Fairfield Now - Spring 2007
By Meredith Guinness
The list of artists who entertained at White House dinners during the 1980s reads like a Who's Who of international performers. There's clarinet great Benny Goodman, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the U.S. Women's Gymnastic team, and the cast of A Chorus Line. Even Mr. T made an appearance.
And on April 19, 1982 - just after Gene Kelly but before samba giant Sérgio Mendes - there's a name very familiar to anyone who's stepped into Jogues Hall for a music class in the last 15 years. That's the night bassist Brian Torff took the stage with piano legend George Shearing, entertaining President Ronald Reagan and a host of dignitaries at a State visit of the Netherlands.
Though Torff remembers the night well - "I felt a pride as an American" - he gets just as jazzed talking about his day job as director of popular and jazz music at Fairfield. In a dual career marked by enormous talent, dedication, and plain 'ole luck, Torff has forged a satisfying life creating and playing the music he dearly loves and passing on the legacy to a new generation.
"Brian is one of the few teachers I had who lived what he taught," says Matt Geraghty '96, who still turns to Torff for advice on his own burgeoning musical career. "He isn't teaching from a textbook. He is teaching from life experience."
It's all part of the deal, says Torff.
Music is a gift that comes to you as a player," he says, "and then you give it to others, whether it's through playing or teaching. It's a beautiful thing."
In class, Torff encourages students to find that inner rhythm.
Torff's odyssey began when he started taking bass lessons at the age of 11. He picked the unwieldy instrument for its sound and because he knew he'd have no problem finding gigs. "Every rock band needs a bass player, right?"
Classically trained, he played as a hobby until that lightning-strike moment when he knew he wanted to be a musician. He was 17 and waiting for a Blood, Sweat & Tears concert to begin near his Chicago suburb. Suddenly, the band took the stage.
"They were just standing there and there was such a feeling of anticipation," he says. "And I thought, this is what I want to do. I loved playing and I was so hungry to do more of it. That's what I tell my students now: Do what you love and that's what you'll do best."
After graduation, Torff looked east to New York, where his mother, a Broadway buff, often took him to see top-flight productions. He was two years into the Manhattan School of Music when he had the good fortune to meet Milt Hinton, a legendary bassist known for mentoring upcoming musicians. Hinton invited him over for dinner and the two jammed in Hinton's basement studio. Not long afterwards, Hinton called Torff to ask him if he could take his place at a gig with popular jazz vocalist Cleo Laine.
The 20-year-old agreed and, the next thing he knew, he was making his professional debut - at Carnegie Hall. "Yeah, it was at Carnegie Hall," he says, a gentle laugh shaking his shoulders. "It was such an electric experience. It felt like shockwaves were going through you."
After a successful tour with Laine's band, Torff returned to school, but it wasn't long before another jazz giant came a-callin'. Soon he was in the dean's office, explaining why he'd have to take another leave to tour with pianist Erroll Garner. This time, the school politely suggested that he make the leave permanent.
|Birdland, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the White House ... Brian Torff has played them all.|
He wouldn't enter a college classroom again for more than a decade.
Instead, he lived out a jazz man's dream, touring internationally and recording with a laundry list of stellar artists, including Shearing, violinist Stephane Grappeli, Mary Lou Williams, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Sinatra, many of whom are pictured in photos hanging in his Fairfield office. He's played Lincoln Center and London's Royal Albert Hall, and he once appeared with John Williams and the Los Angeles Philharmonic before 18,000 jazz fans crowded into the Hollywood Bowl. Still, he loves playing smaller venues, where there's a chance to interact with the audience.
"I was really drawn to jazz because it's very sincere," he says. "There's a real humanity about it."
Along the way, Torff garnered critical raves. The New York Times praised his virtuosity and imagination, calling him a "solid composer and arranger." The San Francisco Examiner noted his "astounding" technique and intonation.
"The consummate bassist ... the man is really amazing," wrote Rex Reed in the New York Daily News.
Those who've played with him agree, praising both his easy-going manner - no temperamental artiste here - and his improvisational brilliance. "He has an adventurous spirit. He takes risks," says Ludovic Beier, a Parisian accordion virtuoso who recently accompanied Torff in seven sold-out shows at New York's legendary Birdland as part of the acclaimed Django Reinhardt Festival. On the final night, Torff's nimble fingers plucked out the infectious syncopation of Reinhardt's "gypsy" jazz, a broad smile never leaving his face. "I can't help it," he says, "it just fills me with such joy."
