‘Renaissance man’ Jason King on his Thornton takeover

man in pastel-green suit poses for camera, holding a pair of glasses
Jason King looks to lead Thornton through a new era of innovation in response to the epidemics that have challenged musicians’ careers. (Courtesy Laylah Amatullah)

Accoladed musician, journalist, filmmaker, scholar and professor Jason King has seemingly done it all. He is currently the chair of the Clive Davis Institute at New York University, a position he will leave this summer when he succeeds former Thornton School of Music Dean Robert Cutietta and current interim dean Josh Kun. Over the years, King has conducted a plethora of research on artists and genres. As a published author, he is known for writing “The Michael Jackson Treasures,” as well as scholarly essays and journalistic contributions to numerous publications including Pitchfork, the Los Angeles Times and Billboard.

Outside of education, King is an accomplished entrepreneur, published author, music producer and industry consultant. In addition to managing his own entertainment company, Superlatude, King has worked with marketing firms as a branding expert for big-name artists including Drake, Madonna and Dr. Dre. He has also served as a consultant and curator for NPR, Spotify, Vevo and numerous record labels.

King has an interest in all aspects of music. He was trained in classical piano and musical theater and grew to enjoy hip-hop, jazz, folk music and rock. His experience has granted him vast knowledge in many areas and genres, he said in an interview with the Daily Trojan — as well as theory, history and contemporary movements.

“As somebody who has diversified himself in a great number of areas that relate to music, I hope to bring some of that energy and diversification to [Thornton] itself,” King said. “It’s an interesting model for students who are studying music in 2023 to be able to think of themselves in a diversified way.”

King said he looks to lead Thornton through a new era of innovation in response to the epidemics that have challenged the careers of musicians: The coronavirus pandemic, periods of economic crises and the rise of illegal pirating sites, like Napster, all caused wounds that are still healing.

“We’ve been in a crisis moment for the music industry for the last 20 years,” King said. “Especially in the last few years, that crisis has grown exponential. But yet I still maintain that it’s a moment of opportunity … if musicians know how to position themselves well.”

As students overcome industry hurdles, King said he encourages musicians to take advantage of the flowering of new music and opportunities. As the global recorded music market grows, he believes in substantial opportunities for business, research and commercial success.

“I feel like I have been able to help maneuver the Clive Davis Institute at NYU through those moments of crisis so that we ended up not just surviving them, but thriving,” King said. “So that’s what I’m hoping to also bring to USC — that same emphasis on weathering crisis — and hopefully helping USC build and raise its profile and be on the cutting edge of redefining what it means to be a musician or a scholar of music in 2023.”

Dan Charnas, an associate professor of arts at NYU and author of New York Times bestseller “Dilla Time,” said of King that there was “nobody else like him in the world.”

“He has been my chief mentor, and I think a lot of the professional accomplishments that I’ve had in the last decade owe a lot to that mentorship,” Charnas said. “[For] a lot of the projects I have done, especially [“Dilla Time”], I can trace a direct line back to his encouragement and… his scholarship.”

In addition to his ability to think outside the box, Charnas described King as a “cultivator of relationships.” The respect he has garnered across the industry allowed King to bring the likes of Pharrell Williams, Alicia Keys and others into the fold of NYU as guest speakers and collaborators.

Lyndia Johnson, associate professor of practice, said King was a forward-thinking “Renaissance man” that can offer a fresh perspective to music education.

“He is going to bring a lot of innovation and new ideas for the future of music and music education,” Johnson said. “That shows up in technology, business and inclusivity. He will be Thornton’s first African American dean, so modeling that for the diverse population of students that Thornton has is going to be extremely important.”

That’s what I’m hoping to also bring to USC — that same emphasis on weathering crisis — and hopefully helping USC build and raise its profile and be on the cutting edge of redefining what it means to be a musician or a scholar of music in 2023.

Jason King, dean-elect of Thornton School of Music

Johnson said she hopes King will help students develop their branding and careers as performing artists, even after they graduate. Before King, there was no template for post-graduates to follow, Johnson said — they went out into the world, auditioned and hoped for the best.

“He will bring some real-world knowledge and expertise on how we can start implementing entrepreneurial ideas, innovations and how we can help support our students while they are here developing their own brand,” Johnson said.

Knowing King’s experience in various departments throughout the industry, Johnson hopes he will help reinforce cross-curricular learning at Thornton, which combines genres and allows for a greater sense of community across departments that are often isolated from one another.

“[A dean] is someone who really brings the community together,” said Beatriz Ilari, associate professor of music teaching and learning at Thornton. “Jason has everything to be able to do it, from knowledge to charisma to experience.”

Michael Burke, associate dean of the NYU Kanbar Institute of Film and Television, described King as a composed and confident leader with a mind for innovation, attributing King’s motivation to his personal passion and devotion to music, education and his students.

“He has an unique ability to take available resources and make them … exponentially expand,” Burke said. “He looks around and sees what is available at the school … He has a very unique ability to take resources to the benefit of students.”

King said he aims to raise Thornton’s national and international profile and imagines partnerships on a global scale. To better understand the school’s needs, he will begin by listening to Thornton’s staff, students and faculty to identify challenges and opportunities for growth.

“I try to lead by example and create inclusionary spaces wherever I go,” King said. It’s really about serving the students. It’s really about creating the most welcoming educational environment possible. I feel like I have been able to do that at NYU and I really look forward to bringing some of that energy to USC.”

As King takes on the role of dean, he said he looks to continue the legacies Kun and Cutietta left while also creating his own mark on the future of Thornton.

“It is a wonderful inheritance and to be able to step into this job while the Thornton school is at such a high level of achievement,” King said. “I feel like it is a gift. That is really exciting to me — the opportunity to step into something that is already exceptional and take it to even greater and more exceptional heights.”