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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

How Kay Graham built an approach to studying jazz for students

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The former Baltimore Sun publisher and lifelong jazz fan, Kay Graham, has made a habit of sharing with her son a view of his world that his friends at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., would recognize as intensely exclusive.

In one assignment he wrote to her about the importance of the history of jazz, Ms. Graham wrote back a set of challenges for him to overcome. “If the professor isn’t interested in what you and others consider to be crucial,” she wrote, “then this assignment may be tough to make progress on.”

Fortunately for him, Mr. Graham turned out to be the most read student in the last ten years at Trinity, so much so that his former college featured his music in an online video series about how to be the best student. His music career continues.

“I’ve just been so lucky that my parents got to know the music really well,” Mr. Graham said. “And my father has shown us classical music and jazz, and that’s why we like it. But what we both really love is the less formal form of jazz — young artistically, and I think that’s what we like about American art music.”

“You can’t listen to this music and not be enchanted by it.”

Mr. Graham will release his second album, a music collection called Beyond the Yard, on Nov. 13.

One of the songs on his second album, “A Good Night’s Sleep,” is a tribute to the musicians working in the trash bins of Baltimore, where he grew up. From those early years with the Police, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and so many others, the percussionists, saxophonists and trumpeters who play on his record have provided a musical primer for young musicians.

“My job as a producer is to introduce kids to the careers that are waiting for them,” Mr. Graham said. “And even more important than that, are the resources.”

The reality for many young musicians is that one of the greatest obstacles to getting a record deal or even an internship is money. Mr. Graham realized that when he was starting out, so he found working in a local record shop to be more appealing than playing gigs.

“We’re increasingly underwriters of an activity that we don’t support in the state government, or we might support in a budget sense, but we don’t support it in the larger sense,” Mr. Graham said. “The state of Maryland, which has the large expanse of the CD trade, has been very generous.”

“I was doing it because it was challenging and it was easy,” Mr. Graham said. “If you’re doing it because you want to play in the jazz community, there are very few places that are able to do it at that level. So I wanted to continue to do it even when I was a student at Trinity, and I wanted to be at the next level.”

Another challenge Mr. Graham faced at Trinity, as so many do, was trying to figure out how to juggle studies with a normal life. “My father is a Yale historian and most of the time he works in the office,” Mr. Graham said. “So when I wanted to stay up late, I could only, I think, stay up at 8 or 9 at night.”

“But I came to the conclusion that the best approach was to just divide my time among the areas I’m interested in and surround myself with the people that I really get along with.”

The quintet of young musicians who performed on his new album on Oct. 21 outside the Town Hall in New York— Paul Lawson, violin; Jacero Ramirez, bass; André Hart, drums; and Mark Erickson, saxophone—represent that approach. “None of them had anything to do with the instrumentation, but they’re all great friends of mine,” Mr. Graham said. “Those five people really influenced my thinking about all of this.”

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