Published: May 3, 2022 By

Damani Phillips At the College of Music’s commencement ceremony this Thursday, May 5, we’re so excited to welcome alumnus Damani Phillips (DMA ’09) back to campus and to present him the college’s 2022 Distinguished Alumnus Award!

“I’m beyond thrilled to receive this year’s Distinguished Alumnus award,” says Phillips, saxophonist, educator, author and recording artist who currently serves as head of the jazz studies program and associate professor of African American studies at the University of Iowa. “As you navigate your degree program, you always hope that once finished and your professional career gets fully underway that you can manage to be impactful in a way that represents both yourself and the institutions that you attended positively. 

“It’s an incredible feeling to be formally acknowledged by your alma mater as a graduate who has managed to do so in a noteworthy way. I view this award as a great honor.”

A native of Pontiac, Michigan, Phillips earned bachelor and master of music degrees from DePaul University and the University of Kentucky in classical saxophone, a second master of music in jazz studies from Wayne State University and a doctor of musical arts degree in jazz studies here at the University of Colorado Boulder, becoming the first African American in the country to do so.

“While graduate school is customarily about preparing for a very specific type of professional existence, my experience as a doctoral student at CU pushed beyond that,” reflects Phillips. “While I was well prepared for my obvious career path, my time here at the College of Music afforded me the chance to develop any number of possible peripheral skills needed for success. 

“In short, I graduated with confidence in my ability to fill many different roles in my professional life—many of which were well beyond the training afforded to my peers nationwide. The versatile training provided by CU has been the cornerstone of my success to date, and has enabled me to do and be many things well beyond typical expectations.”

Indeed, an active performer, pedagogue and lecturer, Phillips has performed, presented and taught around the world. He previously served on the faculty of Grinnell College and Oakland University, and is a sought-after guest artist, clinician presenter and adjudicator across the country. He has performed with artists and groups such as Lewis Nash, Christian McBride, Wycliffe Gordon, Bobby McFerrin, Marcus Belgrave, Terrell Stafford, Hank Jones, Red Holloway and Pat Bianchi, among many others. He has further released five albums as a bandleader; his most recent album—“No More Apologies,” featuring jazz quartet with string octet—was released last fall.

Phillips is also an active academic scholar, with scholarly presentations at colleges, universities, professional/civic conferences and scholarly forums, both domestically and abroad, to his credit. His research focuses on addressing cultural concerns in the pedagogy of Black music within academia. His book—“What is This Thing Called Soul: Conversations on Jazz and Black Culture”—delves into the difficult yet timely topic of the decline of Black cultural influence and representation in jazz as traditionally taught in academic spheres. 

Phillips’ advice for graduating Music Buffs? “In her 2021 New Yorker article—‘Black, Brown and Beige’ recounting the life and work of the great jazz composer and pianist Duke Ellington—author Claudia Pierpont remarked that Duke lived his life by the motto ‘One need not demand respect if one commands it,’” says Phillips. “This statement reflects just how important not only what we say, but what we do, is to making our mark on the world. 

“Learn as many skills and absorb as much knowledge as possible now, as you never know what will be needed on your path ahead. In short, prepare yourself to face the world, unapologetically be what you are meant to be and do what you are meant to do. True, meaningful and lasting change in this world wholly depends on it. 

“Go forward and command the respect that you have prepared yourself to earn.”

Congratulations on your well-earned distinction, Damani Phillips!