Purdue jazzman Drew Damon sixth Sudler winner in seven years
Monday, April 13, 2009
“I imagine every little kid wants to be Neil Armstrong,” says Drew Damon, the aeronautical-astronautical engineering major with high-flying dreams who’s been awarded the 2009 Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts. Representing Purdue Bands & Orchestra in the annual campus-wide visual and performing arts competition, Damon is the sixth student musician in seven years to be honored as Purdue’s top senior in the arts.
Damon, who’s played alto sax in the Purdue Jazz Band for four years, was born in Florida and as a preschooler watched rockets soar towards the heavens. He developed a fascination with space flight that stayed with him when his family moved to Indiana and turned into a career passion.
“I am a space nerd,” he admits. “I did want to be an astronaut and I still kind of do.” He’s focused on being involved in the next generation of space exploration and hoping to work on the vehicles that will take the place of the Space Shuttle and perhaps take Americans back to the moon.
“It’s a very interesting time to come into the industry because it’s in such a state of transition and flux,” says Damon who’s spent the last two summers interning with NASA working with test programs, and analyzing data, on rocket engines being designed for the Space Shuttle’s replacement. Graduating in the midst of economic ugliness, Damon’s not willing to give up his goals. If the right job doesn’t come along, he’ll take the university’s offer to pursue graduate studies in aerospace engineering this fall and bide his time.
“My goal is to get back to NASA,” he says with conviction.
NASA’s temporary loss could be Purdue’s gain as it will allow Damon to continue to be actively involved with the other great passion in his life – jazz. Although his jazz roots don’t go as far back as his space interest, his devotion to both is impressive.
Taking private lessons throughout his Purdue years, Damon’s constantly pushed himself to achieve. Besides honing his skills on sax, he learned to play flute since arriving on campus. “Drew’s constantly practicing and trying to get better. He’s the kind of student you wish everyone was like,” says Mo Trout, director of the Purdue Jazz Band.
“Drew has improved over and over again. He’s a three or four times better player than when he came to Purdue, and that’s not always the case with students because of their difficult academic schedules.”
Coming to Purdue from Indianapolis’ North Central High School, Damon had played in respected jazz bands there. But when he landed in Purdue’s top jazz band as a freshman it was more of a motivation than a reward. “Anytime you land in a new environment and all the guys are better you’ve got to get better in a hurry,” Damon says.
Without music majors or minors on campus, students like Damon, who has also performed with the Purdue Symphonic Band, revel in their directors’ attention. “The people at Purdue make the department what it is,” he says. “It’s a nurturing environment where people aren’t excluded. You are encouraged to get better and excel, and at the end of your college (musical) career you have a lot to show for it.”
Highpoints of his college experience include playing with, and getting tips from the big name jazz artists who guest star at the Purdue Jazz Festival each January, competing favorably with jazz bands from schools of music at collegiate jazz festivals, and traveling with the Purdue Summer Jazz Band to Italy and with the Purdue Jazz Combo to President’s Council events around the United States.
In the long run, it isn’t the travel or the opportunities for star moments that make him a jazzman. Jazz appeals to Damon because “it’s the best of all worlds. It gives you more freedom of expression than other musical forms,” he says. Its emphasis on improvisation, creating spontaneously, responding at a moment’s notice and performing under pressure feeds his skill set as an engineer.
“It never hurts to think outside the box,” declares Damon who says that engineers on a job are rarely able to look up answers to problems. “You have to design or create something that was not there before. You have to think of a brand new idea that no one’s thought of before. And that could change the course of a program or even the course of history.”
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