Honoring Thomas Zajac (1956-2015)
The Thomas Zajac Memorial Scholarship (est. 2021) provides a biennial scholarship of $1,500, to early music performers and scholars who wish to pursue specialized study in ethnic and/or folk traditions, instruments, or styles, for the purpose of exploring cultural cross-fertilizations in the history of early music and bringing that knowledge to bear in historically-grounded scholarship and performance.
The recipient is selected by a jury of musicians who knew or worked with the great multi-instrumentalist and educator, Tom Zajac (1956-2015). A biography, as compiled by his family, friends, and colleagues for his obituary, is published below. The Zajac Scholarship was funded by donations from Tom’s many friends and colleagues. A list of donors can be viewed below.
To make donation to the Zajac Memorial Scholarship Fund, visit our Endowed Scholarship Funds and Affiliates donation form and designate the Zajac fund in the appropriate field.
Read more: EMA Scholarship Music Master Zajac
2021 Recipient: Laury Gutiérrez
Laury Gutiérrez‘s (photo by Carolina Villegas) research, which explores African connections with Iberia and the New World exemplifies the cultural cross-fertilization that was so important to Tom Zajac, and we look forward to seeing the results of Laury’s research in the historically grounded scholarship and performance exemplified by her ensemble Rumbarroco.
“Venezuela has a cross-fertilized population, a mixture of Europeans (mostly from Spain and Portugal), Africans, and Amerindians.” said Gutiérrez. “As a mestizo, I have been excited to explore how these people influenced one another culturally, especially musically. With my ensemble Rumbarroco, I have been creating programs and recordings that celebrate these wonderful cultural blends in early music.”
“ I am now engaged in a large project called AfroBaroque, exploring African connections with Iberia and the New World. This includes the 16th– and 17th-century songs called black villancicos. Many of them were part of religious festivals such as Corpus Christi in Mexico and Iberia.
“I propose to use this scholarship for research in Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela to study scores, iconography, manuscripts, archival records, as well as current Corpus Christi traditions, including how percussion instruments are used for these events.
“I hope my findings will bring black villancicos closer to their original performance mode, giving visibility to people who were highly marginalized. Imagine if these stunning songs, resulting from the cross-fertilization of African, Spanish, and indigenous music, could be brought to life in a historically informed manner that includes indigenous and African traits!”
To support the mission of EMA’s Named Scholarship, please visit our Named Scholarship Funds donation page.
The 2023 application will open in January 2023
- Applications are open to a performer/scholar who wishes to pursue specialized study in ethnic and/or folk traditions, instruments, or styles, for the purpose outlined above.
- Applicants should be resident in the Americas.
- There is no age limit.
- Early Music America membership is required of all applicants. Historical performance students qualify for a one-year complimentary student membership. If you are unsure of your membership status, please contact EMA.
Materials to be Submitted
- Contact Information
- Personal statement/project information, in writing and by video
- Music video and/or audio recordings (see application)
- List of Works in music video and/or audio recordings
- Two Letters of Recommendation
Application Instructions and Information
The 2021 application period is now closed. Please check back again in late 2022 for the 2023 application process.
Biography of Tom Zajac
Thomas Edward Zajac, Jr. (1956 – 2015) was multi-instrumentalist and music educator whose adventurous and wide-ranging curiosity about musical cultures made him a unique figure in the Early Music community. While specializing in Medieval and Renaissance music and adept with a remarkable number and diversity of early instruments, he also collected and played instruments from Central and South America, Turkey, Indonesia and China and many other corners of the world. Tom traveled widely over his 35 year career, performing in virtually every country in Europe and Britain, as well as Hong Kong, Australia, Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, Guam, Australia, Israel and Turkey.
Playing trombone and percussion in high school, Tom’s interest in diverse musical genres soon expanded beyond popular and classical music into experimental jazz and the folk traditions of the world. Tom received his bachelor’s degree in Music History from Northern Illinois University and while there, he became a part of NIU’s emerging World Music Program. He gained experiences with Balinese Gamelan and the traditional instruments of China and traveled to Hong Kong and other countries to perform with the NIU World Music Ensemble.
