I’ve studied with four separate composition teachers during my ten years at school, one of whom having stuck out over the rest for length of study and sheer impact on my writing. And last month, we learned in one of the worst ways possible that not all was what it seemed with him.
While I was getting my BM and MM at the University of Tennessee, I spent those six years studying underneath the same professor: Dr. Ken Jacobs. I liked this man from my first moment meeting him during my undergraduate audition. He was a tough teacher from the get-go, always pushing me to be the best composer I could be—even if it meant being very, very harsh on what I had to show for my lessons. There were certainly struggles, as there are with any private teacher one works with for such an extended period of time. But I learned so much underneath his instruction, both as an artist and as a person. My entire aesthetic philosophy blossomed because of his teachings, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for him.
Dr. Jacobs—or Dr. J, as many of his students called him—loved his students and treated them like his own children. He outfitted a few of his students with home studio professional-quality sound systems for a very cheap price (I still have and use mine even fourteen years later). He’d always have a student house sit for him during the summer. During my stint, I took the opportunity to listen to as much of his music library as possible and practice for hours on the full-size grand piano in his basement. He frequently hosted everyone and their significant others for studio parties at his lovely home, where we’d sometimes listen to works we hadn’t encountered on a regular basis before.
As his students, we felt like a quirky little family all of our own.
When he re-married during my Masters, all of his students were invited to the wedding and the reception. His wife Melinda was equally as loving, one of the best hostesses I’ve ever met. She also had a wicked sense of humor and could hold her own in any conversation—she was a lawyer for a living, after all, and one with a national reputation. The two of them were peas in a pod, and everyone who studied with Dr. J at that time saw the shift that being married to her made in him, very much for the better.
After he retired, the two of them bought a house in the Smoky Mountains and renovated it into their dream home. He was constantly sharing pictures of the view of the sunrise over Clingman’s Dome from his back deck—some of which inspired my friend Jessie Holder Tourtellotte’s text for an art song from my Memoirs, vol. 1, “Where Earth Ends and Sky Begins,” which to this day is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. Everything seemed perfect for them. And even after he retired and I was living in Miami, he extended an invitation for me to visit any time I wanted—an invitation I never had the chance to honor, but always wished I could.
But then, for reasons we’ll likely never know, it all went wrong.
In mid-May, I got a surprise phone call from a good friend of mine in San Francisco I had briefly dated during my years in Knoxville—so of course she got to meet Dr. Jacobs for herself, and the two of them got along famously with her becoming friends with several other people in the studio. The first words out of her mouth when she called were a very distressed “Have you heard the news?” When I asked her what news that would be, she told me to brace myself and then dropped a bombshell…
“Dr. Jacobs and Melinda were found dead in their home.”
At first, I thought it must have been some sort of hostage situation. The news reports definitely seemed to lean that way, mentioning barricades of the house and the like. Was it someone Melinda had won the upper hand against in a lawsuit seeking their revenge? Maybe a crazy neighbor? We had no idea. A group of former students immediately set up a group Facebook message to keep each other posted, checking news reports almost hourly for the next few days.
But then news got even worse. After the disclosing of the results of the preliminary autopsy, all signs pointed to one conclusion: Dr. J and Melinda died in a murder-suicide, all evidence pointing to him holding the gun during the domestic dispute.
My old mentor had shot his beloved wife and then killed himself… and no one knows why.
And unless, for some oddball reason, there was a suicide note, old journals, or video surveillance (all of which don’t seem likely)… we’ll never know why.
I’ve always been good at processing grief, so for the past month I’ve felt more put together than many others from my old studio. The fact that I moved to Miami and haven’t been back to Knoxville on a regular basis helped somewhat, I’m sure. But for obvious reasons, I still took this very hard. I’ve spent the past several weeks in relative seclusion as I sorted through my old memories with the man, searching for any closure that obviously isn’t going to come. And during that time, I’ve found myself having to answer a lot of questions, both professionally and personally, that I never anticipated. Some of those questions I’d definitely like to share, alongside the best answers I’ve been able to manage.
Was what I learned from him really worth it?
This has been so far the most pressing question. I didn’t just learn how to compose from this man… I learned a great deal about living life to the fullest. The man constantly talked about passion, whatever that means to you. People find passion in many places: art, religion, sex, relationships, activism, good food, you name it. I find passion in my work, for example, and in all of the amazing relationships of all flavors it provides. According to Dr. J, composing should first and foremost be about communicating passion, and everything we learned under him was just the craftsmanship necessary to achieve that final goal. The man practically idolized passion, and it rubbed off on his students.
Some people claim the end justifies the means. For a while, I wrestled with the idea that in this case, the end rebutted them. Was this the result of dedicating everything in your life to passion? And was that what I really wanted?
