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Playing Life’s Notes

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Reed Gratz, department chair and professor of music, improvises on the Steinway and Sons grand piano on the Morgan Auditorium stage. In his 40th year as an educator at the University of La Verne, Reed concentrates in jazz music, from teaching jazz history to playing it with his band, the “Reed Gratz Band.” / photo by Kathleen Arellano

Reed Gratz, department chair and professor of music, improvises on the Steinway and Sons grand piano on the Morgan Auditorium stage. In his 40th year as an educator at the University of La Verne, Reed concentrates in jazz music, from teaching jazz history to playing it with his band, the “Reed Gratz Band.” / photo by Kathleen Arellano

by Ryan Guerrero
photography by Kathleen Arellano

Plato once said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” To University of La Verne Music Professor Reed Gratz, music definitely is everything as it surrounds his daily life. Whether it is through educating students in Founders Hall about music theory, jazz history and piano compositions or simply performing in the community with the Reed Gratz Band, Reed bleeds music through his heart and soul; a passion inside that carries with him to this exact day.

Simply labeling Reed as an award-winning jazz pianist or a phenomenal composer would be an understatement as the 66-year-old is the epitome of a well-rounded, gifted individual—an individual who does not take life for granted nor settles for less. Having won awards such as the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Composition Grant in 1984, the Fulbright Senior Scholar honor in 1991 and 2001, the Outstanding Young Men of America Award in 1979 and 1982, and the Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of La Verne in 1991; Reed has accomplished many outstanding milestones. He has also had the privilege of giving private music lessons to notable successful musicians, including Herb Alpert and Bruce Hornsby.

He was born in the small town of Bluffton, Ohio, and spent most of his youth living as a “Midwest guy” in both Ohio, then Indiana. Reed grew up in Avon Lake, a suburb of Cleveland, before ultimately moving to North Manchester, Indiana, at age 13 when his father took a job at Manchester College to coach at the collegiate level. James Gratz was a local sports legend in the Avon Lake community and coached in many Bluffton area high schools before becoming an associate professor of health, physical education and recreation at Manchester College. “My dad was kind of the star in town; he was the local high school football coach and athletic director and had several undefeated teams including eight conference winning seasons. Everybody knew him, and football was a big deal in Ohio,” says Reed. James also served as the athletic director at Manchester, as well as head wrestling and baseball coach, and as an assistant football coach. Manchester College, renamed Manchester University in 2012, named its baseball field after him.

Sports was the family business, but so, too, was music. Reed’s interest in music began at a young age and would build into his prolific career. As a child, Reed took piano lessons from his mother, Jane Gratz, and began to write his own music with her inspiration. Jane’s music filled the house, prompting Reed and his brothers to become actively involved in music as an extracurricular activity. Both his parents were deeply involved in music, and both sang in their school and church choirs. In addition, Reed says, “I was very fortunate because they [his elementary school] had a great band program, and there was a lot of music in my house.” Both parents encouraged Reed to pursue music and athletics in Avon Lake, splitting his time between them, which ultimately taught him great discipline and muscle memory. “I was intrigued by both directions. They’re very alike in the sense that you got to practice every day. If you don’t, you’ll get rusty quickly,” Reed says. At one point, Reed was given the choice to do the dishes or practice piano, prompting both him and his brother to fight over the piano and leaving his mother to do the dishes. It was clear to Reed that this was something his father wanted him to do and strive for. As time went on, the family would compete for piano time. Given that his father was a former naval officer, Reed was issued a somewhat strict schedule to play football in the yard, go to little league practice and still have time for piano practice. For his brother, Robin, that set schedule would also ultimately pay off as he would become a church organist and was also in the 1972 Olympic trials in the triple jump.

At Manchester College, Reed began to realize music was becoming a passion of his in so many ways. He frequently collected jazz and classical music records found at the local record store, “Hire’s.” Reed would listen to his records repeatedly to “copy” the compositions he heard and was greatly influenced by them. By ear alone from this complicated, higher level music, he taught himself how to play jazz. His early record collections included famed jazz pianist Bill Evans’ “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and  Thelonious Monk records passed on to him by his high school English teacher. Monk had a unique improvisational style, which Reed was able to master. Yet, he was influenced by music of all kinds and remembers clearly being 15 and listening to a piano sonata by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera that motivated him to want to compose something as equally great, a goal that he says is still in his future. He was also moved by the work of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, specifically his Tenth Symphony. “When I was a kid, my dad came home with the Moscow Symphony record that featured Shostakovich, and I just remember listening to it over and over again. Those are things that happen when you are in your teens; there’s a particular music that for some reason you connect to, and it speaks to you even if it’s from Argentina or from Russia.”

