Now that long-time Yale Jazz Ensemble director Dave Brandenburg ’92 is being replaced by a Yale School of Music graduate student, the YJE will just have to play it by ear.
Thomas C. Duffy, director of Yale Bands, said the decision to place the YJE under student direction has nothing to do with the quality of the ensemble or the band’s financial situation. Instead, he said, the goal is to create closer ties between the YJE, which started as an unofficial undergraduate organization in the 1970s, and the School of Music.
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Brandenburg, who directed the YJE for 11 years, dedicated one night a week to the leadership of the Ensemble. A New York City resident, he is also the artistic director of the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival and a freelance composer.
The decision to transfer leadership, which Duffy characterized as “bittersweet,” has provoked mixed reactions from those involved with the transition.
Saxophonist Stephen Chen ’09 expressed reservations about placing the YJE under the directorship of a student of classical music.
“There’s no jazz program in the music school,” Chen said. “Classical musicians can be very dedicated to jazz, but the fact is that if any musician applies to the Yale School of Music, they are renouncing their dedication to jazz, because Yale is not a jazz-friendly environment. That’s my biggest fear in terms of the quality of the ensemble.”
But Chen expressed hope that a stronger relationship between the YJE and the YSM could be “a starting point towards more development of a jazz program in the Music School.”
Duffy, who led a jazz band as a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, said he thinks he can find a qualified Masters of Music candidate to provide the band with exciting new opportunities.
“There will be some [graduate students] that have had undergraduate experience at the finest jazz programs in the world, and that’s the kind of talent I’d like to bring in,” Duffy said.
He also said he would like to bring in guest artists, put on more performances per semester, hold improvisational classes or otherwise take advantage of a director who, unlike Brandenburg, would be on campus full-time.
“The original group wasn’t a big band — it was a rhythm section and a bunch of swinging horns out front,” he said. “The college big band is a lot of fun, but this program doesn’t have to be that — it could be anything.”
For many, though, it is not the prospect of the future but memories of the past that make this transition so difficult. Chen said that Brandenburg, who set up gigs for the YJE at the Yale Club and Spring Fling last year, has been a “consistent force” in the YJE.
“Dave has done an outstanding job with the Yale Jazz Ensemble in my three years with the group, and I was stunned when I learned of this decision,” YJE co-manager Kevin Green ’09 wrote in an e-mail.
Duffy said he will also be sad to lose Brandenburg, who is a YJE alumnus and former president of Yale Bands.
“He’s a great musician, a great composer and arranger. It’s a very difficult managerial decision,” Duffy said.
And Brandenburg himself is sorry to go. “It’s really a terrific group of students who care a lot about the music. I think we’ve accomplished a great deal,” he said Monday.
Yet members of the YJE remain optimistic that the ensemble can continue to succeed regardless of who is in charge.
“To some degree, the jazz band will play at a good level regardless, because a lot of it is up to the players,” Chen said. “The players are ultimately the people who decide how the jazz band goes.”
Brandenburg is also hopeful about the future, though with some reservations.
“I think that the students are dedicated and that the group will carry on, but there will definitely be a period of adjustment,” he said.
Brandenburg’s last official concert with the Yale Jazz Ensemble will take place March 3.