Teaching from a ‘Swing State’ of mind

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By William Clark

By William Clark

So, what else do you need in life when you’ve got nearly everything you’ve ever wanted? Well, if you’re lucky enough to be Peter Curtis, the answer is obvious: You reach for more. 

At the age of 36, this accomplished composer, recording artist, tenured instructor, and (soon-to-be) musical theater impresario continues to scout out new worlds to conquer.  

The classically-trained guitarist is riding the crest of success following the release of his debut CD, “Swing State,” a collection of original compositions along with his own spin on the works of Stevie Wonder and Thelonius Monk. Curtis’ silky, über-cool music style is garnering rave reviews and the good doctor may well be the jazz world’s new boy-wonder.  

Raised in Montreal until age 12, Curtis spent his formative years in Vancouver, B.C. In high school, he formed Stubborn Blood, an alternative rock band.

“The name was my idea,” he said, smiling wryly. “I had a friend who worked in a hospital and he wanted to call the group ‘Stubborn Bloodstains,’ but I thought ‘Stubborn Blood’ would be a little more…interesting!”

He confesses that at the time a career in academia was the farthest thing from his mind.

“My only goal at that time was to get a record contract before I graduated from high school and become a rock star,” he said. 

Critics and jazz enthusiasts compare Curtis’ musical style to that of the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt, a brilliant, enigmatic figure whose devil-may-care technique altered the landscape of European and American jazz in the ’30s and established the guitar as an integral part of the modern jazz combo. But the professor modestly downplays the lofty comparison.

“It’s ridiculously flattering to be spoken of in the same breath as (Django Reinhardt),” he said. “And to think…he played like that with only two good fingers,” referring to Reinhardt’s withered left hand which was nearly destroyed in a fire. “If a supernatural realm exists, he is the best example of it.”  

Comparisons aside, the instructor’s accomplishments are no less phenomenal. Whereas Reinhardt was a self-taught musician who could only play by ear, Curtis has attended some of the most prestigious educational institutions in America. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and then picked up a master’s in music from Yale before heading to Indiana University to earn a doctorate in classical guitar performance.  

While at Yale he applied himself to mastering the classical guitar repertoire.

“I was pretty focused on my studies, so I didn’t really have time to take in much of the jazz scene or do much gigging in New Haven or New York,” he said. 

Extracurricular activities included an exploration of klezmer, the clarinet-driven Jewish dance music of Eastern Europe. He and a fellow Yale student formed the klezmer band Draycup (Yiddish for “twisted head”), as a respite from the rigors of a Yale education. Klezmer shares many common themes and motifs with traditional jazz, and Draycup successfully incorporated these elements in its performances. 

At Indiana University, he continued his studies into the klezmer style, as well as the representation of Jews in music. His paper “The Klezmer Revival in Germany,’ examined the popularity of klezmer music in modern Germany and Poland, two countries where the population of Jews is rapidly growing. This interest earned him a minor in ethnomusicology and world music.

But Curtis is no ordinary ivory tower academic; as a seasoned performer he’s earned his musical chops at some of the hottest clubs and venues in the world, including Paris, Berlin and Budapest. The roster of musicians with whom he’s recorded or performed reads like a veritable “who’s who” of modern jazz artists, including Sean Blake of the Mingus Big Band and Claudia Acuna. His classical compositions have been performed as far away as Australia.

As Riverside City College’s very own musical celebrity, Curtis remains stoic and somewhat reticent about his accomplishments. However, he becomes effusive and quite animated at the mention of teaching here at RCC. When asked what it is he wants most to impress upon his students, the professor pauses, thoughtfully.

“I want my students to strive for a high level of musical excellence and to fully develop the special gifts that each of them has. So many students have so much talent, and I try to see what’s special in each one and try to help and encourage them to develop that talent.”

To that end he heads RCC’s Student Guitar Ensemble made up of his most promising students. The ensemble performs both on and off-campus at local events, convalescent homes and in communities where individuals would normally not have an opportunity to experience live musical performances.  

And what’s next for Curtis? He’s currently finishing the music for a musical parody of the academic world, which, he says “is a world rich with opportunities for satire.” The music for the show harkens back to the great Tin Pan Alley era, but with updated musical and lyrical twists and turns that everyone, academics and non-academics alike, can relate to. He explained that it was a real joy to try his hand at composing for musical theater.

“Like so many things I’ve done in my life so far, this has been a lot of fun.” 

Curtis’ former guitar instructor, Indiana University’s Ernesto Bitetti, will perform at RCC’s Digital Library auditorium on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m.

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