When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducts its Class of 2019 on March 29, it will be a moment years in the making for the likes of Radiohead, the Cure, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, Roxy Music and the Zombies.
And behind the scenes, Jason Hanley ’93, MA ’95, PhD ’11, will be one of the people making that moment happen.
Hanley, the Hall of Fame’s Vice President of Education and Visitor Engagement, will play a role in the production of the induction ceremony, which will take place in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. Beyond that, though, Hanley will integrate this year’s inductees into the year-round programming at the Hall of Fame museum in Cleveland. For a lifelong musician whose PhD dissertation was entitled “Metal Machine Music: Technology, Noise, and Modernism in Industrial Music 1975-1996,” it truly is a dream job.
While preparing to return to New York for this year’s induction ceremony, Hanley took a few moments to discuss his path to the Hall of Fame, his work, and this year’s class.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony moves back and forth between Cleveland and New York. On these occasions when you come back to New York, what sort of feelings come back to you as you prepare to make the trip?
I always love coming back to New York. I’ve lived in Cleveland now for almost 15 years, but I’m originally from Queens and Long Island. I did my bachelor’s degree, my master’s and my PhD all at Stony Brook, so I have very, very fond memories of Stony Brook, of Long Island, and New York City. To be able to come to New York for my job at the Rock Hall, and get to take part in the induction ceremonies at the Barclays Center, it’s really an amazing experience.
So, what is your job like the week of the ceremony?
One of the great things about working at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is that everyone who comes here has a love and a passion for rock and roll, and everyone brings their own memory of the music. For myself and my team, our job is to connect that excitement around rock and roll up to the broader story and the history, put visitors’ love of music into a broader context and teach them about the inductees.
When I get to come to New York for the induction ceremony, there’s that same sort of excitement. I may be doing interviews around the inductions, and helping work with the artists. We’re going to be talking to them about our education programs, talking about what we do at the Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and maybe even asking them to participate in some of that programming moving forward.
I get to interview different artists as part of the Inductions programming, and have a small part in the production of the show, which is amazing, because there’s always a lot of excitement around who’s performing, what are they going to perform, who’s inducting them, the question of whether there will be some amazing reunion – which there often is – and who the surprise guests are going to be. I’m one of the lucky few who gets to be in the inner circle for that, and help put some small pieces of that together that make the bigger show that is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
So, with those surprises, is there a favorite of yours that you got to work on?
I’ve always been a big fan of Yes, and when they got inducted at the Barclays Center, there were members of the band from different eras, because they changed their lineup over the years and people have been in and out. Backstage, there were certain members of the band, who had never met, meeting each other for the first time, and it was really amazing to be in the room and watch that happen. They were talking to each other for the first time and sharing stories about their own time in the band, saying, “I really liked when you recorded this song, or “You’re performing the song that I originally recorded, and you’re doing a great job.” Those moments are really special, to be able to pull back the curtain and be part of those interactions.
And what about the interviews? So few people get those opportunities to be able to ask those questions and think about what it is that fans are going to want to hear and know. Which ones stick out for you?
Those interviews are really fascinating, because we take them really seriously. It’s not a journalistic interview that may be about a new album or a new tour. We want to think about their whole career. What did this artist do? How have they innovated and changed the face of music somehow? How did they connect with so many fans and produce some of the greatest songs we all know and love, and what’s the craft behind that? That’s where my background as a PhD from Stony Brook in musicology really comes in handy. It takes a lot of research before I get to do these interviews, looking back at the history of the artist, what bands they were in, what they created, how they went about songwriting. Then, I get to sit down and ask the artists themselves to talk about that experience.
Back in 2017, when we inducted Nile Rodgers, he’s obviously known as a member of the band Chic, but we were honoring him for his entire career, not just as a performer, but also as a songwriter and producer, who worked with everyone from David Bowie to Madonna to Duran Duran and even Daft Punk. I got to sit down at that induction ceremony with him and talk about his entire career. There were members of some of the other bands, like Yes, who were being inducted that same year, in the audience. It was great to be able to talk about Nile’s guitar style, or why David Bowie wanted to work with him for an album like Let’s Dance, where Bowie was trying to get more into American soul, disco and funk…all things that Nile Rodgers is one of the greatest of all time at doing.
Last year, I was able to work with Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, who was getting inducted, and we have a Rock Hall Educator Band, a staff band here, and Richie Sambora came and played with us for a little while, in addition to doing an interview, and he actually performed “Wanted Dead or Alive” with us, which was a pretty amazing moment. I was sitting there, playing keyboards, watching Richie Sambora play the guitar solo to “Wanted Dead or Alive,” a song I had heard thousands of times.
So, with all these amazing experiences, it begs the question: how did you get from Stony Brook to the Hall of Fame?
