Feature story: Beating the drums for jazz

Stanford professor creates sparks with his band, Charged Particles

Click on photos to enlarge and see captions.

By Elena Kadvany

Special to the Almanac

Most of us forever remember the magical moment when a great passion ignites. For Jon Krosnick, the magic occurred in 1972, when jazz drummer Peter Erskine performed with the Stan Kenton orchestra at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.

Young Jon was a student participating in the Interlochen National Music Camp at that time, and was in the audience as the dynamic orchestra performed.

"It was just this electrifying wall of sound from this really strong brass section — orchestrated music that had a lot in common with classical music," Mr. Krosnick says.

"It was clear that there were ingenious arrangements and powerful emotions oriented by these people who had rehearsed a lot. That was really the dawning of my excitement about jazz."

This excitement led to a life-long love and pursuit of music for Mr. Krosnick, a Portola Valley resident who melds a career as a psychology, political science and communications professor at Stanford with a life as percussionist for the contemporary electric jazz band, Charged Particles.

Born outside of Philadelphia to a former opera singer mother and an "avid audience member" father, Mr. Krosnick started his music training early. He began playing piano when he was 6 years old. When he was 9, he attended the eight-week summer music program in Interlochen.

At that time, the world of serious music he was exposed to was almost exclusively focused on the classical genre. But the Erskine-Kenton concert opened his eyes to the wild possibilities of jazz and the art of percussion, he recalls during a recent interview.

Now 53, Mr. Krosnick performs with the Charged Particles at various Bay Area venues, including his home town. The trio appeared at a Portola Valley Earth Day Festival, and has provided a musical backdrop to events at Portola Vineyards on Los Trancos Road. It will perform there again on Aug.5 as part of the vineyard's summer concert series.

The group, which includes keyboard player Murray Low and bassist Jason Muscat, has reached a milestone with a performance set for July 27 at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.

"The Berkeley concert is really a high point for us," Mr. Krosnick says. "It's one thing to play in a restaurant and be sort of background noise. It's a whole different thing for people to come pay money to sit in a dark room and just listen to you."

In the beginning

Mr. Krosnick played percussion for his elementary, middle and high schools' jazz bands. Yet the private high school he attended in New Jersey "had essentially no music of any seriousness at all," he says.

So during the academic year, he studied with Fred Hinger, who held the principal timpani chair in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. For 10 summers, his musical education continued at the Interlochen camp, ranging from classical percussion and jazz drumming to playing with orchestras, concert bands, percussion ensembles and jazz bands.

College presented a crossroads: "Was I going to go to a music conservatory or an academic school?" he recalls asking himself. "I really liked science and math, so I could do an academic career and music on the side, but it was awfully difficult to imagine doing music as a living with academics on the side."

Mr. Krosnick went to Harvard University, where he fell in love with psychology. But he stayed active musically, playing with the Harvard Orchestra and the Bach Society Orchestra, and leading the percussion section of the MIT Symphony Orchestra.

After attending graduate school at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor he accepted a job teaching psychology and political science at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Although academics is what brought him there, the city was instrumental in the evolution of his parallel music life: It was the birthplace of Mr. Krosnick's first band, Charged Particles.

"The thing about Ohio was that it was a great place to start a band," Mr. Krosnick explains. "The state of Ohio gave tax money to support the arts and would subsidize concerts for the performers who were good enough."

With Mr. Krosnick joining forces with keyboardist Caleb Hutslar and bass player Mike Rack, Charged Particles became good enough — first playing concerts at theaters, festivals, jazz clubs and restaurants all over Ohio, then branching out nationally and internationally. After a tour in Sweden, Mr. Hutslar fell in love and decided to move there.

Mr. Krosnick was left with the pieces of a band that he had to put back together. In 2002, keyboardist Kim Pensyl and bass player Andy Woodson became the second generation of Charged Particles. The group toured Ohio and surrounding states for about a year, until Mr. Krosnick got a call from Stanford University.

"The question was, would we go? One of the pulls to Ohio was the band. It was part of my life," he says. "But when Stanford calls, you don't exactly say no."

Mr. Krosnick's wife, Cathy Heaney, was also offered a position at Stanford, so they moved to Portola Valley in 2003. Mr. Krosnick's academic commitments range from teaching to research projects on survey design (he's currently working on a book called the "Handbook of Questionnaire Design") and global warming (he worked on a recently released Stanford-Washington Post poll on the topic).

In his first years in the Bay Area, academic and family life consumed Mr. Krosnick, and band time was confined to intermittent flights back to Ohio when the group got gig offers.

But once his daughter, Alex, left for college at Stanford, "I knew I would have room in my life" for music, he says. (Alex plays the cello — following in the footsteps of Mr. Krosnick's cousin, Joel Krosnick, the longtime cellist with the Juilliard String Quartet.)

Today, Charged Particles is in its third life, with the three musicians who now form the group finding chemistry "almost immediately, from the first note," according to Mr. Muscat, the bassist

The music

The experience of listening to Charged Particles play is a unique one, according to band members. "The idea (is) that music is really a blend of genres — there are Latin rhythms, there are funky rhythms, there are swinging rhythms, and those elements coupled with classical musical elements all combine together," Mr. Krosnick says. Charged Particles performs original pieces, but it also plays modern interpretations of the classics.

And the band's name? Instead of coming up with something on their own, the original Charged Particles players decided to look through Mr. Krosnick's thousands-large CD collection until they found a song name that felt right. They stopped at track number seven on a Chick Corea recording called "Beneath the Mask."

It was decided on years ago in Ohio, but still rings true today. "We're electric, we're bouncing off each other — this is exactly the image we want of the band," Mr. Krosnick says.

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Like this comment
Posted by Peter Erskine
a resident of another community
on Jul 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Jon Krosnick is a brilliant, compassionate man and an excellent drummer. Gratified to read that the Kenton concert inspired him so many years ago ... he repays that original inspiration ten-fold every time I have a conversation with him. Thanks for writing about Jon and his band and his passion for music.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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