It’s Not All About the Music: Jon Metzger

Jon Metzer didn’t find the vibraphone, the vibraphone found him. A cross between piano and various percussive instruments, the vibraphone has been around since the late 1920’s, about the time that jazz music was on the rise in the United States.

Although the “vibes” weren’t originally intended to be a jazz instrument, the mellow sound that the keyboard creates is reminiscent of other jazz instruments, such as the trumpet and saxophone. The instrument has a keyboard construct, similar in size and shape as a marimba or a xylophone and it too, is played with mallets. But rather than the bars being made of wood they are made of aluminum, and sustaining notes can be controlled by a pedal, similar to a piano. The ability to control how long notes are sustained for, allows vibes to be used predominantly as a jazz instrument, and is what sets it apart from other keyboard instruments.

Metzger began taking piano lessons when he was six years old. Soon after, he developed interest in percussion and began taking drum lessons. “The mallet percussion instruments that I fell in love with were a natural extension of the two experiences,” said Metzger. “By that I mean the keyboard of the piano and then the percussion nature from drumming.”

Jon's reliving his childhood at the Spring Jazz Show

When Metzger was 10, he became involved with an active youth orchestra program, at which point he got some experience with percussion instruments. The orchestra was heavily influenced by the ideas of popular German composer Carl Orff, who composed music in Germany throughout the majority of the 20th century.

Along with his experience in the orchestra, Metzger began to develop his mallet techniques by playing violin pieces on mallet instruments with his mother. “It’s just something that we did,” said Metzger, “it didn’t seem at all unusual to me, because it happened all the time.”

Metzger began to understand that music was definitely something he was interested in continuing to pursue. “Because it had been such a part of my life, I knew that some way, one way or another, I’d be around music,” he said.

But as for what style of music, it was too early to know for sure, at least, not until a few years later. “At the age of 15, my sister took me to see the legendary vibraphonist Milt Jackson play. That’s when I fell in love with jazz music.”

Jon is really feelin' it as he heads up the music department's Big Band

Metzger had spent his first few years as a musician learning the ways of classical music, but it was at this point that he began to realize the value in understanding both mediums – classical and jazz. “So, I had all this other background that was more of a classical nature, and I was delighted for it, because I realized I wanted to be able to speak both languages (jazz and classical music),” he said. “Now, all these many years later, lines that had, perhaps separated them some are blurring.”

Metzger decided to move away from where he had grown up in Washington D.C., and moved south to North Carolina to attend the NC School of the Arts in Winston Salem, where he would later graduate with a bachelor in music performance in 1981. “It was a smaller program, and I think it was a good fit for my personality,” he said, “I thought something smaller would be better.” Metzger also received his masters in music performance from the NC School of the Arts in 1994.

Metzger took advantage of his time in Winston Salem. Throughout college he was rehearsing hours a day, and playing jazz in local venues at night. “It was an incredible amount of desire,” said Metzger. “My generation, we didn’t count how many hours we were taking, we were just immersed in it. That’s what we did; we just loved it.”

After he graduated, he just kept “doing what he was doing.” His desire to learn and grow as a musician allowed him to pursue many options.  As his reputation grew, he began recording albums and performing live with artists such as Fred Hersch, Gunther Schuller and Lionel Hampton.

But how did he go from performing and recording, to teaching?

“I hadn’t thought about it before,” said Metzger, “I was just so eager to play.” Metzger moved back to NC in the late 80’s, and was contacted by Dave Brad, who, at the time, was head of the music department at Elon University. “It found me, I wasn’t looking for it,” said Metzger. Brad wanted him to teach. “It was through giving all those clinics from Musser and beginning to teach here at Elon, that I realized something that I hadn’t really thought of before, but that’s when I fell in love with teaching,” he said.

This led to the publishing of “The Art and Language of Jazz Vibes,” as well as Metzger’s 23-year endorsement with Musser. Ludwig-Musser is one of the most renowned percussion equipment manufacturers in the world; Led Zeppelin’s Jon Bonham and Will Berman of MGMT have both been endorsed by the company at some point.

“The Art and Language of Jazz Vibes” was published in 1996; about seven years after Metzger began teaching at Elon. “I’m going to be the best consumer for this book,” he said, and that’s the perspective he wrote it from. The book has since been adopted for course work by at least one university in every state in the country.

But Metzger’s musical influence has reached far beyond the boundaries of the United States. Metzger has served as a Jazz Ambassador for more than 20 foreign countries with the support of the US Information Agency’s Arts America Program. “Jazz music is one of (the United State’s) few indigenous art forms,” he said. “To be able to play it and be a representative of your country, it was really a big honor.”

Metzger also traveled abroad with the Elon Big Band back in 2009. They spent nearly two weeks traveling and playing shows throughout several European countries including Denmark and the Netherlands. John Mullen, a junior, and a percussion major at Elon, described his experience abroad with Metzger: “watching him teach some Danish students was amazing – language barriers were broken and connection was made through jazz.”

Jon (left) and John Mullen (right) are leading the rehearsal during the percussion ensemble's Christmas album recording session

Metzger also just recently spent a month in Turkey with Chair of the Music Department at Elon, Mathew Buckmaster. Metzger and Buckmaster were sent to Ankara, Turkey through the State Department’s Cultural Envoy’s program. The two professors spent the month of January creating an entirely new curriculum for the Jazz Studies Program at Haceteppe State University in Ankara.

One word comes to mind while talking with Metzger: balance. How does he balance it all? How does he manage to be so successful in so many different aspects of his field of expertise?

“The balance is that…there is no balance,” chuckles Metzger, “I can’t be in two places at once.” Partially joking, he said that he manages to “release” some of the pressure by fishing and gardening. “As I moved away from home, I kept on fishing, because I realized it was my main release,” he said. “’Working for a living is taking away from my fishing career, cause I don’t have as much time to do it.”

Metzger, along with his wife, began growing their own fruits and vegetables in their yard when they moved to NC over 20 years ago. They now have a greenhouse and can over 200 jars of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables every year. Metzger emphasizes the importance of growing his own food as factory farms are becoming the main source of produce for Americans, and although he’s not a vegetarian, “when the garden’s in, that’s what (they) eat.”

Jon's examining his part for the Christmas classic, Carol the Bells

Although music has certainly been at the forefront of his life’s path, Metzger’s interest in the outdoors and traveling is just as important in defining who he is.

No one refers to Jon as Professor Metzger, because Jon doesn’t associate himself with formal mannerisms. To Mathew Buckmaster, Jon is a “master mentor” who “truly lives at heart and soul.” To John Mullen, Jon “is an incredible musician and a wonderful teacher who will stop at nothing to see his students succeed.”  To Linda, Jon’s wife, he is her loyal husband with whom she will celebrate 30 years of marriage with this summer. To those that don’t know Jon, he is an amazing vibraphonist. But to those that have the pleasure of spending time with him outside of the classroom, or the recital hall, or the recording study, Jon is so much more. “All of these things that I do, they’re not separate,” said Jon, “but it might seem so.”