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The New Kid in Old Town

The New Kid in Old TownAs the new head of the Old Town School of Folk Music, Tufts graduate James "Bau" Graves is guiding the 50-year-old school into the future.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.13.07] James "Bau" Graves doesn't play public gigs too often anymore, but the career musician gets his fair share of practice during impromptu jam sessions in the hallways of Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. It wasn't that long ago that Graves, now the school's executive director, traveled around the Northeast performing at clubs and private events. But these days, he's focused less on his own musical aspirations and more on helping others realize theirs. The Tufts graduate couldn't be more content.

"What I love about this place is the incredible sense of community that it engenders," says Graves, who took over as the head of the school in May. "You walk in the door here and there is an immediate personal connection that people make with this place."

With nearly 7,000 students attending classes each week, the school gives people an opportunity to explore traditional American as well global music and dance. Courses ranging from bluegrass mandolin to Latin dance give adults and children of all skill levels a taste of many diverse cultural expressions. According to Graves, the classes are as much about camaraderie as they are about learning.

"Some [people have] signed up for the same guitar class years and years running because they are having this wonderful social and musical experience," he says. "It just becomes an important part of their lives."

The 1992 Tufts graduate can relate. For him, the instructors and students at the Old Town School of Folk Music are like an extended family. And he's committed to helping that family grow.

While the school already has two facilities in Chicago, Graves will oversee the school's expansion to a third building in Lincoln Square. More space, he says, will enable the school to connect with "constituencies that aren't being reached." According to Graves, "It's a great opportunity for us to become even more active in working with the neighborhood that is surrounding us."

Creating and seizing opportunities in the music business has always been Graves' forte-even when he worked as a musician for a decade after college.

Discovering a Passion

"I was the guy in the band who set up the tours and got the gigs," recalls Graves, who plays guitar, mandolin, bass guitar and accordion. "I started setting up tours and getting gigs for other [bands], and ultimately I drifted more over to the administrative side of arts."

Working at a major musical festival in Brunswick, Maine, helped Graves further define his ambitions.

"Through that I discovered the whole world of nonprofit arts management and writing grants," he says. Eager to combine that interest with his love of culture, Graves decided to study ethnomusicology at Tufts.

"The work I did there has informed my entire career," recalls Graves, who became acquainted with one of his mentors, Armenian composer and flutist Alan Bardezbanian, during his time on the Hill.

"He was a profound influence on my life and my career," Graves says about Bardezbanian, who passed away earlier this year. The two played together in his band, the Bardezbanian Middle Eastern Ensemble.

"Al was one of these just astonishing musicians, and he inspired a lot of people who all became really passionate about music through his teaching and playing," notes Graves.

After graduating from Tufts, Graves spent his nights playing at local clubs and social events with Bardezbanian's group and his days working as the artistic director of the Center for Cultural Exchange in Portland, Maine. A co-founder of the organization, Graves describes the center as linking "traditional artistry and contemporary performance." He says its goal is to build "collaborative programs that use the arts as a vehicle for positive social change."

Making an Impact

In 2005, Graves left the Center for Cultural Exchange to take over as the executive director of Virginia's Jefferson Center, a nonprofit dedicated to enriching and educating local communities through the performing arts. Just as he was settling into his new job, Graves learned about the open position at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

"It was too good of an opportunity for me to turn down, so I threw my resume in the ring," he says. Having won the job, Graves says he's now focused on the future of the school, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. .

"As the executive director here, I've got to steer the organization into its next 50 years," Graves notes.

He has high hopes for where the school is headed.

"In the more distant future, I see the Old Town School as being well positioned to [help] shape a national conversation about the sustenance of heritage," he says, noting that public cultural institutions can play an important role in ensuring that community traditions are maintained and sustained.

In the short term, Graves hopes to enhance the already strong spirit of the school.

"It all really comes down to sitting in a room with a bunch of people playing the guitar watching your fingers go and getting inspired by what someone does," says Graves. "And it's happening a thousand times a day."

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