John Harmon will be Ripon’s honorary degree recipient at Commencement

John Harmon of Winneconne, Wisconsin, a widely acclaimed composer, jazz pianist and music educator, will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Ripon College’s 2021 Commencement.

While the ceremony is limited to graduates and their families, the event will be streamed live and available to watch at

Harmon’s music is influenced by jazz, Americana and Native American sources. He has had more than 160 published compositions and commissioned works for orchestra, chorus, band, brass chamber groups and jazz ensemble. They have been performed by such ensembles as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, “The Orchestra” of Los Angeles, Fox Valley Symphony, Santa Fe Chamber Orchestra, Mirecourt Trio and jazz trumpeter Bobby Shew.

He also co-founded, composed for and performed with the critically acclaimed contemporary nonet Matrix for several years.

As a music educator, Harmon has been a composer-in-residence for more than 40 elementary and secondary schools and for many years for the Red Lodge Music Festival in Montana. He also has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and founded the jazz studies program at Lawrence.

Honors include the Wisconsin Music Educators Association’s Distinguished Service Award in 1999, the Fox Valley Arts Council’s Renaissance Award in 2000, an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Lawrence and a Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters in July 2005.

At Commencement, Harmon will play two of his pieces, “The Time is Right” and “I Raise My Glass to You.” “This isn’t my show so much as it is the graduating class,” he says. “They’ve paid their dues, and now they’re off and running. If I was sitting in a room with them, I would raise my glass to them. I want to give them a little joy.”

Music still brings Harmon joy after eight decades. “It’s absolutely essential,” he says. “The world without music would be a pretty dark and bland world. It gives color and depth. All the emotions are covered by a musical performance, and I can’t imagine a world without it.”

He says the most rewarding part of his career is sharing that emotion with others. “Having wonderful players realize my music that is put in front of them, hearing something that I’ve conceived in the hands of very fine performers. You can’t equate that to a whole lot else. It’s ecstatic for me. It’s beyond any kind of financial rewards. It is priceless.”

One of his symphonies was recorded and released last month by the Scottish National Orchestra. “That’s pretty heavy for any composer,” he says. “Those are the things that keep me going. It’s who I am. I’ve had an extremely good life, travelling the world and playing my music. I’m still having a lot of fun performing.”

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