A conservatory is a place where traditions are preserved. For 150 years they’ve been doing that for classical music at the New England Conservatory, the oldest independent music school in America. But they’ve also made ample room for experimentation and change.
When he first enrolled as a student at NEC in the early 1980s, Ken Schaphorst was thrilled. The coexistence of improvisational and avant-garde jazz alongside the hallowed classical music tradition made for, as he recalls, a “peaceable kingdom.”
Schaphorst, a trumpeter, composer and bandleader, returned to his alma mater in 2001 as the head of the school’s Jazz Studies department. On Thursday, he’ll help kick off the school’s yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary, as he leads the NEC Jazz Orchestra in a unique collaboration with the soulful pop band Lake Street Dive at the school’s historic Jordan Hall.
The members of Lake Street Dive — Rachael Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson, and Mike Calabrese — met while attending NEC.
“I was involved in recruiting all four,” says Schaphorst. “One of the nice things about my job is you get to know these super-talented kids, and then they often go on to great things.”
In fact, NEC can toot its many horns over a long history of producing prodigious musical talent. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who made his name in part as a soloist in Schaphorst’s Big Band before joining the NEC faculty, was a key contributor to David Bowie’s otherworldly farewell album, “Blackstar”; last weekend he accepted several Grammys on the late Bowie’s behalf. Singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz a 2013 NEC graduate, earned two Grammys of her own for her latest album, “Undercurrent.”
A (very) short list of high-achieving NEC alumni might include the free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, the keyboardist John Medeski, NPR “From the Top” host Christopher O’Riley, and vocalist Coretta Scott, who later took the surname of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., after meeting him for their first date on the steps of Jordan Hall.
The school was marking an earlier milestone, its 100th anniversary, when Gunther Schuller assumed the presidency in 1967. Schuller, who would serve in the role for a decade, established the Jazz Studies department, the first of its kind at a major US conservatory. Another innovative program, launched in 1972, was initially named after the phrase Schuller coined — Third Stream — for the new musical synthesis of classical and jazz. (That department is now known as Contemporary Improvisation.)
All of this novelty had a singular aim: to open ears. Schuller, who died two years ago at age 89, “took an old and sleepy institution [and] shook it hard,” as Laurence Lesser, NEC’s president emeritus, told the Globe upon his colleague’s death.
During his tenure Schuller added plenty of enthusiastic “characters” (as Schaphorst calls them) to the faculty. Take, for instance, Joe Maneri, the late saxophonist and clarinetist whose deep interest in microtonal music and radical improvisation was decades ahead of the “downtown” jazz movement of the 1990s. Though he taught music theory, Maneri once insisted that none of his own performances were ever composed: “It’s one hundred thousand million percent improvised.”
“Gunther hired a lot of people like that,” says Schaphorst. “He was looking for people like himself who didn’t quite fit into any box. He trusted them to teach the required classes, but he wanted more than a typical academic approach.”
For more than a century, NEC students and faculty have enjoyed the luxury of playing on one of the world’s great acoustic spaces. The 1,000-seat Jordan Hall, which first opened in 1903, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994. In 2015 the school broke ground on a new Student Life and Performance Center, an ambitious addition to its three-building campus on and around Huntington Avenue.
The anniversary, says Thomas Novak, NEC’s interim president, provides the school a welcome opportunity to “enhance its reputation as an international leader of innovative practices,” and to raise awareness of its faculty and graduates “as they teach and perform in Boston and around the world.”
Following Thursday’s kickoff event, the bulk of the 150th anniversary commemoratives will take place during the 2017-’18 academic season. In October, pianist Ran Blake and Jason Moran will lead an all-star tribute to Thelonious Monk on the occasion of the late keyboard genius’s 100th birthday. A few months later the Jazz Orchestra will premiere a commissioned work by the jazz bandleader Darcy James Argue, an NEC grad who was awarded a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.
In the meantime, the NEC community will continue to cheer on the success of the pop deviants in Lake Street Dive. Schaphorst thinks he first heard the members play as a unit during Price’s recital. Though their style has always been a hard-to-define amalgam, at the time they were “dabbling in what I would call country music, or folk-country,” Schaphorst says.
“Rachael [Price] is from Nashville, so she’s always sounded very comfortable in that setting,” he adds. In fact, the group’s most recent album, “Side Pony,” was produced by Dave Cobb, whose Midas touch has graced recent records by Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell.
“Right from the beginning I felt they had something as a group,” says Schaphorst. At first Price did all the singing. Then Kearney, who plays upright bass, began harmonizing. Calabrese, the drummer, was next.
“Mike Olson was the last to sing,” Schaphorst says. “Every time I’d see him, I’d tease him — ‘C’mon, you gotta step up. Four-part harmony is a beautiful thing.’ ”
It may not be the usual sound coming out of NEC. Then again, there really is no such thing.
Lake Street Dive
Preforming with the NEC Philharmonia, NEC Jazz Orchestra, and NEC Gospel Ensemble, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. At Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets: $30-$40 (VIP seats $150), 617-585-1260, www.necmusic.edu
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.