KU News Release

May 12, 2010
Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853

Graduation stories: Jazz legend's critique inspires graduating KU scholar

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LAWRENCE – An impromptu critique by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis became a defining moment in high school for a University of Kansas senior who is graduating with two degrees on Sunday, May 16.

Earl Holmes Brooks is earning bachelor’s degrees in American studies from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and in saxophone from KU’s School of Music. The oldest of six children, he will become the first male college graduate in his family. He is headed to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a fellowship in a doctoral program to study American and African-American literature and jazz.

Earl Holmes Brooks (Photo by David McKinney/University Relations)

Earlier this year, Brooks defined jazz studies for a Lawrence Journal-World reporter: “It’s the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. It’s the soundtrack to the history of African-Americans in this country. It’s a philosophy. It represents, truly, what we see as our American identity.”

A McNair Scholar, a Dean’s Scholar and a Hall Center for the Humanities Scholar at KU, Brooks combined his passion for writing with his love of jazz through American studies.

In researching jazz history, Brooks realized the music was inextricably linked to his interest in social movements of civil rights era. It is a link that Marsalis had tried to point out when he met the Highland Park High School senior in Topeka a few years ago. As editor of the school paper and an aspiring saxophonist, Brooks had waited at the stage door after a Marsalis concert in Topeka with a group of Highland Park friends. They invited the jazz legend to their school. Instead of politely turning the teenagers aside, Marsalis accepted their invitation.

The next day, Marsalis listened to students play individually at the school. When Brooks began pumping out a tune, Marsalis stopped him, asking what he was trying to do. Later Marsalis took Brooks aside, saying he had talent but lacked a depth of understanding of jazz and its relationship to black Americans. Brooks is African-American.

The advice lingered. Brooks first enrolled at Kansas State University as a music major. After his second year, he transferred to KU to major in music and journalism. When his credits wouldn’t transfer for journalism, an adviser suggested American studies.

Five years later, Brooks is preparing for a career in research and teaching in literature at the university level – a field that is underrepresented by African-American scholars. He wants his work “to change how people think about the past so that the current issues we face in society can be better understood.”

Preparing for his teaching role, Brooks has given talks on jazz to inner-city students in KU’s Upward Bound Program and music lessons to students in his Topeka neighborhood.

He is in the University Honors Program and last fall was nominated to compete for both Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. This spring, he was named to KU’s Men of Merit roster. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean’s office selected Brooks to carry its banner at commencement on the basis of his outstanding academic record. He will lead the largest group in the Class of 2010 in the processional march into Memorial Stadium. He was vice president of the Black Student Union and is a member of three national honor societies including Phi Kappa Phi.

He calls his parents, Earl and Vanessa Brooks of Topeka, rocks of support. His father is employed at Hill’s Pet Nutrition Science Diet and his mother, who earned at degree at Washburn University, is a paraprofessional in the Topeka school district.

“My dad has over 30 years at Hill’s. He has really taught me what it means to be a man and to work every day.”

Brooks financed much of his college education with federal loans, but more than once considered joining the military as an option. His paternal grandfather, the late Charles Holmes, had served in Korea as an Air Force chief master sergeant.

His grandparents have been keys to Brooks becoming the first man in the Brooks family to earn a degree. His maternal great-grandmother, the late Edna Brown of Topeka, instilled his love of reading. “She had her own library of books and encouraged us to read aloud when we came to visit her.”

His paternal grandmother, Mary Jane Brooks, who lives with his family, imparted values that shaped her grandson. “She is the wisest and most hard-working person I have ever met. Her story of the struggles she faced in her life have instilled a lot of values in me. She raised nine kids by herself with only a grade school education and came to Kansas after being raised in the South.”

Beyond family and Marsalis, Brooks says a host of educators have encouraged his aspirations to write and teach about jazz.

His list includes a Highland Park media specialist, Ron Ferrell, who introduced Brooks to African-American writers. Ferrell’s reading list for an independent studies class began with Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” It included American literary classics such as John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” and J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.”

“I loved them all,” Brooks remembered, but “Native Son” was his favorite. He wanted to join the ranks of these classic writers.

At KU, faculty and staff members who have been there for Brooks include: Maryemma Graham, professor of English who offered to become his McNair mentor; Diane Fourny, associate professor in the Western Civilization and Humanities Program and also in French; Nicholas Shump, who directed the Dean’s Scholars Program; Pamela Scott in multicultural affairs; Vince Gnojek, professor of music; and Robert Rodriguez and Allyson Flaster, with the McNair Scholars Program staff.

“Every person gave me something unique to get where I am now,” Brooks said.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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