All That Jazz

A conversation with educator and professional musician Horace Alexander Young, now chair of the Contemporary Music Pogram

June 2015—Horace Alexander Young has big plans for SFUAD’s Contemporary Music Program. Since joining as chair, he’s done everything from help launch a student-run record label to advise the student-driven event Quadstock. The noted jazz musician most recently served as the interim director of Jazz Studies at Texas Southern University, and has also taught at Washington State University and Rutgers University. Here, he talks about life as a musician and his plans for the department.

Tell me about your background as a musician and how you landed at SFUAD.

When I was a student at Texas Southern University, I was a flute and piccolo player and was in the 200-plus piece marching band. We practiced six to eight hours a day and had to do a new show every week. I learned about the time commitment and dedication required to be a musician. My college band director also taught me that musicians do a great job of playing music, but if you don’t engage the audience and keep them interested, and don’t excite them and get them involved in the emotional landscape of the music, that’s a lost opportunity.

I was also involved in jazz band and worked in the community. With all of it, I saw it as the beginning of my professional career. I wasn’t waiting until I got out of college to figure out what to do with myself. So the things I learned at school I was able to apply immediately to my work life. When I saw the posting for the program chair at this school, I knew it was perfect, because I could connect with students who already had their eyes on their careers.

What’s your vision for the Contemporary Music Program?

Let me first say that the groundwork for this vision was laid by the previous chair [Dr. Steven Paxton] and the chair before him. They created an environment based on the music of the planet, not the music of a specific part of the global landscape.

Contemporary music is music that is alive now. That’s not to say that classical music isn’t a part of that, because it is. But so many schools focus on the music of the past, particularly the 18th and 19th centuries, and students get frustrated. Students need to understand what’s involved in making a living as a musician.

We’ve recently started Arroyo Records, a student-run record label. They’ll learn the mechanics of doing recordings and releasing them, and how a record company operates. The first album came out in May and we will do one release per year for the next three years. It will be all student compositions, coordinated with music videos from our film school. This label will let us show off our remarkable students. We’re also planning to do an all-alumni release.

Can you tell me about the special concerts you’ve been working on, which started with a tribute to jazz singer and songwriter Billie Holiday on what would have been her 100th birthday?

That was the first of a series of concerts we’ll see over the years, to commemorate the contribution of great American musicians that thrived in this country. It’s somewhat understandable that a lot of our young music students don’t know these people and the impact they had on the industry. This is a good way of keeping their legacies alive.

What advice do you have for the alumni community?

When alumni visit their school and talk with students, they give students all kinds of inside and outside information that’s not written in a book. When I was in school, conversations with alumni helped me feel like my career desires were that much more touchable and attainable, because someone I knew in the flesh was doing what I wanted to do and could tell me about it.

I tell my students now that our relationship doesn’t end when they’ve graduated. I’ll always want to know what they’re doing. Alumni can provide that support, too. —Christine Van Dusen