Last summer, as he watched 33-year-old Luques Curtis perform alongside two-time Edison-award winning trumpeter Christian Scott at Bushnell Park, Nicholas Serrambana ’20 could not help but be filled with pride. The young bassist had been raised in Serrambana’s hometown of Hartford. Curtis’s success inspires Serrambana, who had begun to play bass himself in his second year of high school and now performs as a member of the Yale Jazz Ensemble. While Serrambana acknowledges that Christian Scott will be the biggest name featured at the fifth annual Yale Jazz Festival, it is Curtis whose performance he most eagerly anticipates.
“Being able to just watch a young person play who grew up not so far from where I came from and whom I’ve heard a lot about, [that] will be pretty cool,” said Serrambana.
The Jazz Festival is the most prominent celebration of jazz on Yale’s campus. Running at the Yale Art Gallery from April 22 to 23, the free festival includes performances, discussions and workshops with prominent jazz musicians. The event is organized by the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective, a student organization that describes itself as “the hub of the Yale jazz community.” Founded in 2012, the Collective organizes a biweekly concert series titled “Jazz in the Underbook” in Saybrook College’s basement theater and lobbies for a formal jazz curriculum at Yale. Serrambana, who serves as the organization’s outreach coordinator, is one of the five members of the board who are responsible for the planning and execution of the annual Festival.
The inaugural spring festival represents the culmination of the collective’s yearly programming. It has grown quickly since its spring 2012 inception, now boasting an annual attendance upward of 500 people. Despite the five years that have passed since its founding, however, the festival still embodies the original mission of the YUJC: to carve out a space for jazz on a campus with too little of it.
The YUJC is not a student organization in the traditional sense of the word. Aside from the five core board members, its metrics for membership are not as concrete as those of other organizations. The approximately 520 recipients on its email list all technically count as members, though these display varying levels of commitment.
Jack Lawrence ’18, program coordinator for the collective, believes that the performance of jazz is deeply intertwined with its social history.
“I think most talented artists are extremely aware of that, and will naturally bring the history to it when they perform,” Lawrence said. “So something that happens very naturally when we put on these events is educating people as well as giving them entertainment.”
Serrambana agreed that there is a special educational value to watching live jazz performances, noting that listening to the music in such a setting is “an essential part of the experiencing of learning [it],” arguing it is more “spontaneous” than many others forms of music. Since “improvisation is part of [jazz’s] definition,” watching a performance live gives it a different quality “because you’re seeing communication that will only happen once, happen in front of you.”
Alexander Dubovoy ’16, one of the founding members of the collective, witnessed the creation of the Jazz Festival in his freshman year. The festival, Dubovoy said, was born out of “advocacy” and by students’ desire to “do something big.” The organizers wanted to start a tradition that would signal to the Yale administration jazz’s relevance to the student body. Additionally, the concert was made free and open to all to facilitate communication between the University and New Haven, which itself has a long jazz history.
“Jazz, we thought, had the capacity to bridge the gap between Yale and New Haven,” Dubovoy said. “It was music that would resonate with the local culture and that could draw people in. We wanted to open Yale’s perpetually locked gates and make people from New Haven feel welcome and included in a celebration of our shared cultural heritage.”
And indeed, New Haven residents form a significant portion of not just the Jazz Festival’s attendance, but that of the Underbrook and other events the collective holds throughout the year. The organization has advertised the festival at local New Haven businesses and is sponsored by several organizations in the Elm City. However, despite this widespread community engagement, current YUJC president Colum O’Connor ’18 has expressed a desire for greater student engagement as well.
“I really want a lot of students to take advantage of a free concert by some of the world’s most talented and innovative progressive musicians that jazz has to offer right now,” O’Connor said.
Since realizing the event is what O’Connor calls “a logistical nightmare,” planning for next year’s festival begins as soon as the current year’s ends, with serious planning in the fall. Since some performers will turn down invitations, potential candidates are contacted early in the process. Musicians usually make requests for specific onstage equipment that YUJC has to accommodate. However, the biggest problem is securing adequate funding. The lack of funding for the Underbrook concerts this year amplified the challenge of funding the festival.
“[Funding] was a struggle,” said Jaylen Pittman ’19, treasurer of YJUC. “The music scene is always tough to fund. A lot of a capella groups do a really good job of funding, but it’s also because they have a very strong alumni base. And that’s a particularly special challenge for jazz, because jazz doesn’t have a great history at Yale.”
That lack of history means the school hasn’t produced many professional jazz musicians, which limits another potential source of funding: special grants that require the presence of Yale alumni in order to be secured. For this year’s festival, however, YUJC did invite a Yale graduate: M’Balia Singley ’94, a successful Philadelphia-based singer. The widely acclaimed composer and musician Vijay Iyer ’92 also performed at the first festival. Meanwhile, the board has gone through other avenues to secure funding, including selling advertising to local New Haven businesses. The festival has also been sponsored by a variety of organizations: a nonprofit named Jazz Haven, the Side Door Jazz Club, community radio WPKN and the Neighborhood Music School.
Mike Hoot ’17, former president of YUJC, believes that the process of planning the festival has grown easier over the years, as the organization has built relationships with sponsors and artists. Still, he also acknowledges that difficulties persist, many of which lie in the “accumulation of small things.”
“For every minute this year’s board members have spent planning concerts and talking to artists, I’m sure they’ve spent another 30 minutes making sure there’s food in the dressing rooms, or printing posters, or carrying sound equipment across campus,” Hoot said. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that has to be done, and it’s all being done by undergraduates, which is both challenging but also really satisfying [when you] see the final product.”
