Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Notes, Eastman’s alumni magazine.
Thirty years ago, trombonist Todd Lowery ’90E, ’93E (MM) moved to Tokyo for what was only to be a single year, following his marriage to Chandra Fortune ’92E, a Japanese American pianist he met while they were students at the Eastman School of Music. It was to be a fun detour in their younger lives. But they never left. Instead, Lowery built roots in Japan’s jazz scene. When a new English immersion school was opening in a nearby city, Ota, which was championed by a jazz-loving mayor, Lowery pitched a music education program unlike anything else in Japan, inspired by his studies at Eastman in music education and jazz performance.
The program led to a nearly 20-year relationship between the Japanese school, the Gunma Kukusai Academy (GKA), and Eastman that most recently culminated in two Eastman Centennial performances in Japan featuring many of the alumni—and classmates from Lowery’s time at Eastman—who influenced the GKA’s unique music education program.
The program Lowery launched was developed at the Eastman School of Music by Professor Emeritus of Music Education Richard Grunow and Eisenhart Professor of Music Teaching and Learning Christopher Azzara, and includes the methods Developing Musicianship through Improvisation and Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series. These research-based, comprehensive curricula prioritize aural skills and the development of improvisation, reading, and composition skills. Importantly, the methods purport that music learning is for all. Lowery upheld that ethos: All students at his school are required to learn an instrument.
Over the years, Lowery brought over several Eastman faculty members and alumni to assist with implementing his program, including Grunow, Azzara, and even Professor Emeritus Ramon Ricker ’73E (DMA). Lowery has hired 16 alumni to teach at the academy, with several who currently teach there, and has now risen the ranks, currently serving as the school’s vice principal.
“Todd has such a unique connection to the school, not just as a jazz performer and composer, but deeply rooted in the music education world,” says Bob Sneider ’93, Eastman’s professor of jazz guitar and an Eastman Jazz Band bandmate of Lowery’s from the ‘90s. “He’s developed this incredible, unique music program using music education techniques he learned here. There doesn’t seem to be anything quite like it over there, the way he’s doing it.”
To coincide with Eastman’s centennial celebrations, Lowery suggested to the mayor, who is also the school’s chairman, that they invite the Eastman performers who have had an influence on the program to perform in Japan. It was an easy sell. “It’s the school’s way of showing appreciation for our collaboration and the work that Eastman has done in supporting our music program,” says Lowery.
Although the trip was postponed due to Covid, the stars aligned to bring over Eastman alumni in January 2023. The trip included a performance at the Ota Civic Hall, which featured an 18-member jazz ensemble comprising eight Eastman graduates and 10 jazz musicians based in Tokyo. Of the Japanese musicians, three graduated from Lowery’s GKA program and the others all have major careers in Japan. The repertoire included tributes to Eastman’s jazz program, including works by former Eastman professors of emeritus status, Bill Dobbins and Rayburn Wright, and they also performed a revised composition Lowery composed as a student at Eastman. A smaller septet of the Eastman alumni, with one Japanese player, detoured for a performance at the Village Jazz & Blues Bar in Kiryu, Japan. For a list of musicians, see the side bar.
More than another collaboration between interrelated schools, it was a chance to strengthen Eastman bonds created in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“If I take anything away from it, it is just seeing what my friends are up to,” says Sneider. “They’ve become dedicated career educators, professors, unbelievably professional people who make differences in people’s lives.” Lowery agrees: “We all got together, and it was just like yesterday. We picked up where we left off. It’s very humbling.”
Christopher Azzara ’88E (MM), ’92E (PhD), piano*
Jeff Campbell ’92E (MM), ’02E (DMA), bass*
Bob Sneider ’93, guitar*
Other Eastman Alumni:
Todd Lowery ’90E, ’93E (MM), trombone*
John Hollenbeck ’90E, ’91E (MM), drums
Jonathan Katz ’91E (MM), piano
Chris Persad ’91E (MM), trumpet*
François Theberge ’89E (MM), tenor saxophone*
Musicians from Tokyo:
Eric Miyashiro, trumpet
Eijiro Nakagawa, trombone
Yoshihito Etoh, drums * (septet performance only)
Dylan Lowery, trumpet (Todd Lowery’s son)
Yui Hori, voice
Kaito Nakamura, drums
*Musicians in the septet performance in Kiryu, Japan
Two decades ago, Bob Sneider taught guitar lessons to an enthusiastic University of Rochester Simon School student, Takuya Adachi ’04 (MBA). Nineteen years later, they reunited at the Village Jazz & Blues Bar in Kiryu, Japan.
Adachi took the train from Kyoto and booked a hotel room just to hear Sneider play. Seeing Adachi in the audience was a happy surprise for Sneider. After the performance, Adachi went out with the band and had an impromptu jam session with Sneider back at the hotel.
“He became one of the band members,” remembers Sneider. “After the trip was all over, he sent me a Facebook message, saying ‘this was the best weekend ever, my wife and daughter have never seen me so happy.’ What’s really great is after 19 years to hear how much better he got. He’s worked hard enough that he is a working musician in Kyoto, playing gigs and attending jam sessions. It’s pretty cool.”