Yale College Dean Peter Salovey is currently conducting a University-wide search, but he is not looking for a new professor. He is in search of a banjo player.
In the early ’90s, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey Professors of Bluegrass brought together professors, students and members of the community who shared a common passion for bluegrass music. Since its formation the group has disbanded twice — its second phase ran from 1996 to 1999 — and Salovey said it is now seeking musicians, especially banjo players, for its third incarnation.
“We’re just trying to find anyone who loves bluegrass through networks, people who know people,” Salovey said. “What’s been nice about the band in the past is that we have had faculty, students, staff and community members play.”
Salovey and fellow psychology professor Kelly Brownell, a former master of Silliman College, first formed the band about 10 years ago. The first version of the band played at President Richard Levin’s inauguration party in 1993 and at various New Haven nightclubs including Rudy’s and Toad’s Place, Salovey said. It even once played at Spring Fling.
Craig Harwood GRD ’02, now a professor of music at Amherst College, played mandolin for the Professors of Bluegrass during its second incarnation.
“We played all sorts of mostly Yale-based parties and events,” Harwood said. “Our most fun gig was that we would play at Rudy’s on a semi-regular basis. Everybody would come out to Rudy’s shows.”
In 1996, Katie Scharf ’99 LAW ’06, now pursuing a joint degree in law and history at Yale Law School, joined the group as a fiddle player, despite her background as a classical violinist.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Scharf said. “Playing bluegrass is great because it’s this mixture of work and fun. You don’t get to have orchestra rehearsals in a bar with beer, hanging out with friends.”
Scharf described the group’s music as “straight-up traditional bluegrass,” akin to the music featured in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Harwood and Scharf said that the Professors of Bluegrass were a popular attraction in the Yale community, even for those uninitiated in bluegrass.
“Most people who heard us had never heard bluegrass and became bluegrass fanatics because of us,” Harwood said. “This included music students who had never heard bluegrass before, and all of a sudden, beside studying Mozart and Chopin, they were Bill Monroe fans.”
As the group’s members graduated, its performances became less regular. But Scharf said while the group’s presence faded, it never formally disbanded: Even after graduation, members would play together when visiting New Haven.
Scharf said her return to Yale as a law student provided the motivation to restart the group.
“When I came back to Yale for graduate school, the first thing when I saw Peter was, ‘We’ve got to get the band together,'” she said.
Harwood said he is enthusiastic about the prospect of a reunited Professors of Bluegrass.
“I definitely hope they get back together,” he said. “I think one of the most positive aspects of the band was that there was a professor and students — both grad and undergrad — all working on this project together and all engaging in this making music together.”
Although there are numerous guitarists at Yale, the group currently lacks a banjo player. Scharf said the absence of a banjo player has been the one “limiting factor” for the band. The band’s former banjo player, Greg Liszt, is currently an MIT student pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Liszt now plays banjo in his own Boston-area bluegrass group, Crooked Still.
Salovey said he hopes to assemble the new group within the next week. Scharf said she is excited to bring bluegrass back to Yale’s campus.
“I’d like to think we converted a few Yalies to bluegrass,” she said.