The Jazz Man

February 17, 2016

Music professor Robert Ferrier plays at the annual HCC Jazz Festival in 2014. HCC music professor Robert Ferrier gives a student a lesson in jazz guitar.


At an age when boys often dream of playing for the Boston Red Sox or becoming President, Bob Ferrier knew he wanted to teach music.  

He received his first stringed instrument at 10.  

"It was a plastic guitar with fishing line strings -- you know, nylon strings. My aunt gave it to me," Ferrier said.  

Six years later, he was giving guitar lessons at Falcetti Music in his hometown of Springfield.  

"I had a revelation at a young age that I was really going to love it," he said recently.    

Apparently so.  

Music professor Robert "Bob" Ferrier, '77, has been teaching jazz guitar at HCC for more than 30 years and is the founder, organizer and host of the annual Holyoke Community College Jazz Festival, which kicks off its 19th season on Friday, March 11.  

His office on the first floor of the Fine & Performing Arts building is crammed with stacks of jazz CDs, and framed photographs of jazz icons line the walls. One day, immersed in the music, so to speak, Ferrier recalled his musical journey from teenage teacher to performer and HCC professor.   

When he started learning, Ferrier said he loved improvising, but not practicing. Several years later, his parents bought him a steel-stringed Guild, and insisted he practice more seriously; his father even threatened to take the new guitar away if he didn't.  

Lesson learned. Soon, he was working at Falcetti.  

One of his early students there was an autistic boy, whom Ferrier was able to teach "Jingle Bells." The boy's mother and father were astonished.  

"The parents were standing in the doorway and crying," Ferrier said, his face still lighting up decades later. "I had a knot in my throat. I knew then teaching music was a calling."  

After graduating from Cathedral High School in Springfield, Ferrier enrolled at HCC. He studied classical guitar because HCC didn't have jazz at the time. He left after one year to play professionally.  

"I loved HCC, but the urge to improvise took over," he said.  

Serendipity helped him get that first professional job when he and a drummer buddy attended a performance by a seven-piece traveling show band at the Holiday Inn in West Springfield. The bandleader asked if there were any musicians in the audience. Ferrier and his friend spoke up.  

"Well, we're looking for a guitar player and a drummer," they were told. The bandleader wrote Ferrier's name on a bar napkin. Months later the man showed up at his home to try to convince the parents of the 18-year-old to let their son hit the road with the band.

Ferrier played with the band for about eight months until it broke up.  

"It was a great experience, but you were living like a rat," he said. "Eating peanuts off the tables and like that."  

To advance his education and prepare himself for the working world, Ferrier decided to enroll at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He graduated in 1983.  

After earning his degree, Ferrier returned to HCC for advice, and maybe a job, from Dan Oberholtzer, then the chairman of the HCC Music Department.  

During their discussion, Ferrier said to his former mentor: "I think you should have jazz here." Oberholtzer listened, then agreed.  

So, in 1984, Ferrier taught the first jazz class at the school, Jazz Guitar Improvisation. Soon, he began a Guitar Ensemble Class. The department has grown since then to four levels of instruction, four faculty members and about 60 jazz majors.  

Ferrier earned a master's degree in music from the University of Massachusetts in 1997. In addition to HCC, Ferrier has also taught jazz at Westfield State University, Amherst College and UMass.  

In 1998, Ferrier organized the first HCC Jazz Festival. Over the years, the festival has attracted some big names in the world of jazz, including Lew Soloff, Peter Erskine, John Fedchock, Yusef Lateef, and John Abercrombie.  

This year, the festival's 19th, the guest artist will be one of Ferrier's former instructors from Berklee, saxophonist George Garzone. Friday night, March 11, for the opening concert, Garzone will play with the Amherst Jazz Orchestra under the direction of music professor and trombonist David Sporny. 

The two-day festival of musical workshops and performances begins at 8 p.m. in the Leslie Phillips Theater in the HCC Fine & Performing Arts building. Tickets are $15 (general public), $10 (senior and non-HCC students) and free for members of the HCC community (students, staff and faculty) with a valid ID.

The festival continues on Saturday, March 12, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., in the Leslie Phillips Theater with big band and combo performances by high school and HCC jazz students. Jazz clinics, workshops and jam sessions will be held throughout the day in the HCC Recital Hall (FPA building, Room 137). Student-musicians from 10 high schools and colleges are expected to participate. A concluding concert featuring Garzone, select students from each of the schools and festival faculty will be held in the theater Saturday from 4 to 5 p.m.  

"We don't hand out medals" at the Jazz Festival clinics and workshops, Ferrier said. "The students get critiqued. They also get a CD of their performance."  

He noted that the festival was not a competition.    

"It's teaching," he said.  

Something the guitarist and educator has been doing since he was 16 years old.

PHOTOS: (Left) Music professor Robert Ferrier plays at the annual HCC Jazz Festival in 2014. (Right) HCC music professor Robert Ferrier gives a student a lesson in jazz improvisation. (Thumbnail) Bob Ferrier on stage during the annual HCC Jazz Festival.


Holyoke Community College
303 Homestead Ave. Holyoke, MA 01040