During his music composition class, Professor Reed Gratz advises students on their song writing work and helps develop their upcoming music related student projects. / photo by Kathleen Arellano

During his music composition class, Professor Reed Gratz advises students on their song writing work and helps develop their upcoming music related student projects. / photo by Kathleen Arellano

He excelled in both music and sports at Manchester College. He was on the wrestling and tennis teams, as well as forming a rock and jazz band. By the completion of his college sophomore year, Reed grew “distressed of living in a small town” and cited personal reasons why he briefly left for London to study music on his own. “It was a great time to be in London. It was the rock and roll years when things were really inventive, and the Beatles were there. Jimi Hendrix died while I was there, and you had guys like Eric Clapton,” chuckles Reed as he describes the iconic music scene of late 1960s London. “All these guys were kind of accessible, and that really turned me on to music. I was convinced that, ‘OK, in spite of the odds, I’m going to try to jump into this.’” After his short stint abroad, Reed returned to Manchester to finish in 1973 his baccalaureate in music theory. Two years later, he earned his master’s of music degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, with an emphasis in jazz composition and Afro-American music. One of his idols, famed jazz pianist George Russell, was teaching at the institution, and, with great luck, Reed says he was admitted into the graduate program. “It was a great opportunity for me to study with people whom I collected their records, and it was a totally different group of guys—highly recognized African-American jazz musicians from New York City who were teaching in Boston a few days a week. There was so much music in Boston, and it was a highly competitive atmosphere at the conservatory that it ultimately led me to want to continue in graduate school. Now, I was thinking, ‘OK, I like to write music, I like to play music, but I also think I would like to continue to study and go through the formal aspect of it as best as I could.’”

Reed became aware of the possibility of teaching music at a college institution. And while he acknowledged that the teaching field was highly competitive, he decided to pursue this career by enrolling in the University of Miami School of Music’s Doctoral Program in Composition. What attracted him the most to the university was its ideology of being open-minded for students to study music in all genres including jazz and rock, opera and rock ensemble. Reed shared the same open-minded view, which he continues to hold and include in his La Verne teaching. Reed finds genres to be a non-important factor when it comes to determining what separates good from bad music, and whether he likes a certain song. “You have good, and you have bad music, but the genre isn’t the important thing that decides that. I can love Sting’s music as much as I might love Mozart’s. They are both different but can both move the same person.” Reed believes that genres are a marketing scheme and explains that different variations of music such as jazz exist because of time periods, different instrumentations and improvisation. “When you start putting labels on things, it makes you feel like you’re stuck in the pigeon hole or stuck in a box. I think a lot of artists reject that.”

Upon completing his doctoral program in the summer of 1977, Reed began job hunting for a teaching position but stayed in Miami when no available positions were found. While in Miami, he eloped with his former wife. Soon, the couple had a family: daughter Erin, now a University of La Verne associate professor and librarian specializing in web and instructional technology, and son Ian, who works for Automatic Data Processing in North Carolina. By fate, in 1977, Reed saw an open music position at the University of La Verne. He was partially familiar with the institution due to its Church of the Brethren ties with Manchester College, and he had contacts, including his wife who had attended the school. Reed gained the job shortly after he turned 27 and moved to the city of La Verne with his family. “La Verne was a very different institution at that time. You recognize the buildings—a couple of the buildings, but just totally different in its appearance and in its size, along with the atmosphere and feeling of the campus at the time. It’s a different kind of place now,” says Reed. “I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, but it just changed so much. Being here my entire career and watching the changes that La Verne has made is an intriguing story for me.”

In his small office located in Founders Hall, Reed sits surrounded by a collection of books and a keyboard. Having now taught at La Verne for 40 years and overseeing the Music Department as Department Chair for more than 18, he quietly reminisces about his marvelous career as a music educator. Currently residing in Pomona, he has spent his teaching career at the University of La Verne, while also having taught occasionally at other institutions such as Claremont McKenna College and Leiden University in the Netherlands. He has helped launch successful alumni musicians, including Robert Catalano and Andrew Ford. He is known as one of the pioneers of bringing art and music programs to the University, along with professors such as Gary Colby, professor of photography, Ruth Trotter, professor of art, and David Flaten, professor of theater.

