Salovey raises the roof with ‘Professors’

The Professors of Bluegrass are a motley crew, but they have no relation to the heavy-metal band. Their name not withstanding, only two of the seven are actually professors. Their titles and professions range from the next provost of Yale College to Saybrook College junior to artisan woodworker.

The seven members sit around a table in Yale College Dean Peter Salovey’s kitchen just before crossing the street to Edgerton Park to do a sound check for Saturday’s Connecticut Folk Festival. The conversation turns to who does the booking for the group.

Professors of Bluegrass play at the New Haven Folk Festival.
Daniel Carvalho
Professors of Bluegrass play at the New Haven Folk Festival.

The band laughs.

“The problem is everybody has these day jobs they just don’t want to give up,” Katherine Scharf ’00 LAW ’06 GRD ’11, fiddle and vocals, says. Some more laughing and joking.

“I think Peter [Salovey] really cut his teeth as an administrator as the manager of the Professors of Bluegrass,” says Joshua Viertel, the Professors’ guitarist and director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. The postulating continues until Salovey cuts in.

“It’s really kind of interesting because it’s more chaotic trying to manage bookings and logistics for this band, which only plays out a few times a year, than it is being dean of Yale College,” he says.

Amid even more laughter, Salovey’s wife Marta Moret concludes: “Which is why Rick [Levin] said, ‘That’s why he should be provost.’ ”

The history of the Professors of Bluegrass is a long and confusing one. Scharf said the band could probably be dated back to the late 1980s, but the band’s Web site reads early 1990s. Regardless, the band was formed by Salovey, a psychology professor at the time, and Kelly Brownell, another member of the Psychology department, when they discovered that they shared a love for bluegrass.

Since then the band has seen many members come and go, including Greg Liszt ’99, a banjo player who, right after finishing his doctorate in molecular biology at MIT, was tapped by Bruce Springsteen to play on his Seeger Sessions tour in 2006 and 2007 and is a member of the band Crooked Still, which also performed at the Folk Festival on Friday night.

Mostly The Professors play locally, but in the summer of 2007 they played at the River Of Music Party bluegrass festival in Owensboro, Ky., Salovey said.

Salovey gets a call on his cell phone. They’re wanted for sound check in approximately five minutes. The band packs up and moves across the street.

When they get to the park, filled with pint-sized soccer players and families walking their dogs, the band is forced to wait. In the meantime, the members take out their instruments and start to play, at first all separately, tuning their instruments, randomly finger picking, but then Scharf starts a song and everyone, minus Salovey — who is still lugging his bass across the street — joins in.

“There’s something that’s really satisfying with the simplicity of the songs combined with the virtuosity of the solos,” Craig Harwood, dean of Davenport College and mandolin player, says.

The band’s next concert is Sept. 20 at the barn dance for the raising of the timbers on the Yale Farm roof.

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