The announcement of a new President at a major university is always big news, at least within the larger academic community, and among students, faculty, and alumni. So when is such of interest to the readers of Bluegrass Today?
When the new President of Yale is the bass player in a New Haven band, The Professors of Bluegrass. Peter Salovey has recently assumed his new position with the Ivy League icon, and the band has released their first CD, Pick Or Perish. You could say he’s having a big summer.
Salovey is a Yalie of long standing. He came to the University in 1981 as a graduate student, and joined the psychology faculty in 1986. Before being named President, he had served as Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Dean of Yale College, and Provost of the University.
But he’s been a grasser even longer. Peter tells us that it all started when he was an undergrad at Stanford in the 1970s.
“I got interested in bluegrass while I was in college in California. Disco was the music on popular radio, and I was looking for something else to listen to. KFAT in Santa Cruz had a show called Cousin Al’s Bluegrass Hour, which featured bluegrass, old time, and classic country.
I fell in love with the banjo, so I rented one and started learning clawhammer and the Scruggs style.
When I got to Yale, Kelly Brownell – a faculty member who I jammed with – had a neighbor who was a better banjo player, and he suggested I play the bass.”
From those jams in 1990 arose The Professors of Bluegrass, consisting of Yale faculty members and students, and they have been going ever since with a rotating roster of pickers and singers. One former band member has gone on to great success, in both music and the academy. Greg Liszt, banjoist for both Crooked Still and The Deadly Gentlemen, went on to also earn a PhD in biology at MIT.
The Professors play primarily for school and faculty events, and have been warmly embraced by the school and local community.
Peter said the reaction from his peers has been positive.
“A lot of people have never heard bluegrass music before, but they recognize something authentic when they hear it. I feel like we are part of bringing new audiences to bluegrass.
People who enjoy our music can also support the symphony and the ballet in their town.
As a more general goal, I love people to support live music.”
Pick Or Perish, the band’s first album, was recorded earlier this year with an eye towards having something to take with them to offer the International Bluegrass Music Museum as a fundraiser when they performed at ROMP this summer. That, and the fact that a few current band members will soon be moving on from Yale, and the die was cast.
Banjo player Oscar Hills had the necessary recording gear, so the band recorded at his house. Besides Oscar and Peter, The Professors of Bluegrass are Craig Harwood on mandolin, Sten Havumaki on guitar, and Matt Smith and Katie Scharf on fiddle. Harwood, who was a Dean at Yale, is taking a position at Hunter College CUNY, and Havumaki, a wood worker, is relocating to Maine.
The 19 songs on the album were culled primarily from bluegrass standards, and you can locate it for sale in iTunes, where audio samples can also be found. They make no pretense to special levels of virtuosity, but have great fun spreading the bluegrass message in Connecticut.
Peter says that their show at ROMP this year came about through his support of the Bluegrass Museum.
“I serve on their board, and am chairing this year. We’ll play there anytme they’ll have us.
This is a really great moment for the Museum. We’re well on the way to move to the new building, with so much more space for the archives, exhibits and concerts.
People go to Nashville for country music, and Owensboro for bluegrass.”
Salovey was elevated to the Presidency at the end of June, but won’t be officially innaugurated until the weekend of October 12-13. The Deadly Gentlemen will be coming to campus to perform at a function celebrating the event, and The Professors of Bluegrass will also play at a couple of student parties that weekend.
He said he loves the new job, but is sorry to have so little time now for teaching.
“I still guest lecture in Introductory to Psychology, and our Great Big Ideas course. It is hard to leave, and I do miss it.
Playing in the band – getting together to rehearse – is one of the few times I can pull away for music.”
You can visit the Professors of Bluegrass online. If you are ever in New Haven, maybe you can find them out picking somewhere.
Congratulations to both Yale and Peter Salovey.