Students aim to develop jazz culture

Yale Concert Band and Yale Jazz Ensemble perfom a tribute to Cole Porter and Glenn Miller at Woolsey Hall in 2010.
Yale Concert Band and Yale Jazz Ensemble perfom a tribute to Cole Porter and Glenn Miller at Woolsey Hall in 2010. Photo by Eva Galvan.

Late on Saturday night, computer science professor and Saybrook College Master Paul Hudak, New Haven bassist Jeff Fuller and Harvey Xia ’16 came together as jazz musicians. In the dimly lit Saybrook Underbrook, the piano, bass and alto saxophone trio played nine standard tunes for an hour and a half for an audience of roughly 15 students.

This small combo jazz ensemble’s performance was brought to life by the recently established Coffehouse Coda series, which has sponsored biweekly jazz performances in the Underbrook since Nov. 10. Earlier this semester, the Yale Jazz Collective, a student group that promotes jazz at Yale, partnered with Hudak to invite New Haven musicians and Yale students to perform as part of the series in duos, trios or other small groups from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturday nights. On Sunday afternoons, the Collective also hosts weekly jam sessions for both experienced jazz musicians and newcomers, Hudak said.

The Coffeehouse Coda series resulted from Hudak’s personal effort to promote jazz in Saybrook and the Collective’s efforts to play small jazz combo, he said. The performances follow the Underbrook Coffeehouse that takes place from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday nights and bring Yale student bands and other rock and pop performers from the New England area.

“Students can play just for the fun of it, but if they think ‘we have a gig in two weeks, we better rehearse and get better’ — those opportunities are really important,” Hudak said.

The Coffeehouse Coda and jam sessions are the first steps in developing a jazz scene at Yale, three Jazz Collective members said. Academic and extracurricular opportunities for jazz at Yale have been lacking compared to those at peer institutions for roughly the past three decades, when most of Yale’s competitors began to invest in formal jazz programs, Jazz Collective Vice President Julian Reid ’13 said. By lobbying the Music Department and higher-level administrators for academic opportunities, creating a community of jazz musicians and promoting jazz events on campus, Reid said the Collective hopes to nurture jazz culture at Yale.

While many of Yale’s music professors have jazz experience and expertise, peer institutions including Columbia, Princeton and Harvard offer faculty members and resources specifically for jazz studies. Currently, the University offers only a handful of jazz theory and history classes, and the School of Music focuses exclusively on classical music with the exception of Willie Ruff’s Duke Ellington Jazz Series and Fellowship, which brings famous jazz musicians to Yale and New Haven.

At Columbia, undergraduates can pursue a special concentration in jazz studies along with a major, and Princeton offers a certificate, the equivalent of a minor, in jazz studies. Both schools also give academic credit for performance — through both private lessons and ensemble work — which Yale offers at both the undergraduate and professional levels for classical musicians but not for jazz performers, leading many jazz-oriented undergraduates to pursue their music independently of the school or department.

To jump-start course offerings in jazz that focus on improvisation, the Jazz Collective is designing a residential college seminar that it hopes to get approved for next fall, Jazz Collective President Sam Frampton ’15 said. The class would ask professional musicians from the New England area, and potentially Yale faculty members, to teach jazz performance, improvisation, theory and history, he said.

Patrick McCreless, the director of undergraduate studies for music, said the department would welcome more jazz courses into the curriculum given demonstrated student demand, citing as potential jazz professors Brian Kane, a theorist who plays jazz guitar, and professor Michael Veal, an ethnomusicologist who plays the saxophone. Yet the small faculty size and liberal arts focus of Yale’s Music Department limits potential course offerings, he added.

School of Music professor and Jazz Ensemble Director Thomas Duffy said he would be interested in teaching informal workshops on jazz performance and improvisation, but that he sees formal classes as potentially more effective for motivating students to make a consistent commitment to jazz.

Duffy said he sees the extracurricular Jazz Ensemble as the “easiest” outlet for extracurricular jazz performance on campus given its regular rehearsal schedule, faculty and budget support and the infrastructure of the larger Yale Bands organization. But the Jazz Ensemble is a 17-piece big band, which may only appeal to some performers, Frampton said. The Jazz Collective hopes to develop opportunities for small groups that are even more improvisational, Hudak, who is also the Collective’s faculty advisor, said.

Frampton explained that the “smoky club” atmosphere of small ensemble performance could help expose students — both performers and listeners — to jazz culture beyond the music itself. The Collective organized its jam sessions, he added, to offer another “raw” look at jazz.

Before lobbying for institutional change, the Jazz Collective must demonstrate enough consistent student demand for jazz, Frampton said. This requires mobilizing jazz musicians already at Yale to ask for jazz opportunities and help create popular support by exposing the rest of the Yale community to jazz. Reid said the group hopes to put jazz music at the front of student consciousness with a weeklong festival in April that will bring professionals from New Haven and New York and organize interdisciplinary jazz lectures and student performances — including jazz-related a cappella groups.

Reid added that concrete examples of Yale’s commitment to jazz, such as a residential college seminar or festival, could help convince jazz-oriented prospective students to enroll at Yale, which would build the jazz community over time. He recalled speaking with high school seniors who expressed skepticism over opportunities for jazz at Yale, some of whom chose other schools because of their interest in jazz.

“You want visiting students to see an active thriving community here,” Frampton said.

But the Collective may face monetary challenges, Hudak said. Creative and Performing Arts Awards cannot fund events by performers from outside Yale, so the jazz festival and Coffeehouse Coda may need to find other sources of funding.

Hudak added that administrators have supported jazz events like the Coffeehouse Coda in the past since they also provide alternative ways of socializing. As an alcohol-free option on a Saturday night, the coffeehouse can be a model for other arts events where students “[don’t] think they have to get plastered,” he said.

“[Student jazz musicians] get to be creative and do cool things, while other students can be entertained for the night too,” Hudak said.

The Jazz Collective is comprised of roughly 15 student members.

Correction: Dec. 6

A previous version of this article stated that the residential college seminar program typically does not pay its professors. In fact, the program does pay its instructors for teaching.

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