At age 20, he discovered the music and instruments of Medieval and Renaissance periods. He was immediately drawn to study recorder and shifted from trombone to sackbut. He undertook studies at Sarah Lawrence College where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in Early Music in 1984, studying recorder with Charles Coldwell and expanding his proficiency with a diversity of early instruments.
Tom’s professional career began in earnest in New York City. He performed with Nottingham Faire in the public schools through Young Audiences of NYC and Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts. He performed in and directed the Mannes Camerata under Paul Echols. With New York’s Ensemble for Early Music (now Early Music New York), Tom performed in Daniel and the Lions, Herod and the Innocents, and Roman de Fauvel, touring the US and internationally, and played in a six-month, off-Broadway run of Julie Taymor’s Taming of the Shrew in 1988. He became a member of the wind band Piffaro in 1989 and a co-founder of the New York-based theatrical/musical group Ex Umbris. Tom also appeared frequently with The Tallis Scholars, the Folger Consort, The King’s Noyse, The Newberry Consort, The Waverly Consort, Hesperus, The Rose Ensemble, The Texas Early Music Project, The Boston Camerata, and other leading US ensembles.
Tom’s versatility as a multi-instrumentalist afforded him unique opportunities. He performed 14th-century music in the East Room of the White House, played serpent in a piece by PDQ Bach on an episode of A Prairie Home Companion, and a recording of his bagpipe awoke the astronauts each morning on a 2001 space shuttle mission. He performed on soundtracks of several PBS documentaries including18th-century music for the score of the Ric Burn’s “New York: A Documentary Film.” Tom played hurdy gurdy for the American Ballet Theater, bagpipe for an internationally broadcast Gatorade commercial, and shawm for the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus at Carnegie Hall. Other projects included a 13th-century music-theater piece, the Tournoi de Chauvency, with the French-American company Ensemble Aziman, and work as percussionist for Boston Early Music Festival opera productions. Later in his career, Tom took up the santur, miskal and zurna, learning the beautiful repertory of Ottoman court music and performing with the Boston-based collective Dünya, with whom he traveled to Istanbul in 2010.
Tom had a passionate interest in the confluence of historical and socio-cultural approaches to music making. He was particularly curious about the cross-fertilizations that occurred when disparate cultures met and commingled giving rise to new musical expressions. In this vein, he researched and directed performance projects in Colonial Latin-American music, music of the three religious cultures of pre-expulsion Spain, and music in Eastern Europe from Poland to the Ottoman court of 16th to 19th-century Turkey.
As an informal, self-educated ethnomusicologist, Tom also held a special appreciation for obscure cultures whose linguistic and musical lineages were threatened with extinction and was inspired by new generations of musicians who revived and carried forward traditions that would have otherwise faded into oblivion.
Tom was a beloved teacher of amateurs, students, and professionals alike. He directed collegiums at Mannes College, University of Maryland and Wellesley College, inspiring new generations of musicians with his creative approach to early music. After attending the Amherst Early Music Summer Workshop as a student, he became one of their most popular teachers and was a fixture in the Festival every year. He taught regularly at Pinewoods, the Madison Early Music Festival, The Texas Toot and other workshops throughout the US. For several years he directed the Medieval and Renaissance week of the San Francisco Early Music Society workshops in California.
Although a person of immense talent and extraordinary professional accomplishment, Tom was known as a friend to all. He encouraged and mentored musicians of every stage of musical development—whether children, teens, adults or elders, whether amateur or professional, he fostered and inspired musical curiosities and passions. His unassuming warmth, humor and generosity of spirit were a delight to all who knew him.
Donors to the Zajac Fund
The full list of all who contributed to this fund can never be fully known as it includes many who donated anonymously, contributed to fundraisers for Tom during his illness, or purchased items from Tom’s library of books and music after his death. Thank you to all for making this scholarship possible.
Susan F. Assmann
Jeff and Colleen Chen
Tony Elitcher & Andie Taras
Charles Hughes & Jeri Matteson-Hughes
Jean Allison Olson
Helen R. Thornton
Patricia & Jonathan Tyson