Ran Blake at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, CA. June 14, 1987 (photo: Brian McMillen)
April 20, 1935|
Springfield, Massachusetts, United States
Ran Blake (born April 20, 1935) is an American pianist, composer, and educator. He is known for his unique style that combines blues, gospel, classical, and film noir influences into an innovative and dark jazz sound. His career spans over 40 recording credits on jazz albums alongside over 40 years of teaching jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he started the Department of Third Stream (now called the Department of Contemporary Improvisation) with Gunther Schuller.
Blake was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on April 20, 1935. He grew up in Suffield, Connecticut, and became fascinated by film noir after seeing Robert Siodmak’s Spiral Staircase as a twelve-year-old. This and other examples of film noir would greatly influence his later compositions. He began playing piano as a young child, and, as a teenager, he studied with Ray Cassarino. In his teenage years, he became fascinated with gospel music and studied the compositions of Béla Bartok and Claude Debussy. After high school, he attended Bard College in New York and graduated in 1960 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Jazz, a major that had previously not existed at the school. It was at Bard that he met Jeanne Lee, with whom he performed for many years. He also studied with John Lewis, Oscar Peterson, and Gunther Schuller at the School of Jazz in Lenox, MA.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Blake was part of a duo with vocalist Jeanne Lee. Together they recorded his first album The Newest Sound Around, which was released on RCA in 1962, and the next year, they toured Europe together. The album shows Blake's signature style beginning to develop, as the duo paid homage to Blake's early influences with a tribute to David Raksin's Laura and a reworking of the gospel standard, "The Church on Russell Street". Lee and Blake continued to play together throughout their careers, and released another album in 1989 entitled You Stepped out of a Cloud.
Gunther Schuller and The School of Jazz
Blake first met Gunther Schuller in a chance encounter at Atlantic Records in 1959. Recognizing Blake's talent, Schuller asked him to study at the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts. The School of Jazz was a summer program that existed from 1957 to 1960, and was unique in that it brought together many of the world's foremost jazz musicians of the time, including Dizzy Gillespie and William Russo, to teach students everything they needed to know about jazz for an intensive three weeks. Blake attended the School in 1959 and 1960. During his summers in Lenox, Blake truly began to develop his signature style. Schuller became a great friend and mentor to Blake throughout his career. Schuller organized the recording of The Newest Sound Around for Blake and Lee, and it was he who brought Blake to Atlantic Records, and later to the New England Conservatory.
Mary Lou Williams
Blake first met jazz pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams during a performance at The Composer, a New York nightclub. She would later become a mentor and a significant influence on his work. During his time as a student at Bard, Blake would often travel to see Williams perform and to take lessons from her. Later, Williams and Blake worked together while she was a visiting faculty member at the School of Jazz.
In 1966, Blake released his first record as a solo pianist, appropriately titled Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano, on New York-based label ESP Disk.
New England Conservatory
In 1967, Blake accepted a faculty position as the Community Services Director at the New England Conservatory, where Schuller was president at the time. In this position, Blake was responsible for putting on concerts in prisons, retirement homes, and community centers. Blake stayed in this role until 1973, when he took on the chairmanship of the new Third Stream Department (now Contemporary Improvisation) at the New England Conservatory, an initiative started by Blake and Schuller.
The phrase "Third Stream" was coined by Schuller in 1957 during a talk at Brandeis University. According to Schuller, Third Stream is "a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music". This new genre was created, in Schuller's opinion, to combat purists in both the jazz world and the classical world, as, in order to play Third Stream music, one had to be proficient in both. When Schuller met Blake, two years after having created Third Stream, Blake's blend of influences, from free form jazz and gospel music to classical composition and film noir soundtracks, appealed to him, and, when the two of them created the new department at the NEC, it was natural that Blake would be the chairman. He remained in that position until 2005, and is still a faculty member at the New England Conservatory.
Musicians Don Byron, Matthew Shipp, John Medeski and Yitzhak Yedid have studied with Blake at NEC, and he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1982, and a MacArthur Genius Grant six years later. At the NEC, he still teaches composition classes, as well as a seminar on performance and a special class on film noir, his earliest inspiration.[not in citation given]
Blake has continued recording throughout his career as an educator, and has amassed over forty recording credits on jazz albums. His first album with Lee won the RCA Album First Prize in Germany, the 1980 Prix Billie Holiday, and is part of the Académie du Jazz. After that album, he recorded primarily as a solo pianist, though many of his collaborative albums have received great critical acclaim. In 1981, Blake recorded an album of songs by, or associated with, Duke Ellington, entitled Duke Dreams, which was awarded 4.5 stars by Allmusic, and a five-star rating in Down Beat and the All Music Guide to Jazz. In 1986, he recorded Short Life of Barbara Monk with saxophonist Ricky Ford, which was selected by the Penguin Guide to Jazz to be part of their Core Collection. He has collaborated with a number of other musicians, including Jaki Byard, Houston Person, Steve Lacy, Clifford Jordan.
