Brian Taylor, a trumpet-playing biological engineer, finds that jazz and engineering share a tempo.
By John Canale
Brian Taylor’s passions have pulled him in two different directions — between science and music. Thanks to the Case School of Engineering, the three-degree alumnus managed to pursue successful careers in both fields.
Taylor ’05, MS ’09, PhD ’12, is an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He’s the principal investigator for UNC’s Quantitative Biology and Engineering Sciences Laboratory. There, his team is studying how animals are able to navigate using the earth’s magnetic field, and how that insight can be applied to engineering designs.
He’s also a professional trumpet player who minored in music at Case Western Reserve and writes and arranges jazz music. In 2016, Taylor formed a group and recorded an album that includes some of his original compositions.
He’ll tell you that music and engineering complement one another, as each craft demands many of the same skills.
“Music and engineering, to me, are both very similar,” he said. “They both have a very analytical side and a very creative side. You have to be analytical when playing when you need to get from point A to point B. And you need to be creative to figure out a lot of engineering problems.”
Taylor was introduced to musical instruments in elementary school in Long Island, New York. It was a stroke of fate that led him to the instrument he’s played ever since.
“I actually wanted to start off playing saxophone,” Taylor said. “But they told me they had too many sax players, so they gave me a trumpet. And it turns out, that was the best thing that ever could have happened.”
Science had always been a big part of his life, too, and that was what drew him to the Case School of Engineering. On Case Quad, he studied under renowned robotics professor Roger Quinn. He earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and two advanced degrees in mechanical engineering.
As good fortune would have it, he also got to study with another well-known professor, Paul Ferguson, director of jazz studies in the CWRU Department of Music.
“Paul Ferguson has been a really big influence, even beyond the physical stuff he taught,” Taylor said, “It was the way he taught us to think about things, too.”
After graduate school, Taylor continued to play and eventually found fellow musicians to play alongside. This led to paying gigs as he composed and arranged music in his spare time. It was during his time playing at the Velvet Note, a jazz club in Atlanta, Georgia, that he felt ready to take the next step and record an album.
“It wasn’t nearly as stressful as getting a PhD,” Taylor said. “But I call it my second graduate project.”
In 2016, he recorded Spirito Sereno with a number of his musician friends. The album consists of three original compositions and three arrangements of standards.
As graduate projects go, it’s highly accessible. You can find the album, and give it a listen at www.engineeringmusician.com.
John Canale is a freelance writer in the Cleveland area. If you wish to comment on this story, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.