is looking forward to working with Gazarek.

“Eastman has built a great musical tradition,” said Jensen. “But the music changes, the music industry changes, and academic institutions tend to be the last things that change. Eastman has clearly committed to change, and this is a really exciting time. Sara’s ideas are going to provide a new balance to things.”

“I think there will be important foundational things at the core of what we’re hoping to do with the new jazz voice program that I want every student to have access to,” said Gazarek. “A deep understanding of music theory, ear training and ensemble work, musicianship, compositional skills and other tools as well. I really want to instill a broad sense of what’s available to them in the hope that they can see a path for themselves that’s undefined — and also one they can choose how to traverse.”

Gazarek officially joined Eastman’s faculty on July 1 and is eager to begin shaping the curriculum of the new track as well as getting the word out to begin recruiting the initial class of vocalists who will enroll in the program in the 2024–2025 academic year. “I’ll be doing a lot of outreach at the JEN Convention, at feeder high schools and community colleges and doing brainstorming about other ways to get the word out. And I’m also looking forward to being able to keep thriving as a creative individual and a jazz musician,” she said. “It’s certainly a challenge putting a brand-new program together in a year, but it’s also good to have the runway to pull it all together. The idea of the unknown and the path uncharted is exciting — but it’s not overwhelming.” DB

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