But I’ve realized that’s not a fair question to ask, and I shouldn’t tarnish Dr. Jacobs’s legacy that way. Life really is in great part about passion. And Dr. Jacobs and Melinda lived a great life touching many people and having wonderful adventures. As I said before, we’ll never know why it came to the tragic end that it did. But that tragic end doesn’t discount the richness of the rest of his life. The end does not justify the means in this case.
Did I really know the man at all?
Sure I did! I knew Dr. J as well as any student knows their professor—that is to say, appropriately, but certainly not fully. We never know the entirety of another’s life, except perhaps in the case of our spouses. And even then, there are usually boundaries, otherwise one would lose their identity entirely.
Wherever suicide is mentioned, mental disorders and emotional troubles are soon to follow. If Dr. J suffered from either, there was no reason for a student to know anything about it. And speaking from my own experience of knowing people with such conflicts, I know that they don’t define one’s entire psyche, and certainly not the entire quality of life lived. Heck, Beethoven was one of the most depressed composers in existence after his deafness set in, and he’s still heralded as one of the best composers in Western history—not to mention the man who wrote “Ode to [Freaking] Joy,” after all. We are all more than the sums of our darkest moments, even the ones who end their lives terribly.
For me to question whether I really knew Dr. Jacobs is certainly understandable, but it is also an insult to the positive memories I have of him, and all of the worthwhile lessons I learned from him.
Is it “classless” of me towards those who loved Melinda to speak of Dr. Jacobs so kindly?
This one is hard for me to answer. For obvious reasons, Dr. J has been very much glossed over in Melinda’s obituaries. At her memorial service, which a friend of mine attended, he wasn’t even mentioned. And in the pain of how Melinda’s life was violently cut short, that seems to me right and just. If Melinda’s family and loved ones loathe the man, I would not blame them in the slightest. As someone who knew and liked her of my own accord, I’m very angry with him myself.
The best I can say is that, while it might be insensitive of Melinda’s loved ones to share these thoughts… ultimately, I’m not posting this for them. I’m posting this for people on the other side of the aisle: those who loved Dr. J and are still hurting and angry from their loss. As horrific (some would say “evil”) as his closing action was, he still touched us during the rest of his life. And that must be acknowledged and remembered above the rest, for all of our sakes.
What the hell should I do with my CV?
It feels strange to move to the practical, and yet it’s a necessary question. Dr. Jacobs’ reputation is, for all intents and purposes, personally ruined. Is that really a name I want to be showcased on my résumé? When I apply for professorships and commissions elsewhere, do I want people looking at my list of primary teachers and saying, “Isn’t that the guy who murdered his wife?”
I have to wonder if any of Carlo Gesualdo‘s pupils felt this way in the 1590s.
For this one, I had to defer to the expertise of a family member who worked in HR for multiple decades: There’s no reason to erase him from my credentials. In fact, the absence of his name as a primary instructor would probably be more jarring—if a student doesn’t include one of their teachers in their list of primary instructors, it’s usually because the teacher didn’t think highly of them. And that’s definitely not the case with Dr. Jacobs; for the most part, he felt very highly of all of his students. And I knew for a fact that he thought highly of me personally due to a recommendation letter he once wrote for me.
But of course, I had to delete him from my list of references. That was very painful edit I had to make. If anything, that one action was when Dr. Jacobs’ death became very real for me.
How do I honor his memory? Do I honor his memory?
I probably won’t ever professionally honor his memory. As a composer, the most stereotypical way for me to pay tribute to someone is through a new work, and to label a work in dedication to a man who committed murder isn’t exactly the most brilliant career move. But I know that in the next few works I write, Dr. Jacobs’ influences will be clear. Perhaps I’ll include a motive based on one of his own works, or a particular musical idea, and add an appropriate in memoriam to the program notes.
But the best way I can possibly think of to honor his memory, at least as a first step, is to make a trip to Knoxville and share a few beers with old classmates of mine. I would like to think Dr. J would appreciate his students coming together in some sort of fellowship again, showcasing the lives they’ve lived since their study with him. And from there? To renew my personal commitment to living life as passionately as possible—whatever that means for me. To keep making music, teaching music, and changing the world. That’s the best dedication one can give. To be the kind of teacher to my students that Dr. J was for me.
And hopefully, I’m well on my way to that goal already.
The shock has worn off, and we are all picking up the pieces. It’s safe to say we’re all disillusioned. And it’s perfectly understandable that we all feel angry. But I also know that I’m moving on—not because I don’t care, but because I care enough to keep living the way I was taught. And I have a lot of instructors to thank for that, Dr. J in particular. And that influence will never go away, wherever it leads.
Rest in peace, Ken and Melinda. And thank you for everything.