Ran Blake at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, California, June 14, 1987
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 along with more than 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. He began playing piano as a young child, and as a teenager studied with Ray Cassarino. In his teenage years, he became fascinated with gospel music and studied the compositions of Béla Bartók and Claude Debussy. After high school, he attended Bard College in New York, graduating in 1960 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Jazz, a major that had not previously existed at the school. At Bard 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, Massachusetts.
Performing and studying
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 they 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.
Blake 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. This was a summer program that existed from 1957 to 1960. It 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 about jazz for an intensive three weeks. Blake attended the School in 1959 and 1960. During his summers in Lenox, Blake 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.
Blake met jazz pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams during a performance at The Composer, a New York nightclub. She later became a mentor and a significant influence on his work. During his time as a student at Bard, Blake often travelled 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 soloist, Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano, on New York-based label ESP Disk.
In 1967, Schuller, president of the New England Conservatory, recruited Blake to fill a faculty position as the Conservatory's Community Services Director. In this position, Blake was responsible for putting on concerts in prisons, retirement homes, and community centers. Blake remained 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 he started with Schuller.
Schuller coined the phrase "Third Stream" 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: to play Third Stream music one had to be proficient in both. When Schuller met Blake, two years after creating Third Stream, Blake's blend of influences, from free jazz and gospel music to classical composition and film noir soundtracks, appealed to him. When the two of them created the department at the NEC, it was natural that Blake would be the chairman. He remained in that position until 2005. He is a faculty member at the New England Conservatory.
Musicians Don Byron, Matthew Shipp, John Medeski, Grayson Hugh, and Yitzhak Yedid have studied with Blake at NEC. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1982 and a MacArthur Genius Grant six years later.
Blake has continued recording throughout his career as an educator and has amassed over forty recording credits on jazz albums. His first album with Jeanne 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 and Christine Correa.
Blake's philosophy in teaching differs from that of many music educators, even in the jazz world. He calls his 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". Blake also wrote Third Stream and the Importance of the Ear (1981), which served as a guide to his educational style, as well as an explanation and expansion upon the concept of Third Stream.
In the article, he stressed that "the ear is and should be of primary importance." He discussed the more practical aspects of a career in music and stressed 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. 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 improvisational 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 it 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.
An asterisk (*) after the year indicates that it is the year of release.
|1961||The Newest Sound Around||RCA Victor||Duo, with Jeanne Lee (vocals)|
|1965||Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano||ESP-Disk||Solo piano|
|1969||The Blue Potato and Other Outrages...||Milestone||Solo piano|
|1975||Breakthru||Improvising Artists||Solo piano|
|1977*||Open City||Horo||Solo piano|
|1977||Crystal Trip||Horo||Solo piano|
|1977||Third Stream Recompositions||Owl|
