NYC jazz-flamenco percussionist arranges one of largest gifts in CMU history

Flint native, alumnus pays it forward to help future students

| Author: University Advancement | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

Flint native Mark Holen has made the largest financial commitment ever to the Central Michigan University School of Music, endowing a professorship in percussion through a legacy gift in his estate.

The gift will permanently fund the faculty position, including financial resources for salary, research, program enhancements and professional development. 

Close-up photo of a smiling man wearing a gold shirt and black vest.Holen, the unpretentious New York City drummer of the New Bojaira Jazz Flamenco Band, prefers not to cite the amount of his gift, though it is among the largest legacy gifts in CMU history. And it’s not Holen’s first major gift to the university. 

After his mother passed away in 2003, he and his father started a percussion scholarship in the family name. Thank you letters from recipients quickly convinced him it’s cool to help those who need it.

“A lot of CMU students are middle-class folks. They need support,” said Holen, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Central in 1970. “Students tell us our scholarship allows them to finish their degrees. That feels pretty good,” he said. 

Holen’s grandmother, Clara Katke, also graduated from CMU, earning a teaching degree in the early 1900s from what was then Central State Normal School.  

Jefferson Campbell, dean of the College of the Arts and Media, said Holen’s scholarship allows students to pursue classes and extra-curricular experiences that will accelerate their careers. He also said the impact of Holen’s endowed professorship cannot be overstated.

“This endowment will position the School of Music to attract and retain the highest quality faculty and best of the best students. We’ll compete effectively with any campus in the country,” Campbell said. “This is how universities make it to the next level.”

“Mark and his father have shown incredible compassion and generosity,” said Jennifer Cotter, CMU vice president for advancement. “Mark is a role model in thanking Central Michigan University for helping him live a remarkable life. He knows private funding is critical for CMU and its students, and he is a champion in inspiring others.”

An accomplished teen, driven to learn 

Holen was a respected percussionist by age 15, playing rock ’n’ roll with bands in clubs throughout Flint, “a diverse and swinging city,” he said.

He played in the Flint Symphony Orchestra and Flint Youth Symphony and studied with renowned musician Bill Schafer, a local drum shop owner. In high school, Holen studied percussion with a University of Michigan faculty member. His future at U-M seemed imminent.

Then came a snare drum solo at a state band competition before a jury of musicians. One was Rex Hewlett, CMU music department chair, who encouraged Holen to visit campus. There, Holen discovered his experiences at CMU would be vast, whereas opportunities in Ann Arbor would be far fewer because so many students competed for them. 

“I played in every group they had at CMU,” Holen said. “I studied with Dr. Hewlett, who was a big deal, and I became friends with a violin instructor, Alec Catherwood. I hung with all the professors — sometimes at The Bird. They cared about us students.

“CMU gave me a scholarship that covered most of my expenses. CMU changed my life,” he said. “Before I graduated, Alec Catherwood said his brother, Dave, had a jazz band in Chicago and needed a drummer. I drove to Chicago the day after graduation.”

Holen returned in a couple of years to Detroit, where he had a jazz band and an agent booking gigs in the Motor City, Flint and Ann Arbor. Then his best friend lured him to New York City. 

“I was 27 years old and life was changing,” Holen said. “New York just swept me away. I got into Latin music and started learning Spanish.” 

Playing flamenco music, paying it forward

Today, he is retired from a day job as a sales associate for Bloomingdale’s. He now focuses on composing music (some of which is found on albums with his former band, Zambomba) and being the drummer with New Bojaira and other bands. He plays in New York, across the U.S., in Spain, France, Italy and Portugal.

He plays in the Flint Jazz Festival each year and just spent two days at CMU with New Bojaira, doing flamenco dance and music workshops for students and a free concert for the Alumni Legacy Society. 

A man stands onstage in front of a microphone while members of a band sit with their instruments around him.
Holen, center, performs with the New Bojaira Jazz Flamenco Band at the Staples Family Concert Hall.

It was bittersweet to play at his alma mater again, for the first time without his wife of 36 years. Linda Segura, an actress and singer, passed away five years ago. She was fond of CMU and its people, Holen said. Just like him.

Holen hopes his gift inspires other alumni to talk with Central’s Advancement team about how the process of paying it forward works and to explore what’s possible.

“CMU made me a better musician because I played with so many different groups and worked with so many faculty,” Holen said. “A personal contact at CMU set me on the path that became my life.

“If CMU served you like that, I think it’s important to acknowledge that and give back as best you can. CMU students need our help.”

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