“Why don’t you have a jazz program like Princeton’s?” a parent of a prospective student emailed Michael Hoot ’17.
In his response, Hoot — the president of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective — outlined the few jazz opportunities available at Yale, while acknowledging that the parent’s inquiry was not entirely unwarranted. After all, each of the top 20 universities in the nation — as ranked by U.S. News & World Report — will have at least one jazz band this year.
But not Yale.
Last year, the University suspended the Yale Jazz Ensemble, citing a lack of qualified undergraduates and suitable practice space. Yale also lacks adequate courses in jazz performance, any semblance of an undergraduate jazz studies program and a jazz faculty.
University Bands Director and music professor Thomas Duffy, who led the ensemble for 24 years, said that it had so few qualified undergraduates that he was forced to hire professionals for half of the band. He added that it was the “perfect time” to consolidate resources and leave the jazz ensemble off the schedule altogether.
The dissolution of the ensemble, as well as the general state of jazz at Yale, have evoked frustration from students and sparked national debate on the place of jazz within both Yale’s undergraduate curriculum and the graduate School of Music. In a particularly incendiary article in The New York Times, School of Music Dean Robert Blocker was quoted saying, “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.”
The statement was deeply troubling for many, as it seemed to indicate that the School of Music considers jazz less worthy of study than classical music. Alex Ross, music critic at The New Yorker, criticized the attitude as backwards and reminiscent of 1930s’ America — an era when public authorities campaigned against the so-called vulgarity of jitterbug dancing.
The situation at Yale is “real bad,” Ross wrote.
For his part, Blocker maintains that his quotation was taken out of context. He remarked that the allegations were particularly hurtful given that he has been an advocate for jazz his whole life.
But has Yale at large proved itself to be an advocate for jazz?
Students Gettin’ Down
Students have responded to the situation with rapid action and passionate rhetoric. However, the recent suspension of the ensemble is only the latest development in a long-running trend of student discontent with jazz on campus. Back in 2012, Sam Frampton ’15 and Ethan Kyzivat ’15 founded the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective, partly due to frustration with Yale’s lackluster jazz scene — specifically, the absence of a space for jazz musicians to coalesce.
Now in its fourth year, the collective hosts a regular concert series, “Jazz in the Underbrook,” which takes place in the Saybrook Underbrook every other week. Among other endeavors, it provides open jam sessions and organizes an annual jazz festival on campus, a weekend in the spring filled with concerts and master classes. In an effort to bridge the gap between Yale and New Haven, the collective also hosts local professionals who perform and coach students in jazz performance.
Former YUJC president Alexander Dubovoy ’16 said the organization tries to engage as much as possible with the administration in organizing jazz programming. Still, Frampton noted that because the collective is entirely student-run, it has greater freedom of choice than it would under University control.
After the Yale Jazz Ensemble was suspended, Benjy Steinberg ’17 established the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Orchestra under the umbrella of the YUJC. Essentially, the new orchestra functions as an undergraduate big band in place of the ensemble. While the ensemble was, for many years, unable to fill all 17 of its spots, the orchestra — which has the same number of spots — had no problem doing so this year. In fact, more undergraduates auditioned than could be accommodated.
Steinberg, the orchestra’s co-director and conductor, believes such enthusiasm resulted from extensive personal outreach that began over the summer. He noted that while the University-led jazz ensemble had publicized its auditions by reaching out to students at Yale Band meetings and emailing music panlists, Steinberg — being a student himself — was able to reach out to individual players in person.
“There was student interest, but no one was reaching out in the right way,” he said.
The orchestra has two concerts scheduled for the fall semester; it also hopes to engage in community outreach in New Haven and build connections with alumni. Additionally, the group will host an open rehearsal concert in November — an opportunity to show University administrators that student interest in big band jazz is alive and well.
Yale Too “Corporate” For Jazz?
Despite the orchestra’s promising nature, undergraduate students remain dissatisfied with what they see as a dearth of institutional jazz-related opportunities at Yale.
For instance, Max Vinetz ’18 described available courses in jazz as virtually nonexistent, noting that he couldn’t find a single class in which one could study the variations or intricacies of jazz.
To some, the issue goes deeper. “The problem isn’t that Yale doesn’t offer jazz coursework,” Dubovoy said. “The problem is more that Yale hasn’t felt compelled to expand or arrange its jazz work [such] that it amounts to a cohesive program.”
Students interviewed remarked on Yale’s seeming commitment to expansion, but questioned where its priorities lie. They believe that while the school has done much to promote the construction of the Schwarzman Center and the new residential colleges, it appears reluctant to meet the needs of the existing student population. Specifically, students questioned the lack of a structured jazz program despite the presence of these elaborate construction projects.
“Financially, Yale always operates in its self-interest. We know there’s this massive endowment and see money going to … things that are perhaps supporting pomp and circumstance at Yale, rather than protecting the integrity of student life,” said former YUJC Vice President Eli Brown ’17.