By the late 1980s, though, Torff and his wife were starting a family and he began to feel something was missing in the grueling grind of touring. Fate stepped in again when a friend asked him to teach a "History of Jazz" class at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.
"I was pretty unprepared, but I loved it," says Torff, who started teaching part time. In time his skills grew to match his enthusiasm and he went back to school himself, earning a bachelor's and master's in education from University of Bridgeport. He later received a C.A.S. from Fairfield, where he started teaching "History of Jazz" in 1990.
"You really develop as a teacher just the way you do as a musician," he says. "And I approach both my music and my teaching the same way. When I walk on stage or I walk into a classroom, I'm present. I'm really there."
In the years that followed there would be no doubt of Torff's presence at Fairfield. A year after he arrived, the University had a jazz ensemble and classes for both the musical novice looking to fill a core requirement and the burgeoning group of student musicians drawn by the program's increasingly strong reputation.
"It's not very often that somebody gets the opportunity to build a program, but people have been very supportive here," he says. "It's a lot of work, but it's exciting. It's just like a garden. You want to see things grow."
The music program now includes comprehensive classes, such as "World Music," in which Torff has students armed with drumsticks bang out reggae and ska rhythms, while he explains how Jamaican religion, history, and economics inform the music and vice versa.
"It's not music class with blinders on," says Dr. Laura Nash, a music professor who has also been instrumental in shaping the department. "Brian is the perfect example of ‘living and learning,'" she says, echoing the University's strategic plan. "He lives what he teaches and he teaches what he lives."
While it's clear how his career as a musician affects his classes, Torff says his teaching has had an equally important effect on his playing. With only an hour or two to cover such a vast topic as a nation's musical history, he's become a human crucible, boiling things down to what's essential. "You have to know what you want to cover. It's true with music, too. I found that conceptually my playing got more whole, more complete," he says. "I knew what I wanted to say."
Over the years, Torff has turned to his Rolodex, inviting musician friends to lecture, help with workshops, and perform as guest artists with the Fairfield University Jazz Ensemble. The opportunity to network while still in college is priceless to young musicians. Geraghty was in the jazz ensemble when Torff brought in guest artist Paul Wertico, the six-time Grammy Award-winning drummer for the Pat Metheny Group. Nearly a decade later, Wertico drummed on Gerathy's third CD, Passport.
"It was a great contact to have made back in 1996," he says. Soon, more and more young musicians were taking a serious look at what Fairfield had to offer.
Brian Torff is a mentor par excellence to talented Fairfield students, among them Eric Donnelly '01 (left), who played with Torff at this 2005 benefit concert to establish a music scholarship at Fairfield in memory of Donnelly's parents.
"Brian was definitely one of the selling points for Fairfield U. for me," says Eric Donnelly '01, a guitarist/ songwriter who recently signed a recording contract with his band, The Alternate Routes. "Here was a guy who had made a living doing what I wanted to do. I took whatever classes of his were available."
In Torff, Donnelly found a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. When Donnelly's parents were killed in their Fairfield jewelry store in 2005, Torff was among the first to call him. He played bass at the funeral Mass and, with Nash, quickly put together a benefit concert to start the Kim and Tim Donnelly Music Scholarship, Fairfield's first-ever music scholarship.
"By any level you can imagine a person being there for you - encouraging my music, having me sit in with professional musicians, giving my band practice space, playing at the funeral - he's been there," Donnelly says. "He's just a very generous person."
In the years ahead, Torff is looking forward to shaping the new music education program for teachers, which he and Nash will launch in fall 2007. After spending nearly 16 years teaching people how to appreciate and play music, he'll come full circle - teaching them how to teach it. "Kids shouldn't have to learn who Miles Davis is in my classes. It shouldn't take that long," he says. "This will enable students to receive a superb education in music and then be able to take that into our schools, where it is so badly needed. And that's what it's all about - sharing the gift."
Photo at top: Brian Torff performs in concert at Manhattan's famed Birdland.
Brian Torff has released several recordings as band leader or co-leader, as well as a well-received album with his longtime collaborator, French pianist Florence Melnotte.
A list of his recordings with other artists is available at www.briantorff.com.