Blake's philosophy in teaching differs greatly from that of many music educators, even in the jazz world. He calls his unique approach "the primacy of the ear". In 1977, he wrote an article for the Music Educator's Journal on having a career as a "Pop/Rock/Jazz instrumentalist". In the article, he stressed that "the ear is and should be of primary importance." This article is also unique as it discusses the more practical aspects of a career in music, and stresses the importance of luck and showmanship over education and background. Blake's focus on improvisation and ear training, coupled with his diverse influences, have made him one of the more innovative music educators of the jazz world.
Beyond his article in the Music Educator's Journal, Blake also wrote Third Stream and the Importance of the Ear in 1981, which served as a guide to educational style, as well as an explanation and expansion upon the concept of Third Stream. In the article, he invites the reader to view Third Stream composition as any composition that bridges two distinct musical cultures, not just classical-jazz fusion. He also stresses the importance of improvisation, and cites the need for improvisionational education as one of the reasons he and Schuller started the Third Stream Department at the NEC. Blake argues that music is an aural art, and must therefore be taught not by being "preoccupied with playing Chopin preludes on the piano or the latest copy of the Real Book (an updated, trendy fake book) on the horn or guitar," but by dedicated listening, imitating, and improvising. He calls for students to listen and sing along to melodies on tape until they can reproduce the melody without the tape. It is essential, according to Blake, that a student do this before touching an instrument, as imitating the mechanics of a performance alone does not develop one's ear.
In 2011, Ran Blake published a book with Jason Rogers entitled The Primacy of the Ear. In the 144-page work, Blake explores the relationship between the ear and the mind in-depth and provides the reader with exercises to train one's ear.
- 1962: The Newest Sound Around (RCA Victor) with Jeanne Lee
- 1966: Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano (ESP Disk)
- 1969: The Blue Potato and Other Outrages... (Milestone)
- 1976: Breakthru (Improvising Artists)
- 1977: Wende (Owl)
- 1977: Open City (Horo)
- 1977: Crystal Trip (Horo)
- 1978: Rapport (Novus)
- 1978: Realization of a Dream (Owl)
- 1978: Take 1
- 1978: Take 2
- 1979: Third Stream Today
- 1980: Film Noir (Novus Records)
- 1981: Improvisations (with Jaki Byard)
- 1982: Duke Dreams
- 1982: Portfolio of Dr. Mabuse
- 1982: Third Stream Recompositions
- 1984: Suffield Gothic (with Houston Person)
- 1985: Vertigo
- 1986: Short Life of Barbara Monk (with Ricky Ford)
- 1987: Painted Rhythms: The Compleat Ran Blake Volume 1
- 1988: Painted Rhythms: The Compleat Ran Blake Volume 2
- 1989: You Stepped Out of A Cloud (with Jeanne Lee)
- 1991: That Certain Feeling (with Steve Lacy and Ricky Ford)
- 1992: Epistrophy (Soul Note)
- 1994: Masters From Different Worlds (with Clifford Jordan)
- 1994: Round About (with Christine Correa)
- 1997: A Memory of Vienna (with Anthony Braxton) (Hat Hut)
- 1997: Unmarked Van: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan (Soul Note)
- 1999: Duo En Noir (with Enrico Rava)
- 1999: Something To Live For
- 2001: Sonic Temples
- 2001: Horace Is Blue (with David Fabris and James Merenda)
- 2005: Indian Winter (with David Fabris)
- 2006: All That Is Tied (Tompkins Square)
- 2009: Driftwoods (Tompkins Square)
- 2010: Out Of The Shadows (Ran Blake & Christine Correa)
- 2010: Camera Obscura (Sara Serpa & Ran Blake)
- 2011: Grey December: Live in Rome (live)
- 2011: Whirlpool (Ran Blake & Dominique Eade)
- Feather, Leonard; Gitler, Ira (1999) "The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz". Oxford University Press.
- Lyons, L. (1983) The Great Jazz Pianists, Speaking of their Lives and Music. New York, p. 194.
- Fitzgerald, Michael (November 1, 1993) "The Lenox School of Jazz". jazzdiscography.com
- College Music Symposium, Vol. 21, No. 2, Fall, 1981, pp. 192–194.
- "Ran Blake" New England Conservatory. Retrieved April 22, 2014.
- Music Educators Journal, Vol. 63, No. 7, March, 1977, pp. 76–78.
- Blake, Ran (1981) Third Stream and the Importance of the Ear.