Music department chairman Don Chamberlain holds the guitar his family gave him for his 50th birthday.
It’s a great leap from playing guitar on the rural Texas soul circuit to writing a variation on a theme by Dvorak, but it’s part of the same musical continuum for Don Chamberlain.
Chamberlain, who came to Cornell’s music department 10 years ago from the University of Texas at Austin, grew up in a decidedly nonmusical family in El Paso, Texas.
“When we sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ it would have made Charles Ives happy, with all of us singing in five different keys at once,” says the department chair and director of Cornell’s jazz ensembles.
He received his first guitar at the age of 8, when his 20-year-old cousin and her boyfriend breezed through town and the boyfriend left his guitar at the house. “I loved that guitar. Painted it 17 different colors, played ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ The thing had so much paint on it after awhile, I don’t think it had much of a sound.”
He didn’t pursue a music career until years later, when he found himself three semesters short of a BA in architecture at UT-Austin just as Richard Nixon ended the draft.
“I dropped out of school to study jazz guitar, then became the token white member of a black soul band,” he says. “I stayed with them almost two years. It was a hot band—we played James Brown, Joe Tex. Of course my father thought it was the end of the world: son quits school, becomes a musician, joins a soul band. All he could say was ‘don’t get hooked on drugs.’ ”
In 1977 Chamberlain entered Berklee College of Music in Boston, the leading jazz school in the country, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1980. For years he had been dabbling in composition, but it wasn’t until he returned to Austin, was playing with jazz great Gene Ramey, and writing arrangements for a music production company that Chamberlain began seriously to study composition. He completed master’s and doctoral degrees in composition at UT-Austin by 1986, and then gained teaching experience at three other colleges before Cornell.
“I disagree with those artists who say the worst thing you can do for your own work is to teach,” he says. “Studying great compositions by great composers, analyzing their work side by side with my students, is a valuable experience. I gain new insights every time, often from the students.”
Chamberlain has revitalized Cornell’s jazz program, which now includes a combo in addition to the big band. His entire band took his jazz history course last May and hit the road to Kansas City and New Orleans, performing and studying along the way. The highlight was undertaking original research at Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive.
Composing remains a guiding passion, and his Armstrong Hall office is crowded with keyboards, a MIDI processor, computers, and other multimedia devices for composing and recording. His resume reflects a wide range of interest and experience, listing compositions for mixed choir, wind ensemble, piano, and such combinations as amplified bassoon and tape. He writes mainly for commission, and recent recognition includes a performance of his “Hieroglyphics (Between Friends)” as the first piece on the first concert of the 2003 Florida State University New Music Festival. He recently began writing incidental music for theater.
He and his wife, poet Barbara Lau, have two children, Grace, 15, and Lily, 10. They live on “Pres Hill,” Mount Vernon’s sledding hill, where Lily has been known to leave her books at the top and borrow a sled to go downhill after school. “It’s a great place for kids,” he says, “and we even like the snow."