 Reed Gratz, professor of music at the University of La Verne, joined the faculty fall 1977. He currently teaches music history, jazz theory and music composition, in addition to writing original jazz compositions. / photo by Kathleen Arellano

Reed Gratz, professor of music at the University of La Verne, joined the faculty fall 1977. He currently teaches music history, jazz theory and music composition, in addition to writing original jazz compositions. / photo by Kathleen Arellano

Reed has also had several opportunities to enhance his career, spending six of his teaching years in other institutions. He has traveled to Europe numerous times for guest lectures and has also taught at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, among many of his gigs. “It gives me a better perspective when I come walking back into the same building in good old Founders Hall,” says Reed about his teaching stints in other locations.

Reed holds significant stature on campus and has influenced many students who have become music professors themselves. In addition, he has created long-lasting relationships among the La Verne faculty. “I have had the honor to know and work with Dr. Reed Gratz for quite a few years. He’s the type of professor who will go out of his way to help not only students and colleagues, but also his friends and family,” says music professor Michael Ryan. “What intrigues me about Reed the most is that he is interested in all types of music ranging from jazz, blues, classical, popular, Latin as well as music from any country. Not only is Reed an amazing composer and amazing pianist, he also has a great sense of humor and wit.” Fellow music professor, bandmate and former student Andrew Ford says, “Reed Gratz has been a mentor and friend for 40 years. He has been instrumental in my development as a musician and educator. He is a great musician and outstanding communicator and instructor. But aside from all of that, he is one of my favorite people to be around: kind, funny, creative and intelligent. The University of La Verne is very fortunate to have him as an instructor for all these years. He is truly one of a kind.”

Aside from influencing students, Reed believes that the importance of teaching music is carrying on the traditions that have been passed on through generations of musicians all around the world. “I love being a part of the lineage—passing on traditions, information, knowledge, insight. I love watching the students pick up these skills and tools that will enable them possibly to be creative and expressive. To do that is so much easier if you know the tools, and I love passing that on. I always felt like I was a part of the lineage that goes back some hundreds of years of learning how Western Music is set up.”

Among these tools is having the convenience of teaching in the 21st century where every genre of music can be easily accessed, something that Reed believes can be a good or bad thing depending on how one views it personally. Listeners and musicians can instantly stream and find Turkish music, contemporary West African music and stylistic music from cities such as New York City. “Teaching has changed a lot in just the time I’ve been doing it—from using chalk on an old board to having access to any YouTube performance of any piece and instantly being able to listen to it with students and talk about it and analyze it,” says Reed. “The tools have changed; however, the information is still very much the same. But it’s great to be a part of that tradition. I say that a lot to my music theory classes. Why are we doing this? Why are we looking at all of this? It’s because musicians are elitists. We love to be able to hold on to these traditions. Sometimes, no matter how illogical it might seem, it’s the way we’ve been doing it. Music is sort of a science, it’s an art form, and it has a foot in both camps. I love trying to paint that image and the information that surrounds it clearly to people wanting to find a way to express their own ideas musically.”

Becoming involved with the University of La Verne and teaching music in general has helped shape Reed’s career drastically. He has come across several opportunities and endeavors associated with the field of higher education. “I’m very proud to be at this institution and to have had the opportunities that I have had by being in university education and being in music. Outside the university situation, music is a key to other cultures, other kinds of people. I’ve gotten to play in every kind of church and synagogue, as well as saloons. I’ve also had the privilege of performing at every kind of culture’s wedding and funeral. I’ve met people of every color and background—all because I’m a musician.”

The title of musician has not only increased Reed’s experiences and privileges from the ordinary citizen but has also allowed him to see the world from a certain perspective that only musicians can claim as theirs. “Musicians are fantastic people. They’re nuts. They have tons of stories and love to share them. They are also the greatest joke-tellers. It’s a wonderful group of people to be associated with,” chuckles Reed as his smile beams with joy. Although Reed enjoys the many perks of being a musician and associating with a world-wide music community, his greatest joy comes from ULV. One great memory as a La Verne professor was playing basketball with faculty and students for fun, an example of how his passion in athletics never ended when pursuing music full-time. “Playing basketball at noon for 15 years with friends and colleagues and students is something I’ll never forget. We had games every day at noon, five days a week. I was a real gym rat. I was a basketball junkie, carrying my shoes and ball in the car, then later smashing my fingers and going to the gig at night.” While the idea of playing sports and a music concert in the same day may seem astonishing to some folks, it was a statement of the love he had for both that continues to make Reed a talented and special individual; a world class musician. “Fantastic students have entered my classroom over the years. Luckily, I knew when to get out of the way as you find some students who are so self-motivated,” says Reed. “Sometimes you can point them to a door, and that’s often times enough. Some of those students have gone out to make big names and big successes for themselves in the world of music, which I find to be a difficult pathway. That’s what I’m happiest about here in my tenure at La Verne. We haven’t been that big of a program, but we’ve had some truly fantastic people.”

