Dream a little dream of jazz

Jazz musician and composer Jimmy Owens

For Julian Reid ’13, pretty much everyone is a “cool cat.” He plays with his musical ensemble every Sunday in Morse Dining Hall (“Master Keil is a cool cat”). He promised himself before coming to college that, “worst come to worst, [he’d] practice music in his room.” One of his biggest problems sophomore year was finding a bass player for his group.

Reid is one of a handful of jazz musicians at Yale. And he feels that his brand of music is more or less left out in the cold.

“All the classical people here who are up to snuff can get lessons and get credit for them,” Reid grumbles. “Why is that not the case with jazz?”

Ranging from classical piano to opera, musicians at Yale have any number of options when it comes to developing their skills in the classical Western tradition or finding peers who share their interests. But jazz lacks the same kind of institutional infrastructure. The Yale Jazz Ensemble, a 17-piece big band, is the only registered campus organization devoted to performing jazz regularly; the School of Music’s Ellington Jazz series brings in four prominent jazz musicians annually, compared to what Reid estimates are almost weekly performances by giants on the classical music scene; classes on jazz performance and theory are offered in a scattered way, and across departments.

“Classical is way bigger — there are seven orchestras on campus, but maybe three to four steady jazz bands, and just musicians scattered around in an unorganized way,” according to Jake Backer ’14, a member of Reid’s ensemble.

Yale is nationally recognized for the strength of its classical music programs. It is, however, taking a while to catch up in terms of jazz.

Perhaps the clearest explanation for why jazz has taken a backseat to classical music is that the form’s academic significance is still hotly debated. What’s still to be negotiated is a place for jazz in a music program largely centered on the Western canon.

For some, like Music and Ethnicity, Race & Migration major Juliet Buesing ’11, who wrote her senior essay on the role of black music at elite universities, the absence of sufficient jazz-related classes must be taken seriously.

“Out of four semesters of music history [music majors] are required to do,” said Buesing, “we spend one week on African-American music. One week!”

Students and professors interviewed said they feel Yale is shortchanging jazz, particularly considering the form’s cultural relevance. They add that understanding jazz is not only about understanding a vibrant, rich form of music. It’s, in Buesing’s words, giving due credit to a phenomenon that meant African-Americans finally had a voice, and which gave the European classical tradition a run for its money.

Professor Brian Kane, who has taught courses in jazz technique, said he believes jazz must be discussed and analyzed in music department classes.

“Jazz is an essential part of the history of Western music, especially American history,” Kane added.

Buesling believes that one reason Yale has yet to build up a jazz program is that it can take comfort in its main music program.

“Yale is particularly good at what it does do; we’re very, very good at Western classical music,” she said, adding that this means it’s not surprising that the University has not felt a pressing need to change.

A particular problem arises when Yalies want to find classes that can teach not just ‘about’ jazz, but how to ‘do’ jazz. It’s here that those invested in the younger form feel that they are at a disadvantage compared to peers building on classical music skill sets.

Reid argues that Yale does not offer enough classes in jazz theory, performance and practice. To him, what’s key is bringing in more faculty members qualified to teach students about these subjects, mirroring programs like Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies, or even Yale’s own ‘lessons-for-credit’ arrangement for undergraduates in classical music.

“We could have more jazz cats come to campus — cats that live here in New Haven, or even in New York, who can actually teach players, not just theory,” Reid suggested.

The music department has a different perspective. Kane, a practicing jazz musician who said he learned much of his skill by associating with musicians in Oakland during his undergraduate days at UC Berkeley, said he believes that people training to be jazz musicians can do so in less formal settings, like jams with local artists.

“Insofar as you want to turn people into jazz musicians, jazz does not need to be taught [by the music department],” Kane opined. “What I can teach people about is how to understand that music, what’s going on harmonically and what the musician intends.”

Still, Beusing warns that Yale, with its focus on training new generations of classical musicians, may be left behind unless it caters to forms in which students and audiences today are more interested. Other universities, she said, are increasingly training jazz musicians, giving them a much higher degree of faculty support than such musicians at Yale receive.

“Yale is really missing the boat on this one,” she added.

What a new surge in jazz classes and opportunities requires is demonstrated student interest. Amassing people to show this to the University has been a struggle, Reid said, though some students are now trying to cross this first hurdle.

“People here are serious enough about the music,” Reid said. But he emphasized that the jazz community is dispersed to the point where putting together a petition would be challenging.

This year, however, a new initiative to bring together student jazz musicians looking to perform together and discuss their music may lead to a more cohesive scene.

Sam Frampton ’15 said he has taken charge of a panlist for the jazz community in order to create more of a community.

“It’s been growing,” Frampton said, “We’re not all in contact, and I want to get people into it.”

Still, a limited number of musicians means that situations arise such as when Reid lost a member of his ensemble after his freshman year and had trouble finding another interested student, a search that took him months.

Reid added that, though he has been asked by admissions to contact prefrosh who have expressed an interest in jazz at Yale, he often does now know what to tell the admitted students.

“We lose a lot of cool cats to schools with strong jazz programs, or even conservatories linked to them, like Princeton or Harvard,” he explained.

Buesing said the reason why other top schools have strong jazz programs is that jazz is one form of black music that “has really broken into academia in a serious way,” because of its complexity and status as a serious art form.

Kane argued that he sees Yale students as capable of, and likely to, take the initiative to establish their own undergraduate jazz culture. But without fresh blood, no student-fueled scene can survive. Whether it’s about academic snobbery or a wider issue with the kind of student Yale attracts, the university has yet to become the type of school that draws the leagues of “cats” Reid would like to see.

“I wouldn’t phrase it as Yale is competing with other institutions for jazz musicians and losing out,” Buesing said. “Yale’s only playing one game right now, in classical music, and it’s winning.”

The University has yet to decide whether it wants to enter this new arena.

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