It’s only a few blocks from the Blair School of Music to Music Row, but they once seemed light years apart. Today, Blair bridges the gap between the popular music world and the academic study of music by bringing the talent and experience of popular musicians into the classroom.
Keyboard/accordionist Jen Gunderman, solo artist/music journalist Peter Cooper, and Grammy-winning producer Steve Buckingham are music industry professionals who have joined the Blair faculty to teach History of Rock Music, History of Country Music and Music and the Fall of Segregation, respectively. Their students are learning about the lives and music of popular icons like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles from those who actually knew or worked with them.
As working artists who write, perform, produce and record music, Cooper, Gunderman and Buckingham give students a firsthand look at what it takes to succeed in one of the toughest businesses around. Because of their Music Row contacts, they are able to bring in other artists, songwriters, musicians and music business professionals to share their expertise with students.
Clad in red shirt, blue jeans and black boots, Peter Cooper, senior lecturer in music history and literature, offers students a unique personal and professional perspective on country music from its colonial roots to today’s multimillion-dollar global industry.
“So much of the history that I talk about in this class took place within walking distance of Blair,” Cooper says. “There’ve always been connections.”
Several well-known recording artists have attended Vanderbilt, including Dinah Shore, Rosanne Cash, Amy Grant and Francis Craig, who recorded Nashville’s first big-time pop hit and also wrote Vanderbilt’s fight song, “Dynamite.” Many of today’s aspiring musicians and songwriters ply their day jobs in various medical center and university departments at Vanderbilt and others have done so in the past as well.
“I like to tell students stories like the one about Don Schlitz, who wrote ‘The Gambler’ while working in a Vanderbilt computer lab,” Cooper says. The song became a megahit for Kenny Rogers, who won a Grammy for his rendition. “I talk about the musicians as persons as well as historical figures, what they were like that enabled them to do these extraordinary things.”
Cooper’s guests have included country music stars like Vanderbilt parent Kix Brooks of the duo Brooks and Dunn; Dierks Bentley, BA’97; and Joe Nichols.
A multitalented Americana singer/songwriter and respected music journalist, Cooper has had music praised by many, including Kris Kristofferson. Cooper began his career as a middle school teacher in South Carolina and writes for the Tennessean, Esquire and Britannica, among others. He recently released a solo album, Mission Door, and is working on two albums with famed steel guitarist Lloyd Green. He has taught music history at Blair since 2007.
“To me it all feels of a piece,” Cooper says. “Whether I’m on the road playing, writing about it or talking about it, it’s all music.”
In History of Rock Music, Jen Gunderman, senior lecturer in music history and literature, traces the development of rock and roll from the ’50s to the present. Presenting the major artists from each decade, she includes subgenres like rockabilly, rhythm and blues, folk, soul, metal, pop and alternative. Through the use of sound and video clips, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and the Beatles perform once again for a new generation of students.
A classically trained pianist who has played at Avery Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center, Gunderman is also a gifted keyboard/accordionist who records with many different artists, including Cooper. She has played in rock, funk and folk bands, including the Jayhawks and Dag.
“I’ve always loved teaching,” she says. “I try to give students a sense of how the music is put together, while focusing on the technological, cultural and economic changes that helped shape the sounds.”
A Vassar graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Washington, Gunderman joined the Blair faculty in 2004.
“I find that my work outside Vanderbilt continually feeds into the classroom and vice versa,” she says. “Students tell me about new bands I haven’t heard, and musicians I work with often end up as guests in my classrooms.”
A typical day might find Gunderman teaching in the morning, working in the studio in the afternoon and performing on stage at night. She recently produced her first CD by Vanderbilt graduate Ben Cameron, BA’08.
”Making music keeps my feet on the ground,” Gunderman says. “A lot of academics writing about pop music haven’t experienced it in a personal, visceral way. I understand what it feels like to play in front of crowds of people, and that emotional experience grounds the way I think about music intellectually and helps me connect students with ideas.”
Veteran producer and record executive Steve Buckingham began teaching Music and the Fall of Segregation at Blair last fall. His interest in how music helped to advance the Civil Rights Movement is both personal and professional. As a student at Virginia’s Richmond College during the early ’60s, Buckingham played backup guitar for a number of African American artists, including Percy Sledge, Jackie Wilson and the Drifters.
“We could play with them, but we couldn’t eat together or stay at the same hotels,” he recalls about a system some have called American apartheid. “At concerts, a rope separated the black students from the whites. By the end of the show, the rope was down, and the kids were dancing with each other.”
Buckingham became interested in putting together this course when, several years ago, a student innocently asked if segregation was legal in those days. “It struck me that students won’t know about it if nobody talks about it,” he says.
In the course, Buckingham explains how swing and jazz from the ’30s and ’40s, rock and roll and rhythm & blues in the ’50s, and soul music in the ’60s helped to break down barriers between the races. He notes that clarinetist Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson, the first African American to play in a big band, 12 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. During the ’40s and ’50s, thousands of teenagers became fans of rhythm and blues musicians thanks to radio disc jockeys like Nashville’s John R. and Bill “Hoss” Allen, BA’48. Black musicians also influenced white artists like Elvis, who brought their music to a worldwide audience.
Like his colleagues, Buckingham brings his life experiences and music contacts to bear on his subject. During his early career, he played guitar on hundreds of recordings as a studio musician. He served as vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire) and producer for Columbia, Vanguard and Sugar Hill Records for a combined 21 years.
Buckingham has garnered four Grammys, 27 No. 1 singles, 11 platinum and 19 gold albums over the years. Working with artists as varied as Dolly Parton, Sinead O’Connor, and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), he produced top 10 singles on 11 different charts from country to pop to jazz. The first record he produced—“I Love the Nightlife” by Alicia Bridges—became a worldwide hit in 1978.
“I love teaching,” he says. “This is a dream for me. Compared to the record business, it’s a walk in the park.”
© 2017 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: John Russell with thanks to Tina Wright at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum