Charley Gray’s career has been anything but uneventful.
He created the jazz studies program at Portland State and co-invented the Portland Jazz Orchestra.
Although the University of North Texas graduate has worked and performed in several states, his last 27 years have been spent teaching in Portland.
Students, faculty, alumni and local musicians will celebrate the retiring music professor and director of jazz studies on June 1 at 7:30 p.m. in the Lincoln Performance Hall. PSU’s College of the Arts will be presenting the Portland State Jazz Ensemble and Portland Jazz Orchestra. Special guest PSU alumni will speak at the concert.
Out of 75 other applicants, Gray was chosen for the job in 1988. One of the job requirements was that he start a jazz studies degree.
“He is really the person who shaped and created this program,” said Darrell Grant, professor of music at PSU. “He created a minor in jazz studies, bachelor’s and master’s. He really built this program.”
Grant and the Chair of the Clackamas Community College music department, Lars Campbell, are using this year’s spring jazz concert as a way to honor Gray and all his accomplishments during his career.
Hired by Gray, Grant has become a close colleague and friend.
“[Gray] has been a real mentor,” Grant said. “He is somebody who cares deeply about his students. That really impresses me. He is a wonderful musician and composer, but his focus is really on his students. I’ve seen that influence over a couple generations.”
Gray has developed close relationships with his students because he teaches so many classes, so he ends up teaching the same students several times.
“A lot of really good friends I have now started out as my students,” Gray said.
Many of those former students will be part of the special guest alumni speakers at the concert.
“I’m just grateful that I’ve gotten to know them,” Gray said. “That’s been the overriding part of all of this, is that I got to know some really neat people. The faculty, my peers; they are all just wonderful.”
Not only has Gray appreciated getting to know the people around him, but they have also valued his input, advice and friendship in return. Students have even asked Gray to become ordained so he could marry them, including Campbell’s marriage.
“I’ve done about five or six of them,” Gray chuckled. “Pretty good average so far. I think only one is no longer. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.”
A service to education
Gray has been a part of major life events with his peers and students, but they have been a part of his, too. When Gray’s daughter was born 22 years ago, he was overwhelmed by the support and kindness his staff and students displayed.
“All the kids made stuff for her, and everyone came down and was super nice,” Gray said. “They even made blankets. It was very touching. But they are just like that all the time, on any given day someone is doing something nice.”
George Colligan, jazz area coordinator, still remembers Gray’s 62nd birthday.
“I remember our director gave him 62 bottles of beer in a cooler,” Colligan laughed.
Gray and Grant hired Colligan four years ago when searching for a third jazz professor.
“Without them I wouldn’t be here,” Colligan said. “I mean, Charley was the one who got me here. He’s one of the more seasoned faculty members. He knows the system better than anyone else. Anytime I get stuck, I go to him.”
Colligan isn’t the only one who goes to Gray for advice. Many local high school band directors are good friends with Gray and seek his help composing. Every year Gray picks a few high schools to spend time with and creates music specifically for that band.
“He is not an elitist in that way,” Grant said. “He puts his art as a service to education. He’s arranged my music, too. He will write charts customized to specific bands and the students within those bands.”
The time spent devoted to his students has yielded amazing results and experiences. For example, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble was started by two of Gray’s former students.
They were inspired by Gray and thoroughly enjoyed writing and playing music in his big band. They took that love and started an organization committed to non-profit jazz composition and performance.
There for the music
Not only has Gray given tangible gifts such as written music and charts, he has also given the gift of memories and experiences. One of the most profound memories for Gray, Grant and their students was their trip to Russia.
For 10 days in 2011, they traveled around Russia as the Jazz Bridge Project, teaching music, meeting with government officials, giving educational presentations and performing.
“That was life-changing, a lovely trip,” Gray said. “I got to know [Grant] a lot better and the people who went were some special people. It was unreal. I had no idea what to expect. But it was a perfect group of people and the whole thing was just awesome. We were there for the music and there with musicians. Lots of vodka, too.”
Gray knew early in high school that he wanted to become a teacher. He was inspired by his own band and music education while growing up in the San Francisco area.
“I think that with music, it’s about finding a mentor,” Gray said. “That’s what really helps.”
After finishing his undergraduate studies at San Francisco State and receiving his teaching credentials, Gray taught high school music in northern California.
“I think I started too soon,” Gray said. “I still would have gone into it but I just got to a point where I felt like I wanted to play music, and I thought that would make me a better teacher in the long run if I played more.”
Gray took a break from teaching when he was asked to become the musical director for the Ice Capades, which included being on the road for nine months at a time.
Some of the performers he was traveling with had gone to University of North Texas, a school highly acclaimed for their jazz program. After six years with the Ice Capades, Gray decided to get his Master’s at UNT.
“I felt like I had done enough and seen enough that I could make practical use of the things I was learning,” Gray said. “It completely prepared me.”
Although Gray became a full-time professor at PSU, his love of performing and composing did not dwindle. Gray and Campbell created the Portland Jazz Orchestra in 2008, comprised of a full 18 piece jazz ensemble. The PJO performed at least four large concerts a year in the Portland community and created the album Good Morning, Geek.
Unfortunately, the recession in 2010 and 2011 made it hard for the PJO to find gigs, and the band stopped performing. However, the PJO will reunite and perform at the celebration. Gray hopes that by playing, it will bring motivation to the members to find gigs regularly again.
“This concert will be nice to remind us all how fun it was,” Gray said.
Along with performances, the event will also include a slideshow and an opportunity for faculty and students to share their favorite memory with Gray.
“People are coming out of the woodwork,” Colligan said. “He is a very beloved figure in the community and people who have gone here want to come out and show their support for him.”
Grant explained that along with the concert, a scholarship is being made through donation for a committed jazz student, in honor of Gray.
“My philosophy is that music is the medium for education,” Gray stated. “But the real education is just a way you can teach your values.”
Not only is extreme devotion displayed in Gray’s teaching and through his music, but it is also highly apparent in other areas of Gray’s life.
“When Charley is dealing with something he is passionate about, he comes alive,” Colligan said.
Gray has also been an inspiration to his colleagues to persevere in their own goals. Colligan explained that Gray was a motivating figure for him when he first started at PSU.
“He really has a way of connecting with people,” Colligan said. “He was always leaving books in my box for me to read.”
One of those books, Born to Run, transformed Colligan’s life. Colligan has also been deeply inspired by Charley’s bravery.
“Charley is a quiet guy I think he is very shy at heart, but it’s amazing to watch him overcome that,” Colligan said. “It’s interesting. I remember him giving a lecture in his Beatles class. Just to watch him, knowing that his nature is very shy, and he gets up and talks about something that he loves. It just doesn’t matter, and he seems totally comfortable.”
Knowing how much funding can be a challenge for students, Gray’s biggest hope for the program is that more scholarship money can be incorporated.
Gray believes that the faculty and the new dean of the college of arts will continue to increase visibility for PSU’s music school, which will hopefully generate more attention and funding. But Gray said he really doesn’t have any complaints.
“I can’t say that I wish things were different,” Gray said. “You can always have more scholarship money and more support, that’s a given, but all in all I’ve been really happy.”
Gray said that he intentionally has not made any plans for his retirement. He is going to take life as it comes and see where he goes. Ideally, however, Gray would like to continue writing music for local high school bands and for the resurrected PJO.
“The summer is just going to feel like the summer, like it always does,” Gray said. “But September is going to feel funny because I’m not coming back here.”