Let the Jazz Ensemble players run the show

As an alumnus who played piano in and managed the Yale Jazz Ensemble from the fall of 2001 to May 2004, I was surprised to read about ensemble director David Brandenburg’s ’92 departure this spring. David was a thoughtful leader who ensured the ensemble had at least two concerts each year – one in the fall, one in the spring. He also introduced me, and many others, to the music of Charles Mingus, something for which I will always be grateful.

When I played in the ensemble, it was an important outlet for talented undergraduate and graduate musicians to make a kind of music with which Yale has a history. It was the same music Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey and Charles Mingus played in 1972 when, before a standing-room-only audience, they shared Sprague Hall’s stage with 28 of their colleagues and University President Kingman Brewster ’41 to receive the inaugural Duke Ellington Fellowship. The fellowship, awarded occasionally since, was the brainchild of bassist and School of Music professor Willie Ruff who, like alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, studied music at Yale with the late Paul Hindemith. Even before Ruff came to Yale, the University — before World War II — would often pack two big bands at once into Commons for winter formals, years after budding jazz composer Cole Porter ’13 wrote his 300 songs as an undergraduate.

The Yale Jazz Ensemble is more than a fun hobby, and not just a rhythm section with some swinging horns out front. When we traveled to New York City’s Yale Club, or to the Williams College jazz festival in Williamstown, Mass., impressed listeners would frequently ask why the ensemble did not perform on the road more often. Usually the issue was one of finance, or a lack of coordinated management, both of which were often difficult to negotiate within a Bands system, and where the jazz ensemble director was often on campus for only one night each week.

So with the current director’s departure, the jazz ensemble should reconsider its structure. It is difficult to continue the ensemble in its current form (jazz is less popular than it once was, but don’t tell that to the Grammies), it is difficult to arrange rehearsal times for musicians for whom this activity is secondary or tertiary to other academic and extracurricular commitments, it is difficult to raise the money that purchases and preserves sheet music, keeps and repairs communal instruments and funds performances outside of New Haven and, of course, it is always difficult to find a bass trombonist.

But there are more than a few undergraduate arts organizations that are smaller, make music that is arguably less “popular,” and still record and tour regularly as lively contributors to Yale’s artistic life. The Whiffenpoofs, like Whim ’n Rhythm and the rest of Yale’s a cappella community, are undergraduate-run organizations that thrive on the enthusiasm and independence of their leaders and participants. The News reports Yale Director of Bands Thomas Duffy has proposed a Yale graduate student should replace David. Assuming one can find a graduate student at the classically oriented School of Music who has a background in jazz and the flexibility, time and patience to conduct and travel with the ensemble, what are the odds the ensemble will be lucky enough to find an equally good replacement when that graduate graduates?

Instead of a graduate student, the Yale Jazz Ensemble should consider becoming an independent organization that is exclusively undergraduate-run. Assuming the Bands are willing to grant them the requisite rehearsal time and space, the ensemble under such a model would have flexible rehearsal times to accommodate ensemble participants, not just the director’s schedule, and undergraduate leadership would lend vitality to the ensemble’s efforts to practice and perform in and beyond New Haven. Undergraduate leadership would also ensure continuity, since band directors could be drawn from the ensemble’s ranks. The maintenance of hardware and sheet music might require more work and responsibility than a typical on-campus artistic ensemble, but that is precisely the kind of challenge a Yale undergraduate is made to tackle.

In spring of my senior year, I performed a final concert with a jazz quartet I had helped create three years prior. The bassist and saxophonist were, and still are, incredibly talented musicians, but both had opted to pursue musical projects outside of the jazz ensemble because they did not have space for it in their schedule. An undergraduate-run ensemble would work with musicians such as these to produce an even higher caliber group worthy of Yale’s jazz legacy. As current ensemble saxophonist Stephen Chen ’09 said, “The players are ultimately the people who decide how the jazz band goes.” So let the players run the show.

Marc Sorel is a 2004 graduate of Yale College. He is a former manager of the Yale Jazz Ensemble.