Emma Taylor’s introduction to the jazz program at the University of Illinois came through a jam session at the Iron Post, a downtown Urbana live music venue. Taylor was an undergraduate at Millikin University when she was invited to join some Illinois jazz graduate students there. The first time she played her standup bass in a jam session, Illinois jazz professor and renowned bass player Larry Gray was at the piano.
Taylor was very nervous but, she said, “Larry was really kind and talked to me afterward. That was a big moment for me when I knew I definitely needed to look at this school more.”
She had been looking at graduate programs out of state but decided on Illinois. Taylor has had a lesson with Gray every week during her graduate studies in jazz performance, and he’s her advisor.
“He’s brilliant, and he’s also a really great teacher and mentor and he really cares about the students,” she said. “It’s been amazing. I was nervous to come here because it’s so big. I didn’t think I would get the one-on-one attention and develop the faculty relationships that I had with my undergraduate degree, but it was the complete opposite. I’ve been able to form relationships with all the faculty members.”
She’s also found camaraderie with her fellow students.
“There’s a natural competitiveness to get better on our instruments, but everyone is really supportive. We hang out and support each other at gigs,” Taylor said.
She’s continued to play at the Iron Post and other venues around Champaign-Urbana and Central Illinois while working on her master’s degree. One of her favorite moments was playing in a faculty recital with jazz professor and trumpet player Tito Carrillo.
“Sometimes I walk into Smith Memorial Hall and I have to remind myself how lucky I am,” Taylor said. “The faculty members have played with some of the best people and toured the world, and they choose to live in the cornfields of Central Illinois because they love to teach. I think this is really a hidden gem as far as jazz graduate programs go.”