It’s a really interesting journey. The story is basically that throughout my life, I was always doing a lot of different things in music. I was obviously a performer, and I’m really into playing keyboards and synthesizers in particular, but also guitar, and electronic music. I did my undergraduate degree in music at Stony Brook, and then really got bit by the bug to study the history of music. So, I decided to go on for a master’s degree in Music History, and that program is everything from Gregorian chants through classical music, up through avant garde 20th century music and popular music. At the same time, I was also working in New York at places like Sam Ash, and Frank and Camille’s Piano Center in Port Jefferson, and doing things like that. I was performing in bands, and I had a small independent music label that I owned with some of my friends on Long Island called Transmission Records. So, I had been doing all of these different things, and as I was finishing my PhD at Stony Brook and working on my dissertation, I really thought that I was on track to become a college professor. So, I was working on my dissertation, I had finished my coursework, and I was teaching at Hofstra University, which I loved doing. I was looking around, and through the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, I saw a job posting. It said that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was looking for an Education Programs Manager, someone who would help run the on-site educational programs of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
What really struck me was what they were looking for. They were looking for a scholar of rock and roll; I had that. The other thing they were looking for was someone who knew the music industry, and who was a performer. I thought, “I’ve done that. I’ve played in bands for many years, I owned an independent record label and had worked in the musical instrument business.” The last thing they said was that they wanted somebody who was interested in teaching people of all ages, and that really struck me, too. Not only had I taught at Stony Brook as an adjunct while I was working on my PhD, and at Hofstra, I was also working in the Stony Brook pre-college music program, teaching high school students about electronic music. I was doing lectures at public libraries. I just enjoyed talking to all sorts of different audiences about music.
So, when I saw this job posting, I thought, “This is everything that I’ve been doing, that I didn’t know would relate to each other somehow, all in one package.” I showed it to my wife and said, “Hey, there’s this job at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, check this out,” and she said, “Did you apply already?” Within two months, we were in a moving truck from Long Island out to Cleveland.
So what does your day-to-day job look like?
I’ve often said to people that I don’t think I’ve had two days exactly the same here. There might be a portion of the job that is like almost any job in the world, that is looking at spreadsheets, the budgets of a program, or thinking about our staffing and if we need to hire a new educator. So, there’s a more logistical side of it, but then, there’s also the great part of working with the incredible staff that we have here at the museum to do the research on the history of the music. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has its own library and archives, which is one of the largest repositories of the history of rock and roll. We have that at our access to be able to do research and think about our inductees, make connections between them. Then, there’s the teaching part of being out in the museum some days and getting to actually work with audiences of all different ages, and teach programs or develop those programs. That’s the great thing, too: thinking about new ways of using the exhibits and using the spaces in the museum to do exciting programming. And, every once in a while, an artist walks in the door, and suddenly, there’s Brian May of Queen walking down the hall, to visit the museum, to check it out, or to come talk to us about what he’s up to.
Each day is different than the last, but the thing that brings them all together is that there’s an incredible bunch of passionate music enthusiasts who work here, and we all have this common goal of making the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame an experience that you won’t get anywhere else in the world connected to this music.
Now, when you work with kids out in the museum, the way the new music they’re listening to is made and distributed is very different than what the structure of the music business was like for the artists in the Hall of Fame. What kind of role do you have, not only in teaching these kids about the history of rock and roll, but also helping to shape its future?
The exciting thing about the art form we honor is that it is still happening, and it’s still vibrant, and there are still people making records, rock and roll records, hip-hop records, and funk records, and soul records, and metal records, and even if they’re not making records but only making songs to download, the point is that all of that music is part of the umbrella that we consider rock and roll, and it’s still happening. So, that allows us to make these incredible connections.
Sometimes, those connections are between generations. So, you might end up having a family visiting the museum, where the grandmother is reminiscing about hearing Elvis, and her son is talking about being a big fan of Led Zeppelin, and then the granddaughter is thinking about being a fan of Taylor Swift. The amazing thing is that they can all start to find connections and ways that that music exists on a continuum, and how what Elvis did influenced the people who came after him, or how the music of Led Zeppelin opened up new vistas for artists, and how a current artist looks back on that. So, those connections become really powerful, and ways for people to see things in a new context. So, we try to make sure that in the museum, we’re helping to guide those connections, and get people to think about how different artists relate to one another. Some of those are direct connections – an artist covers a song by someone else, or cites someone directly as an influence – but sometimes, they’re more general in the way that rock and roll moves and shapes itself.
So, with everything that you have the opportunity to do at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, is there anything in particular – besides coming back to New York every other year for the induction ceremony – that helps you maintain your connection to Stony Brook, and to New York in general?
Back when I was at Stony Brook and living in New York, with a couple of the bands I played in, I was lucky enough to play at CBGBs, which was really special. I used to go there with my friends and my wife to listen to music all the time. Then, of course, it closed down in 2006. The amazing thing, that’s very strange for me, is that hanging in the lobby of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the very last awning, the very famous awning that was over the building that said “CBGB” on it. We have that, and it’s hanging here in the museum, so it’s a very powerful thing for me to walk into work each day and pass by this punk club banner, hanging in this place I work, from a club I played in when I was younger. It’s a really cool experience.
And when you’re having these “cool experiences,” passing by the CBGBs awning, seeing Brian May walk down the hall, or playing with Richie Sambora, somewhere in the midst of that – not to be too Talking Heads about it – you must ask yourself, “How did I get here?”
100 percent! I make sure in my life that I never lose sight of that moment. Even this morning, as I was driving to work, Hall and Oates came on the radio, and it was a song that I had loved listening to when I was younger, “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” One moment, I was flashing back to being a 13-year-old kid with the Hall and Oates cassette tape in my Sony Walkman, listening to that album, and on the other hand, remembering how last year, I worked with John Oates, and did an interview with him, and had dinner with him and talked to him about how he worked with Daryl Hall on all those great songs. I never lose sight of how special these moments are, that amazing feeling where the passion I have as a fan of this art form called rock and roll, the work I did on my degrees at Stony Brook, and what I work so hard to do everyday to educate others about this music, it all comes together in these amazing moments where you’re starstruck, and you have to pinch yourself and say, “Am I really doing this right now?”