|1978||Rapport||Novus||Some tracks solo piano; some tracks duo, with Ricky Ford (tenor sax); one track trio, with Rufus Reid (bass) added; one track duo with Anthony Braxton (alto sax); one track duo with Eleni Odoni (vocals); one track quartet, with Jerome Thomas (guitar), Reid (bass), Chris Connor (vocals)|
|1978*||Realization of a Dream||Owl||Solo piano|
|1978*||Take 1||Golden Crest||Solo piano|
|1978*||Take 2||Golden Crest||Solo piano|
|1979*||Third Stream Today||Golden Crest||With various, including Ricky Ford (tenor sax), Marty Erlich (alto sax), Hubert Powell (organ), Cleve Pozar (timbales)|
|1980*||Film Noir||Novus||With various, including Ted Curson (trumpet)|
|1981||Improvisations||Soul Note||Duo, with Jaki Byard (piano)|
|1981||Duke Dreams||Soul Note||Solo piano|
|1982*||Portfolio of Dr. Mabuse||Owl||With NEC Orchestra|
|1983||Suffield Gothic||Soul Note||Most tracks solo piano; some tracks duo, with Houston Person (tenor sax)|
|1985||Painted Rhythms: The Compleat Ran Blake, Volume 1||GM||Solo piano|
|1985||Painted Rhythms: The Compleat Ran Blake, Volume 2||GM||Solo piano|
|1986||Short Life of Barbara Monk||Soul Note||Quartet, with Ricky Ford (tenor sax), Ed Felson (bass), Jon Hazilla (drums)|
|1988||A Memory of Vienna||hatOLOGY||With Anthony Braxton (alto sax); released 1997|
|1989||You Stepped Out of a Cloud||Owl||Most tracks duo, with Jeanne Lee (vocals); some tracks trio, with George Duvivier (bass) added|
|1989||Masters from Different Worlds||Mapleshade||One track solo piano; two tracks duo, with Clifford Jordan (tenor sax, soprano sax); most other tracks with Jordan and some of Julian Priester (trombone), Windmill Saxophone Quartet, Steve Williams (drums), Alfredo Mojica (congas), Claudia Polley (vocals)|
|1990||That Certain Feeling||hatART||With Steve Lacy (soprano sax), Ricky Ford (tenor sax)|
|1991||Epistrophy||Soul Note||Solo piano|
|1994*||Round About||With Christine Correa (vocals)|
|1994||Unmarked Van: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan||Soul Note||Most tracks solo piano; some tracks duo, with Tiziano Tononi (drums)|
|1998||Something to Live For||hatOLOGY||Most tracks duo, with Guillermo Gregorio (clarinet) or David Fabris (guitar)|
|1999*||Duo En Noir||Between the Lines||With Enrico Rava|
|2000||Horace Is Blue||hatOLOGY||With David Fabris, James Merenda|
|2001||Sonic Temples||GM||With Nicole Kampgen Schuller (alto sax), Ed Schuller (bass), George Schuller (drums, percussion)|
|2005*||Indian Winter||Soul Note||With David "Knife" Fabris (guitar)|
|2005||All That Is Tied||Tompkins Square||Solo piano|
|2006||Cinema Chatelet||Sans Bruit||Solo piano; promotional album|
|2008||Driftwoods||Tompkins Square||Solo piano|
|2009||Kaleidoscope||CIMP||With Jon Hazilla (percussion), Kara D. Rusch (keyboards, cymbals)|
|2010*||Out of the Shadows||Red Piano||Duo, with Christine Correa (vocals)|
|2010*||Camera Obscura||Inner Circle Music||With Sara Serpa (vocals)|
|2010||Ghost Tones||A-Side||Some tracks solo piano; some tracks ensemble; in concert; released 2015|
|2011*||Grey December: Live in Rome||Tompkins Square||Solo piano; in concert|
|2011*||Whirlpool||Jazz Project||With Dominique Eade (vocals)|
|2011*||Vilnius Noir||No Business||Some tracks solo piano; some tracks duo, with David "Knife" Fabris (guitar); one track Fabris (guitar) solo|
|2012*||Aurora||Clean Feed||With Sara Serpa (vocals)|
|2012*||Tribute to Abbey Lincoln, Volume One||Red Piano||Duo, with Christine Correa (vocals)|
|2013*||Down Here Below||Red piano||With Christine Correa (vocals)|
|2014*||Cocktails at Dusk – A Noir Tribute to Chris Connor||Impulse!||Most tracks solo piano; some tracks duo with Laïka Fatien (vocals); some tracks duo with Ricky Ford (tenor sax)|
|2013–14||Kitano Noir||Sunnyside||With Sara Serpa (vocals); in concert|
|2015*||Chabrol Noir||Impulse!||Most tracks solo piano; some tracks duo with Ricky Ford (tenor sax); one track duo with Dominique Eade (vocals)|
|2015*||The Road Keeps Winding: Tribute to Abbey Lincoln, Volume Two||Red piano||With Christine Correa (vocals)|
|2017*||Town and Country||Sunnyside||Duo, with Dominique Eade (vocals)|
- 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". necmusic.edu. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
- Music Educators Journal, Vol. 63, No. 7, March, 1977, pp. 76–78.
- Blake, Ran (1981) Third Stream and the Importance of the Ear.