Growing up in the South, Jeremy Taylor ’19 was immersed in the music of the Black Pentecostal church he attended with his family.
But with his family skeptical about the prospects for music as an academic and professional path, the high schools he attended in Tennessee and Arkansas focused on math, technology and science education. For years, Taylor’s passion for music stayed on the periphery.
“I was good at science,” he says. “I just didn’t like science. I didn’t feel like I could realize my potential in it.”
Still, even a math and science school needs an alma mater. So as a sophomore at eStem High School, a new charter school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Taylor decided to write one. Though he had no formal training in music and had never taken voice lessons, he was inspired by the experiences he had at the school and tried to convey them through melody.
“I had a good relationship with the principal, so I went to her office and sang the alma mater for her,” says Taylor. “She really liked it so she asked me to sing it for others in her office and by the end of that quarter, I was teaching it to the school’s choir.”
When Taylor was accepted to the Arkansas Governor’s School, a six-week summer residential program at Hendrix College that aims to prepare the state’s most talented students for college, he finally had a wider choice of subjects to study: He picked the choral music track and was exposed to the liberal arts for the first time.
“It was such a good program for me because I was sustaining my passion for music,” he says.
As he looked at colleges, Taylor took advantage of several programs that allowed him to experience campuses firsthand. Finding a school where he could work closely with faculty became a high priority, so he focused on liberal arts colleges.
“Pomona was unique with its small student-faculty ratio, it was part of a larger consortium, and it focused on the liberal arts,” Taylor remembers. “This was a place where I could find a path that aligns with who I am and what I want for myself.”
Yet he still hadn’t decided on a major. When asked about his academic interests during the admissions process, Taylor would answer, “Education,” which wasn’t entirely false: He just didn’t know what he wanted to teach yet. He also considered English and computer science, but would never express his interest in music out loud.
Free to continue exploring majors after he arrived at Pomona, Taylor went to the academic department fair and meandered around the music table. David J. Baldwin Professor of Music and Choral Conductor Donna M. Di Grazia greeted him and asked him if he was involved in music.
“A little,” he responded. “She gave me a brochure and showed me where to go if I wanted to audition.”
“Meeting Jeremy for the first time that day on Stover Walk was serendipitous,” says Di Grazia. “(He was actually looking to speak to someone at the Media Studies table.) I was delighted to hear that he liked to sing, so it was a natural thing to encourage him to audition. I had no idea that initial exchange would develop as it has.”
Feeling a bit nervous, he went to Di Grazia’s office for the audition, where he found a grand piano in the back corner of the office and a music stand with sheet music on it.
“I had to fill out a card with my name, year, hometown and voice part…. I was like, ‘Hmm, what is my voice part?’ I tried to be adventurous and wrote down ‘Bass 1.’”
Taylor had seen choral music before but had never been formally trained to read music. He was used to performing by ear. Even so, the audition went well. Di Grazia asked Taylor to join the choir and gave him some pointers, including signing up for voice lessons with Professor of Music Gwendolyn Lytle.
“Getting into a college choir was so thrilling,” says Taylor.
The decision on a major still loomed. Taylor’s first-year courses included computer science, English, ID1 [Pomona’s Critical Inquiry Seminar], calculus, politics and economics.
Performing in the choir, and later the glee club, Taylor learned to read sheet music better and was exposed to wider repertoires of music. During the summer, he traveled with the Pomona College Glee Club to places he had never visited: New York; Washington, D.C.; Maryland and Connecticut.
“It turns out these states are filled with allergens,” Taylor jokes. “But it’s ok, I very much enjoyed performing. I was doing eight-part harmonies, singing in Latin, German, all things I hadn’t really done before. It was life-changing.”
In 2016, Taylor checked off another first in his life. He traveled abroad to Italy with Pomona’s Glee Club. Throughout the tour he had the opportunity to sing the music he had studied in music history class in the venues in which that music originated, including the Duomo in Florence, St. Mark’s in Venice and St. Peter’s in Rome.
His talents, for so long tucked away, continued to emerge.
“I felt very affirmed by other students in the choir who complimented me on my voice,” says Taylor. And they would ask him why he wasn’t pursuing music.
As a sophomore, he started seriously considering music as a major, enrolling in music theory and music history classes. He was delighted -- and scared -- because the classes were very difficult and there was so much he had to catch up on. Di Grazia – by then Taylor’s advisor -- stepped in and served as trustworthy counselor.
“From our early conversations during his first year at Pomona, it was clear that Jeremy truly loves music and wanted to pursue it in some way,” says Di Grazia. “I encouraged him to take music theory and history classes because getting a foundation in how music works and how it has evolved historically is critical to his future plans no matter where they might lead.”
“Donna has been so much more than a conductor and advisor for me,” Taylor says. “She’s been a mentor. And that really made a difference in me pursuing music.”
He plans to attend graduate school and, ultimately, to teach. Already, he has gained a glimpse of an academic life in music after being awarded a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), an initiative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation designed to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning.
“When I was awarded the MMUF, my world just stopped,” Taylor says. “I was looking at a path, a professional path toward music scholarship, attaining a doctorate and becoming a professor.”
Taylor would go back to church for his MMUF research on the topic of “The Tradition and Transition of African-American Sacred Music: Spirituals, Jubilee Singers, and Gospel Songs” with Di Grazia. “For this project, we mapped the development of American Protestant denominations and American historical events with the trajectory of African-American sacred music,” says Taylor.
“Not only is he a wonderful bass-baritone singer, he is also a gifted speaker and thinker,” says Di Grazia. "He is interested in such a broad array of subjects, from sixteenth-century Renaissance music to the vocal music of Brahms and Beyoncé! We have spent time together studying sacred music in Florence, Italy and the great tradition of concert performances of Black spirituals in the United States; and we’ve explored issues of music and sexuality in the Black church. Jeremy is a complete joy to work with.”
Dipping his feet into the music academy, Taylor has attended two annual meetings of the American Musicological Society, one of them as one of nine national recipients of the Eileen Southern Travel Fund Award.
Being among music academics and graduate students was exciting and nerve-racking.
“There were so many interesting papers and presentations to attend,” he says.
“Some went over my head, but that’s ok. I know I’ll get there.”