Building A Tradition – Lafayette Gilchrist ’92

The path to preserving Maryland’s traditional arts and culture sometimes begins when a jazz musician walks through an unlocked door in UMBC’s Fine Arts building.

One of Baltimore’s master jazz musicians, Lafayette Gilchrist ’92, Africana studies, was taking a summer class before his freshman year when he discovered that the building’s piano rooms were left open in the evening. One night, he finally gave in to temptation.

“The very first piano I played was this nine foot Steinway grand piano,” recalls Gilchrist, who had taken no formal lessons before coming to UMBC. “People think I’m lying when I tell them this, but the piano was in a concert hall, all the lights were off and there was a spotlight on it,” he said. “I fell in love. The music moved directly from my body to the instrument and into the air.”

Gilchrist audited composition classes during his time at UMBC and he was even hired to play at campus events. His musical passion and skill also eventually led him to Maryland Traditions – a statewide program that supports efforts to find, share, preserve and sustain traditional arts and culture.

Over the past academic year, Maryland Traditions has forged an exploratory partnership with UMBC that has not only brought Gilchrist back to campus for a March 30 event centered on introducing the program’s artists to the UMBC community, but created classes and events throughout the year.

The university installed Elaine Eff, the program’s co-director, as a folklorist-in-residence in the American studies department. In that role, Eff has connected UMBC students with internship opportunities, created a film series for campus and co-taught a humanities scholars class on Maryland’s traditions with Nicole King, an assistant professor of American studies.

“Elaine is such a force,” observes King. “She’s bringing the energy of the public programming realm here to the university.”

One of Maryland Traditions’ cornerstones is a Master-Apprentice program in which Gilchrist has been working. He first served as an apprentice to jazz saxophonist Carl Grubbs, and now Gilchrist is a mentor himself – advising pianist Ethan Simon (son of The Wire’s creator David Simon.)

Making strong connections is a key to the collaboration’s success. King says that Eff’s connections are invaluable to an American studies department, which has aspirations (especially with the recent establishment of its Orser Center for the Study of Place, Community & Culture at UMBC) to become a center for Baltimore area community studies.

“If we have these relationships with outside organizations and people,” King adds, “we don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time we go to work with the community.”

Eff says that the benefits of UMBC’s own pre-existing networks can’t be overstated. The university’s reach has allowed her to recruit interns for Maryland Traditions, inspire students to turn an analytic eye honed in campus classrooms to their own communities, and tap into the cultural knowledge of UMBC’s ethnic student organizations.

Who knows? Eff may find the next Lafayette Gilchrist practicing in the Fine Arts building after hours. “Every accomplishment we have here has tremendous value in building towards the future,” she concludes.

— Chelsea Haddaway

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