Deciding on the festival’s performers is also a yearlong process, as the board considers a list of potential candidates and then reaches out to them. Not all accept the invitation, and even after they do, a great deal of planning still needs to takes place. Pittman noted the different criteria by which the Yale administration and the collective select artists. The Yale administration tends to invite more traditional jazz musicians to its official festivals, like Pulitzer Prize winner Wynton Marsalis to the “Jazz: A Celebration of America’s Sound” concert hosted at the Schwarzman Center over spring break. The YUJC, meanwhile, usually focuses on younger, more progressive artists at the forefront of musical change.
“We try to find a compromise between artists that we think are really pushing the bounds of the music and are really great, and artists well-known enough to attract more attention than the artists we hire at the Underbrooks,” said O’Connor. “We like to put on concerts for students as well as New Haven residents at the festival, but we also want to show Yale that we are an organization that is capable of attracting high profile musicians.”
The YUJC has a vested interest in proving itself to the Yale administration, which for years has often neglected to support the expansion of jazz-related extracurriculars and course offerings. As a result, Yale’s jazz scene has suffered in comparison to its peer institutions. The Yale Jazz Ensemble, the sole jazz instrumental band on campus, was initially suspended by the School of Music in 2015 due to a dearth of undergraduate performers and resources. Its absence led the creation of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Orchestra, which is now defunct in light of the ensemble’s return for the 2016–17 school year. Yale does not offer a formal jazz curriculum either, as the University’s Music Department is heavily grounded in Western classical music.
Since arriving at the Yale School of Music in 2008, associate professor Brian Kane, who has spoken and performed at the collective’s past Jazz festivals, has taught a graduate seminar on jazz and the ontology of music called “Jazz Harmony” and a mixed performance and research course on improvisation. But despite his plans to add a history of jazz course in future years, Kane believes the state of jazz music at Yale is “not great.” Although many courses at Yale would potentially qualify as Jazz Studies classes, including offerings in Music, African American Studies and English, no interdisciplinary program links them together, according to Kane
“Yale is the only Ivy League university that lacks a formalized jazz studies program, concentration, or emphasis,” said Kane. “By the phrase jazz studies, I do not mean simply a few performance classes in jazz or in improvisation, but the rigorous study of jazz as a cultural, artistic and musical phenomenon, one that demands critical investigation, archival research and imaginative scholarship. Jazz Studies is really an interdisciplinary project — not the province of one single department or professional school. It requires support from the administration. Their inaction has effectively hindered the possibilities.”
Still, there are signs that the collective’s efforts have begun to make a difference. On July 29, 2016, the School of Music announced the creation of the Yale Jazz Initiative, which offers new jazz courses and instruction for undergraduate jazz combos. Furthermore, the School of Music hired two of the performers at last year’s Jazz Festival: saxophonist Wayne Escoffery as lecturer in jazz improvisation and bassist Jeff Fuller as an ensemble coach. And yet, even though O’Connor agrees that the Initiative has brought the University closer to giving jazz “a place in academia,” he would like to see Yale College institute a similar program. Since Yale is a liberal arts institution, O’Connor said, the collective feels that it should incorporate something as “inextricably tied to American culture and American history” as jazz.
“I think ultimately the Jazz Initiative is something we want to see some sort of equivalence for in Yale College,” said O’Connor.
Lawrence agrees. In an op-ed for the Yale Politic, he described jazz as “a music of resistance and liberation,” noting the deep connections between its development and “African-American history and transnational black cultural movements.” A music program that ignores jazz, Lawrence concluded, “not only fails to teach the origins of our nation’s music but also perpetuates a racially unjust curriculum.”
The Jazz Festival is one way the collective has sought to introduce new voices into Yale’s musical landscape, as well as deconstruct limited preconceptions of what jazz music entails.
“The term jazz has all sorts of historical implications; it really doesn’t describe one sound of music, and it hasn’t done so for a very long time,” said Lawrence. “So while it’s a useful term to describe a lot of genres that involve improvisation that stem out of African-American music genres, what jazz really sounds like could mean many different things, and we want to reflect that with our programming.”
The lineup at this year’s festival, though fully composed of jazz musicians, embodies that ideal of diversity. Bluesy vocalist Singley, the opening headliner on Saturday, adopts an individualistic style grounded in gospel. Grammy-award nominated trumpeter Scott, the Sunday headliner, has pioneered a new genre called “stretch music,” which innovatively blends jazz with hip-hop and West African rhythmic music. The festival will also feature trumpeter and composer Adam O’Farrill and his band Stranger Days, which will also hold a performance workshop with Yale students. The final concert, jointly organized with the Yale Department of Music as part of its Africa Into Jazz/Jazz Into Africa series, will showcase Cameroonian bassist, vocalist and composer Richard Bona alongside pianist Randy Weston, both of whom enjoy a long list of awards. Last year’s lineup showed a similar commitment to diversity in genre and style, running the gamut from Arturo O’ Farrill, a renowned Afro-Cuban jazz performer, to Anthony Coleman, a longstanding presence on the New York avant-garde jazz scene.
“The festival, frankly, [is] one of a kind,” Dubovoy said. “It takes hard work on the part of its student organizers, generosity on the part of its funders, and a lot of passion on the part of its artists. But miraculously, it has kept on going and growing. And I know it will keep on doing so, as this work will never be done. But the journey has made me and my peers better people and advocates, at every pitfall and every success.”