Hans Bilger ’18 said that he views the University as corporatized, with the result that curricular options are defined by streams of funding. He finds it especially disappointing that “a place with so many resources could also have a such poverty of resources” with regard to jazz performance.
Brian Kane, an associate professor in the undergraduate Department of Music, said that Yale could easily have a more robust jazz program were the administration or outside donors willing to fund it. He emphasized that, because Yale lags behind peer institutions in jazz offerings, the Department of Music would greatly support efforts to raise the profile of jazz on campus.
“While the music department has the will, we don’t have the means,” he explained.
$100 Million Isn’t Enough?
For many students, the lack of resources seems incongruous with a 2006 donation from Stephen Adams ’59 and his wife, Denise Adams, pledging $100 million to the School of Music. However, because the donation was made to the professional school, it is not beholden to undergraduates.
School of Music Deputy Dean Melvin Chen cited historical and traditional reasons for the graduate school’s failure to offer performance degrees in jazz. For over 100 years, he said, it has primarily dedicated itself to classical music education. He added that the $100 million donation allowed the school to catch up to the level of its peers, and that its current lack of jazz offerings is less a judgment on jazz itself as a genre than a reflection of the school’s limited capabilities and resources.
However, amongst faculty, staff and students interviewed, there was overwhelming consensus that a path to a substantial jazz program must begin within Yale College, rather than in the graduate School of Music. Both Kane and Steinberg said they do not envision the School of Music establishing a jazz program in the near future –– but that they hope either the College or University can.
Blocker himself could not offer a reason for why so much ire was directed at him as dean of the graduate school; he also views the creation of such a program as the responsibility of the undergraduate Department of Music faculty and the Yale College Dean’s Office. It’s not an impossible task — Blocker pointed to the establishment of a musical theater program in 2006 as a promising precedent, attributing the program’s success to the enterprising nature and determination of its creators.
“For new programs, everyone will say it’s a resource question,” he said. “There are never enough resources, but you have to go out and find [them].”
Textures of Jazz
While Yale searches for these resources, it also seeks to diversify the echelons of the music department — an aim that students view as highly germane to the establishment of a full-fledged jazz program.
According to Frampton, though jazz is a diverse and ever-evolving art form, its roots lie in African-American communities. Its trajectory, he said, has almost always been intimately tied to black history and culture. Given current conversations on campus regarding the racial implications of “Calhoun College” and the title “master,” Frampton sees jazz education as an opportunity for Yale “to put its money where its mouth is for once, and celebrate the contributions of people of color to American culture.”
Similarly, other students find the school’s reliance on classical Western music to be unrepresentative of today’s society. Out of the 69 faculty members at the School of Music, only one is African American.
Brown noted a direct correlation between the lack of black faculty members and the lack of a jazz program, saying the establishment of African-American voices in music academia would allow for a more prominent jazz culture and education.
As administrators at the School of Music, both Blocker and Chen noted that diversity is a “serious problem” they are struggling to solve. According to Chen, only a small percentage of classical music performers are African-American or Latino. In an effort to counteract this trend, the School of Music has established a “Music in Schools Initiative,” aimed at providing musical opportunities and mentorship to kids in New Haven who would not ordinarily have such access.
While students and administrators are working to address the lack of diversity and opportunities for jazz, Yale is already losing prospective students. Each of the Ivies and Stanford University have continuously maintained at least one jazz band for several decades. Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Cornell each have two or more jazz bands. Princeton offers a certificate — similar to a minor — for jazz studies, and many of Yale’s peer institutions offer jazz studies as an area of specialization within their larger music major.
Vinetz said that high school jazz players would be unable to continue their studies given the current situation at Yale. He recalled that he, like other jazz musicians on campus, had been hesitant to matriculate.
“Yale’s great, but if it can’t support jazz, why would jazz musicians go here?” he asked.
Improvising Campus Opportunities
While Yale flounders to create a structured jazz program, undergraduates have taken their own initiative in creating jazz opportunities.
The aforementioned Yale Undergraduate Jazz Orchestra is not looking just to fill the role of the suspended jazz ensemble, but also to venture beyond the gates of Yale. It hopes to raise enough money to perform in New York City, as well as to hire a professional conductor.
Additionally, small jazz bands have also popped up on campus. Vinetz formed a new experimental jazz quartet this year, in which he hopes to incorporate elements of hip-hop as well as influences from Kendrick Lamar to Christian Scott. Brown added that his separate band is looking to record an album in the spring.
Ana Barrett ’18 said she hopes to create a self-directed group that will provide members an outlet for personal creativity. She said that she sees her group as bringing together a variety of arts disciplines, from jazz to visual arts, and that it will allow the opportunity to pursue creative action in a communal way.
Likewise, faculty and administration looked positively toward the future. Duffy said he is excited to see the undergraduate orchestra perform, and that he has offered his music library as a resource. He added that his constant presence overseeing the Yale Jazz Ensemble had allowed the University to remain complacent in failing to address jazz offerings — a luxury it no longer has.
“The more music — jazz included — we can [bring] to campus, the richer the cultural environment will be for all students,” Blocker said.