Reed’s charismatic charm has also touched the local community. For 15 years, he lived in La Verne in a house now owned by the University and rechristened as its Health Center. Scarcely a weekend went by when he was not performing at cafés or local festivals. In addition, he has supported Bonita High School and Upland High School’s efforts to raise money for their music programs. He continuously supports the University of La Verne through his performance efforts and emphasizes the importance of the arts in its curriculum. His efforts have led to a Lyceum leadership effort that features high level musicians.

With his talented student musicians and faculty, he formed his band, the Reed Gratz Band. It currently consists of guitarist Michael O’ Neil, who just recently finished performing as a guitarist on the Barbara Streisand world tour. La Verne alumnus and professor Andrew Ford is the bassist and has performed worldwide with artists such as Whitney Houston and David Crosby, as well as performing at the White House in which he was photographed with President Barack Obama. Another La Verne alumnus is drummer Mike Bennett, who graduated from the University in 2004. Bennett has performed as a touring musician with the late Prince, Justin Timberlake and Hilary Duff. Famed West African Drumming professor Steve Biondo serves as percussionist. The band first performed in 2003. These days, though, they hardly get the opportunity to play together as each member is involved with his own professional career. “It’s more in my head than in actual reality,” jokes Reed. The group has released two albums and performs at least once a year at an annual concert featured by the La Verne Music Department. As a solo musician or as a band performer, Reed humbly says that he always likes playing with musicians who understand music and are better than he. Reed believes that there is no greater experience than forming genuine friendships and collaborations. The music expressed from those relationships is powerful.

Reed is a husband and father to a family across the sea in both Holland and Spain. Most recently, he spent a year in Spain on a sabbatical working on three projects including two solo CDs. There, he reunited with his 14-year-old son Joaquin Gratz and wife Udit Gratz de Lang. The family resides in Spain during the school months and Holland in the summer, living in the couple’s house boat, which Reed regards as his “second, yet perhaps first home.” He describes his wife as the “smart one” in their marriage as she designed the couple’s houseboat located in “Downtown Holland” [Amsterdam] and even did the plumbing and electricity. His son Joaquin is currently enrolled in a British International School in Spain. Reed and his wife contemplate the idea of moving permanently to Malaga, located on the southern coast of Spain. Reed is fascinated and captured with European culture. “It’s a very diverse place, more so than here. You have Moroccans, North Africans, West Africans and Italians.”

As Reed contemplates his future, he is sure of one thing: “I would love to play the piano for as long as I can. I want to keep writing music and making music available to people who might be interested in my work. There are so many directions to go in music. I don’t need another hobby. I get turned on by hearing a band from Peru or East L.A. I tell myself, ‘Oh my god, what is that. I gotta steal some of that,’” chuckles Reed.

This is the drive he holds that propels him to appreciate the music of other artists and to produce his own new scores. It is the trusted teaching role he holds to lead students to do the same. And it is the gift he gives that graces all with his music.

 Explaining the circle of fifths with his music theory level two class, Professor Reed Gratz prepares students for their final exam. In Founders Hall Room 22, music theory level two focuses on analyzing the writing and styles of 18th century music. / photo by Kathleen Arellano

Explaining the circle of fifths with his music theory level two class, Professor Reed Gratz prepares students for their final exam. In Founders Hall Room 22, music theory level two focuses on analyzing the writing and styles of 18th century music. / photo by Kathleen Arellano

Students Andrew Medina, Julian Johnson, Lisa Quezada and Terry Dopson discuss their plans for their senior project with Professor Reed Gratz in his Founders Hall Room 8 faculty office. This Music Composition class consists of mostly senior music majors, all of whom review their own individual accomplishments, from performance to composition with their professor. / photo by Kathleen Arellano

Students Andrew Medina, Julian Johnson, Lisa Quezada and Terry Dopson discuss their plans for their senior project with Professor Reed Gratz in his Founders Hall Room 8 faculty office. This Music Composition class consists of mostly senior music majors, all of whom review their own individual accomplishments, from performance to composition with their professor. / photo by Kathleen Arellano

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