From his 5th floor office in Arnold Hall on 13th St., Keller Coker is embarking on a new path in music education. In March 2017, he became the new dean at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
The School of Jazz at The New School was founded in 1986. Coker himself attended the University of Southern California for a Bachelor of Music and a Master of Music in Jazz Studies. He also holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in Early Music Performance from the same university. He knew of the school because New York bass player and New School alumni Jennifer Vincent went to his high school. Coker said he “remember[s] what a big splash it made even though it was a very small program and just how different it was,” citing the school’s innovative approach to teaching as the thing that separated it from other top music schools.
Before he became Dean in 2017, Coker was Associate Dean at the Jazz School. Just a few weeks after Coker started as Associate Dean, then Dean Martin Mueller retired after nearly 30 years of involvement with the school. “Just last year, when the Associate Dean job was advertised, [I] read the job description and it just reminded me of all the excitement that I felt all those years ago about this place and how special it was.” Coker said that Mueller “was so gracious and really welcoming and opened the doors of everything here for me.”
Coker has worked in the record business as a booking agent, performer and composer. He says he plans to use everything that he’s learned from his experience of being in the industry. “I can’t imagine another job like that, that would let me be all the things that I am.”
In the 1990s Coker was co-founder of an “eclectic classical label” in Los Angeles called RCM. He has also produced recordings for Sony, Sierra and Teal Creek.
Coker has set his sights on two main goals for the school; spreading the word about The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and creating a new master’s degree program for the school. “I think the biggest thing for us, [is]that we are too much of a secret in many pockets of the country,” Coker said. He has found that many prospective students don’t know that Jazz and Contemporary Music is a part of a larger university, which is a draw for many students because of the diverse courses offerings. He says he will focus on “telling our story better and getting our students opportunities to be out in the world representing us.”
“If you think about how Parsons does it’s messaging, it’s brilliant,” he said. “Everybody knows about that school and about the people who have been associated with it.”
Coker would also like to interact with the school’s alumni more. He thinks this is important because “they’re telling our story through the music they make.”
With so many notable alumni Coker muses, “if people who graduated from here and haven’t visited in awhile walked around the halls in disguise they would likely hear their name being mentioned.” José James and Brad Mehldau stand out to him. “[José James] is on the cover of Downbeat this issue [March 2017]. I got the chance to meet him and work with him and I wrote a bunch of arrangements for him before I was ever associated with The New School. He’s doing really beautiful, interesting and engaging work.”
Coker also said “The guy who’s gonna be really incredible” is senior James Francies, Class of 2017. “He’s killing it! He’s a musical joy.”
Another thing Coker plans to work on is a new Masters of Jazz and Contemporary Music. “[It] is moving very quickly through the system now and we hope to have that up and running with an entering class in the fall of 2018,” Coker said. The new program would be the first master’s degree at Jazz. “Everybody who sees the layout for this is just blown away. I have current faculty who want to come back to school to take the master’s degree here when it gets online. I think it’s going to be a revolutionary graduate degree.” Graduate degrees in jazz and contemporary music are commonplace for students who want a higher level of musical mastery and want to keep the option of teaching at the college level open.
He also added that the New School is the perfect place to “[build] programs that really fit the desires of young musicians today” and to “[honor] the work that they’ve done before they get here. Even if that’s not the work that’s traditionally been honored at schools across the country.”
There’s no doubt that New York City is a draw for music, “especially for jazz musicians” said Coker. “New York is still the center of jazz in the world. There are other great cities for jazz. But look, right where we are is just blocks from the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Smalls, Mezzrow, Club 55. And a few minute cab ride or subway ride up to Birdland and Smoke. The concentration of great music and musicians in this city is what still makes this the center of gravity for jazz.”
Beyond jazz, New York City’s impact on contemporary and popular music is “much bigger than people think. I think that New York is seen as a place to make live music and see live music, but actually in the music business, this is a major major world.” Coker describes a student’s time in college as “essentially the first four years of a musician’s career, some of [these] people you will know and make music with the rest of your life. Where do you want to spend the first four years of your career?”
Coker himself is a trombone player. When he moved to New York City in July he made a commitment not to spend time playing until he learned how to do his job as dean properly. “I have it out in my apartment so I get to look at it and I did pick it up on my birthday in December and played some long tones. It felt so good, very meditative.” The “main thrust” of his creative practice is in composing, arranging and conducting. He has been working on a show of “late 60s, early 70s bubblegum pop” with Mickey Dolenz from the Monkees fronting the show.
Although his doctorate is in 16th and 17th century music, Coker has played with Motown groups such as The Temptations, Four Tops and Smokey Robinson. “Every time I played with the Four Tops I cried at some point during the show. ‘I can’t believe I’m on stage with the Four Tops playing Ain’t No Woman Like The One I’ve Got.’” He also listens to a lot of “Franco Flemish Polyphony,” just for good measure, he says. “The biggest mistake that any of us can make as educators or fans is to start to talk about genre in anyway that ranks or stratifies that’s a useless conversation.”
Coker has played with other notable musicians such as New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint, Grammy winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, Motown vocalist Martha Reeves, country singer Lynn Anderson and the legendary Temptations.
As far as one of his top three albums, Coker said, “I just don’t think that anyone should go through life without knowing Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.” He said he used to be “ an absolute jazz snob.”
“When I was in high school I had 60 Miles Davis records and I still have all that vinyl,” he said.
He also attributes his annual ritual of listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on Easter to a music history teacher he had as an undergrad. He said that every time he listens to it, “that piece is brand new.” For his third, Coker picked Radiohead’s Ok Computer. “I love Radiohead. I probably listen to Kid A more than I listen to Ok Computer, but Ok Computer was the first Radiohead record that I heard, and I thought, ‘Yes, this is the music of our time.’”
He admits that all three albums are “kind of cliche, but I can’t live without those.”
Coker had his first encounter with jazz at his local record store. “I had just started playing trombone so I just bought a cheap jazz record. Turned out to be this Charlie Parker record, and I put it on and couldn’t understand at all what was coming out of the speakers. I loved it!”
For now, Coker is settling into his new position, “I know it’s a cliche, but that this was a dream come true.”
Photo courtesy of The New School.