Curtain Calls for a Career

John Schaffer retires from UW-Madison—and we all owe him more gratitude than we probably realize


The major musical groups in and around Madison, and the people who create their music, rarely lack for applause and general appreciation. But there are those who toil beyond the footlights, and their passion and dedication doesn’t often give us the chance to truly thank them for the many ways they have blessed and enriched our community’s musical life.

Unless they retire, that is…then at last we may reflect on a career that, as we look back more closely, reveals how many vital ways a person can shape a cultural community apart from performance.

John Schaffer is about to get his recognition, as his retirement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music will be celebrated by a benefit jazz concert this Saturday, June 1, at Full Compass Systems.

Nearly centered in his 40-years of service at UW-Madison were his 15 years as director of the Mead Witter School of Music. From 1997-2012, the sum of Schaffer’s accomplishments are “Hall of Fame” material—and most of them will continue to add to the rich tapestry of the city’s musical life.

The most visible is the Hamel Music Center. Already proudly occupying the corner of Lake Street and University Avenue, the plans for the facility unfolded during Schaffer’s tenure (and during the time of, and with the assistance of then-chancellor John Wiley), and Schaffer raised more than $20 million in private funds for construction.

Schaffer also secured the funding of three major professorships, namely David Perry (first violinist of the Pro Arte Quartet), internationally acclaimed pianist Christopher Taylor, and celebrated jazz pianist and composer Johannes Wallmann

Clearly Schaffer has a gift and passion for fundraising, as he more than doubled all student support with the addition of $10 million in music scholarships during his tenure.

And Schaffer made sure the music students had even more opportunities to perform and develop their craft, by expanding performances across campus; perhaps his most significant contribution in this area was in establishing a joint residency with the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the Hunt Quartet, and by founding the Perlman Piano Trio.

Then there was his ensuring that the artistry of many of the UW-Madison faculty would be preserved, with the release of nearly 50 recordings on the School of Music label.

Schaffer’s initial teaching interest was in analysis of contemporary non-tonal music, and in AI applications in music theory; these led, during his directorship, to the creation of the Wisconsin Center for Music Technology, and his time as founding editor of the journal, Computers in Music Research.

Schaffer lent his accumulated wisdom and insight to a number of local boards, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Country Day School, the Isthmus Jazz Festival, and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. But his work outside the University went national, as he served multiple terms on the board of directors for the national accrediting organization, the National Association of Schools of Music. During his time with that institution, he spent more than ten years training accreditation teams, and performing accreditation reviews of music schools around the country.

And let’s not forget that Schaffer has long been gigging regularly on bass in various jazz venues—and happily, this activity is not coming to an end. We’ll catch him now and then at Otto’s, Coda Café, the North Street Cabaret, and other clubs and restaurants.

The June 1 event begins at 7:30, and is being presented by the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, at Full Compass Systems, 970 Silicon Prairie Parkway in Verona. Chancellor Emeritus John Wiley will offer commentary and perspective, and light refreshments will be served.

Tickets at the door are $30, $25 in advance online, with a limited number of student tickets available for $15. You can purchase VIP tickets for $150 which includes reserved, best-in-house seating, a private pre-concert reception at 6 p.m., and other benefits.

The music will be provided by Jazz Junction…with John Schaffer on bass—you really didn’t think he’d just sit there and listen, did you?!

More information can be found at:

For tickets, go to:

And if you can’t be there, give a thankful hand to John Schaffer for all he has given to the musical life of Madison.

3 thoughts on “Curtain Calls for a Career

  1. Thanks for a wonderful article, Greg—I didn’t know about this until 5/31 evening and am sad to miss this celebration of John’s career up to now. This is not the end of his career—just the onset of a new chapter!


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