Up on stage at the august Johns Hopkins Club, veteran drummer Ralph Peterson leads the members of his Fo’tet through an intensely kinetic tune from the group’s most recent album. Looking on, a crowd of approximately 100 people—arrayed directly in front of the band, as well as to its left and right in the club’s second floor lounge—nod their heads, tap their feet, and sway in their seats.
Peterson’s band, which performed in October, is part of the Jazz at the Johns Hopkins Club series, which brings to the university—and, by extension, to the Greater Baltimore community—top-flight national and international jazz musicians, many of whom conduct master classes at Peabody while in town.
In fact, as Peterson tells the crowd between songs, “earlier today, we did a workshop at Peabody Prep, and it was really cool, sharing information and telling stories.”
The genesis for Jazz at the Johns Hopkins Club occurred in a decidedly unmusical setting: the university’s gym. Back in 2011, Gary Thomas, Peabody’s director and chair of Jazz Studies and a celebrated saxophonist, was in the midst of one of his regular early morning exercise routines when he ran into Johns Hopkins President Ron Daniels at the cable machine. Daniels, a longtime jazz fan, suggested that Johns Hopkins start a jazz series. “That sounds great,” Thomas recalls telling Daniels, but he came away thinking “it was just one of those conversations that you’re a part of and then you don’t think about it anymore.”
A few months later, however, Daniels surprised Thomas by following up and tasking him with formulating a workable jazz series. “A year after that,” Thomas notes, “[alto saxophonist] Jim Snidero’s quartet was onstage at the Club for the series’ inaugural concert.”
Since then, the series has presented six concerts each academic year, featuring renowned musicians such as pianist Chick Corea, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and guitarist John Scofield. “I believe it had been at least two or more decades since some of these guys had played Baltimore,” says Thomas, who serves as the series’ artistic director.
Daniels couldn’t be more pleased. “I love the idea of bringing world- class jazz onto the Hopkins campus,” he says, particularly given “Baltimore’s deep ties to the rich history of jazz and jazz greats, from Eubie Blake to Billie Holiday.”
Peabody’s jazz students have benefited from the series via master classes—working closely with Scofield, guitarist Pat Martino, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, among others. “These are the people who have the skill set that we’re trying to impart to our students,” explains Thomas. “For students to see and hear the things in action that we’ve been teaching, it reinforces the notion of what they should be doing.”
— Michael Yockel