Alumni Profiles

The Jazz Player

Sitting on the edge of the piano bench, back erect, feet poised above the peddles, Barbara London '70 commands chords that create aural images. Her long, graceful fingers glide across the keys, evoking an antelope bounding across the Serengeti, a sea turtle floating in misty green, elephants lumbering in line.

Barbara London '70

London is a jazz musician--pianist and flautist, a vocalist, a lyricist and a teacher. She's worked with close to 2,000 students over the past 20 years, learning as well as sharing her knowledge and talent. She's also a poet and a painter. "I think human beings need to create," she says. "I like to do everything."

Her hands move across an invisible keyboard as she talks. Thin as the flute she began playing in the fourth grade, London radiates a kind of quiet energy, which shines in her accomplishments. She was the first woman to chair a department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she teaches harmony, jazz composition and vocal and instrumental ensembles. For 30 years she has been a successful jazz performer, leading her own group, the Barbara London Jazz Quartet, since 1982. She has performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and has received three performance grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also made numerous recordings, even forming her own recording company, Wild Aster Productions.

Writing and performing jazz compositions was quite a detour for a zoology/premed major. The change in direction occurred during London's sophomore year at UNH, when she "fell in with a bunch of jazz musicians." They played local venues such as the Stone Church. Improvising and scat singing gave London a sense of freedom. After graduation, she formed a band called Morning Star with fellow UNH alumni Ernie Stableford, John Maguire and John Hunter. They went on the road, and London has never looked back.

London has written more than a hundred compositions and says that many of them "appeared as gifts." Sometimes a piece of music starts with an impression, a feeling. A song called "Green Sea Turtle" came to her as she was watching a documentary on turtles. She wanted to capture the turtle's free-floating movements, as if it were performing a ballet. The shimmering green colors, the slow push of fin against water started the impression of a "fluid movement, rippling and ongoing." London chose an upward movement, using a simple harmonic construction, then added odd meters to the measure, creating an ongoing rhythm. "It's two lines weaving in a contrary motion," she explains. "The rhythm of the two lines keeps floating."

Noodling at the piano, London visualizes sounds, watching the shape of the notes on the page create a musical landscape--first a piano progression, then a layer of melody. She feels movements, then translates them into notes, equally comfortable working on jazz or classical compositions. "Improvisation and creativity are play," she says. ~

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