His septet had only two days before a big concert, so Ellery Eskelin was conducting this rehearsal with a certain urgency. The highly acclaimed jazz saxophonist, long and lanky beneath a brown-felt porkpie hat and a thin goatee, faced the semi-circle of his six bandmates, talking to them like a stage director: This section needs more energy; that section needs to be lighter; here you have to play the music as written; there you should use the notation just as a guide for improvisation.
He leads such rehearsals all the time, but this one was different. This one didn’t involve some of the best jazz musicians in New York; this one involved six young Towson University students in a college classroom with acoustic ceiling tiles, fluorescent lights, and industrial carpet. “Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself that these are just students,” Eskelin confesses, “because this is the same process I use with my bands in New York. In either case, we’re trying to get some music together to perform. We talk about musical issues, but only when problems come up in rehearsal, practical problems we’re trying to solve rather than theoretical issues we’re discussing. There’s nothing better than learning by doing it.”
“Learning by doing” could be the motto for the entire Towson University arts department, which has emerged in recent years as a vibrant mini-arts-scene in itself. In jazz, theater, classical music, visual arts, video, film, and dance, the faculty and students are creating work that rivals that of the much-touted, Station North scene in Baltimore City. Beat-boxer Shodekeh, who works as an accompanist in the dance department, and choreographer Vincent Thomas, won prestigious Baker Artist Awards in 2011 and 2009, respectively. Besides Eskelin, highly-profile jazz musicians such as Gerald Cleaver, Drew Gress, and John Hollenbeck have recently done residencies at Towson.
Eskelin is not a faculty member, but he is an alumnus (class of 1981) who comes back every two years for a week-long residency of workshops, lessons, and concerts, and he can’t get over how much the school has changed. “The students now have such a different experience than I had,” he says. “When I was here there was no jazz program; there was just the classical program which contained Hank Levy’s jazz big band, which is why I came. Now there’s a jazz and commercial music department with courses, rehearsal rooms, and concerts in a big, beautiful [fine arts] building.” In fact, Eskelin’s 2009 CD, One Great Night. . . Live, was recorded at Towson’s Center for the Arts.
When extensive renovations were completed in 2005, the Center for the Arts had nearly doubled in size. That was thanks, in large part, to a push from Maravene Loeschke, who was Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication at the time. She is now president of the university. “As president,” says Loeschke, “I know that Fine Arts and Communication is one of the most effective platforms from which we can showcase Towson University to the world. The arts provide an additional porthole into the university for a larger audience.”
As a Baltimore native—she’s a Parkville High grad, a Towson State University graduate (majoring in English and theater), and was a member of the Towson faculty for 32 years—Loeschke has deep roots not only in the area and in the school but even more specifically in the school’s arts programs. With such a sympathetic ear behind the president’s desk, the future of those programs looks rosy indeed.
“Now when anyone asks what you can do with an arts degree,” says Susan Picinich, the current arts dean, “we can say, ‘Well, you can become a university president.’”
As a state commuter school, Towson rarely gets the arts students who were stars in high school. The upper-middle-class kids who have been taking private ballet, violin, or painting lessons since they were six, who have been attending summer camps and regional competitions since they were 12, who have always known what they wanted to do, those kids are likely not going to Towson. They’re getting scholarships to places like Peabody, Juilliard, Berklee, Oberlin, Yale, NYU, MICA, or the Art Institute of Chicago. Towson gets the working-class kids, who may be just as talented but haven’t had the polish of private lessons and private-school education.
Dave Ballou, head of Towson’s jazz program, calls them the “diamonds in the rough.” There’s nothing quite as satisfying, he claims, as rubbing the rough edges off such a student so his or her inner talent can shine. “The trick is identifying them,” he adds. “When we have auditions, we pay as much attention to their demeanor as to their playing. If they’re not engaged, you know they’re going to founder once they get here. But if we hear something personal, something passionate in their playing, we’ll take them even if their playing isn’t perfect.”
“We still have a lot of students whose parents don’t have a college degree,” notes Sedonia Martin, Towson’s public relations manager for arts and culture. “When they come in, they may not know the name of this artist or that artist, but once they come into contact with the arts world, they really respond.”
Voice/opera professor Phillip Collister has noticed the quantity and quality of applications have improved as Towson’s reputation has improved. Compared to larger campuses like College Park, Collister claims, undergraduate music students have better access to performance opportunities and faculty attention. And with the economy the way it is, a cheaper school closer to home appeals to a lot of incoming students. “Plus, our new facilities impress students,” Collister adds. “When students from Oldenburg University, our sister school in Germany, visited us last year, they were astonished by what we have. Here is a fabulous arts center in the middle of a moderately sized campus where we still pay a lot of attention to undergraduates.”
Stuart Stein, the chair of the visual arts department, points to himself as a typical Towson student. Today he sports a salt-and-pepper beard and a brown-leather jacket as he sits in a classroom full of student sculptures, but when he graduated from Pikesville High School in 1978, he was just another fresh-faced 18 year old who wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He loved drawing, but he was also interested in history, philosophy, and law.
“I couldn’t see myself going to MICA,” he recalls, “because I was interested in too many things. I wasn’t ready to be that narrow yet. I had no interest in a place as big as College Park. So I came here, and even though I wound up majoring in art, one of my most influential classes was Introduction to Anthropology. The teacher was very passionate, and it got me interested in the social context of my art. I got my MFA at MICA, but Towson was more reflective of the real world—and that was important as an undergraduate. Let me tell you,” he adds with a loud laugh, “the real world is not like art school.”
So Towson tries to offer something closer to a real world, professional experience. Its theater department now has three professional-grade performance spaces. Its biggest theater is devoted to faculty-directed, student-acted productions with the goal of making them as close to professional productions as possible. That was certainly the case with last October’s production of Macbeth, directed by Steven Satta. Shakespeare’s tale of bloody ambition was given an appropriately ghoulish atmosphere by swirling clouds of dry-ice smoke and gangrene-green lighting. When the three witches emerged from the fog in wild wigs, fluorescent eyebrows, and layered rags, they seemed to float wraith-like above the ground. And when Macbeth’s army squared off against Macduff’s in the climactic battle, the soldiers charged through the same thick mists in armor and kilts, their spears, swords, and shields clanging with the weight of real weapons. This acclaimed production was named a semi-finalist for the American College Theater Festival sponsored by the Kennedy Center.
“Our production values are very high because our design department knows how to stretch a buck,” says Satta, who has worked professionally at the Everyman Theatre and Baltimore Shakespeare Festival and who is founder of the Iron Crow Theatre Company. “The design faculty are working professionals just like the acting faculty. Nobody is here because they couldn’t make it in professional theater or because they’re between gigs; they’re here because they were called to teach. We continue to practice our art outside the school because it’s important to us, and it’s important for the students to see that.”
One of the two black-box rooms is devoted exclusively to student-initiated projects. “It’s unusual for a program to devote a whole space to student work,” Satta adds, “but we want our students to be self-sufficient. There’s a tradition in this department that you don’t have to wait for someone else to create a production that might cast you; you can create the work yourself.”
Over in Stephens Hall, the oldest building on campus and still its largest performance space, Runqiao Du prepares his dance students for an upcoming concert. Half of the show will be devoted to new work choreographed by Du, a Shanghai Dance Academy grad with extensive performance experience, and two of his fellow faculty members to the music of Nina Simone, Etta James, and Duke Ellington. The other half of the show will be the second act of Giselle, the 1841 ballet that Du calls “the best of the romantic era.”
“To truly reflect our curriculum,” says Du, “I always want a classical work on a program, so students realize what this work requires, but also a new work. You can’t understand the new without the foundation of the old, but you can’t use the old without knowing what the professional world today requires from a dancer, what dancers will actually be doing in the real world. It’s our responsibility that they’re ready to go to New York and audition—not just physically but mentally as well. I stay current with that world by continuing to choreograph for professional companies. That’s important for myself and for the students.”
The dance program has an especially strong African-American tradition. Faculty member Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell got her start at the Baltimore School for the Arts and went on to become a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Vincent Thomas, the Baker Artist Award winner, performed with choreographer Liz Lerman, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient. “Linda is keeping alive not just Ailey’s choreography but also his spirit,” says Patuxent newspapers dance critic Carolyn Kelemen. “When you see one of her Towson University productions, you see that vibrancy and joyousness that’s rooted in American black culture. Vince, by contrast, brings a quiet, calm, almost prayer-like interpretation to modern dance.”
They also possess the “real-world” cred that so many of the arts faculty bring to the classroom. Fisher-Harrell was part of an Ailey group that received a New York Dance and Performance Award, a “Bessie,” for lifetime achievement, and Thomas has presented several of his works at the Kennedy Center.
Two days after Ellery Eskelin’s rehearsal with the student jazz musicians, Eskelin and the six Towson students perform their music at the school’s Recital Hall. The event attracts not just friends and family of the students but also area jazz fans. The septet is arranged in a semi-circle with the drummer in the middle, the two upright bassists on one side, and the guitarist, trumpeter, and trombonist on the opposite side.
Eskelin moves back and forth between a conductor’s position in the center and a spot in the horn section. He is the leader, but he is also a member of the band—and it sounds like a real band. “There’s no educational experience like this,” says Dave Ballou. “These students aren’t just listening to Ellery’s band; they are part of his band. It wasn’t like he is just coaching them; he is in there playing with them the whole time.”
But it’s actually bigger than that, as it speaks to what the arts are all about at Towson. “Here is a real-life role model of what a life in the arts is like,” says Ballou, “and that it’s possible for [the students], because Ellery came from the same origins they did at the same school. They learn that if you apply yourself to your art, you can find your way through it. It’s such a stronger example to actually do it than to read about it in a magazine or to hear someone talk about it in a classroom.”