Lauren Gatta

For many, jazz music offers a dynamic listening experience. But to Hartford native Nicholas Serrambana ’20, jazz means much more.

Serrambana, who began playing the upright bass during his senior year of high school, said that he studies jazz from a the point of view of a listener and an academic, rather than from the perspective of a performer.

“I don’t really consider myself a musician,” Serrambana said. When he first came to Yale, he considered majoring in music, but soon realized that adhering to the music major curriculum — a curriculum that mainly consists of music history classes and composition seminars — would be “side-stepping” his interest in studying ethnomusicology.

Serrambana is now an African-American studies major with a concentration in music, which he says is much more fitting and curated to his interdisciplinary interests.

“If I’m going to be writing about music of the black avant-garde, then I don’t need to be taking classes about counterpoint, I need to be reading black literature and thinking about race relations in this country,” he said.

Black avant-garde jazz — a style of jazz improvisation that combines music and composition — piques Serrambana’s interest. He describes his personal musical taste as an “aggregate” of cultural studies.

Serrambana’s hunger to explore this type of music was “born out of necessity” since his high school did not offer a jazz program. He mentioned the music of Anthony Braxton, an American jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist, as an inspiration during his introduction to the world of jazz.

At Yale, Serrambana formed a small jazz combo with saxophonists Hersh Gupta ’20 and Gabe Mininberg ’20, pianist James Wood ’20, guitarist Mat Ferraro ’21 and drummer Thomas Hagen ’20. The group currently works with Yale School of Music professor Wayne Escoffery, a Grammy-award-winning saxophonist based in New York City.

“Nicholas is incredibly attentive to the way a jazz ensemble works, and he has an endless supply of ideas about how to make our music sound better,” said Hagen. “Even though he is interested in a lot of progressive and experimental music, his approach is never overly technical or esoteric.”

Hagen has taken several music classes with Serrambana and noted that he is “extremely thoughtful about the different cultures associated with the music he likes, whether that music comes from hit records, historical archives, or literally anywhere else on the planet.”

Serrambana sometimes feels that playing jazz in an “apolitical performance context” is “castrating the history of the music.”

During both semesters of his sophomore year, Serrambana took the initiative to apply for Yale’s Creative and Performing Arts Award and put on an event that addressed the history of jazz. Last fall, he put on an atypical jazz concert entitled “A Jazz Concert for the People.” In this performance, his combo interspersed music with question-and-answer segments.

“Rather than having people just show up and maybe enjoy the concert, certain structural components of the performance were explained,” he said. He hopes people walked away thinking “It’s not just that I enjoy listening to this, it’s that I have some understanding of what’s actually going on here.”

In the spring, he drew on his Hartford roots for inspiration and put together a tribute concert to American jazz artist Jackie McLean. For the performance, Serrambana collaborated with students from the Jackie McLean Institute in Hartford and provided histories of pieces on the program.

Serrambana currently works at the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library’s Oral History of American Music project as an interview transcriber. Research Archivist for Oral History of American Music Anne Rhodes said that Serrambana “not only had a jazz background, but a deep knowledge of a broad range of jazz musicians and their body of work.” She noted that he is “better-suited to transcribe these interviews than anyone who has previously worked for us.”

Serrambana also participates in Yale’s Black Sound and Archive Working Group. The group is a two-year initiative funded by a University grant that brings together faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate and undergraduate students to critically examine the history and significance of African-American music in the archives.

In the future, Serrambana hopes to plan another concert that would feature works from female jazz pianists including Alice Coltrane, Michele Rosewoman and Joanne Brackeen.

Allison Park |

Clarification, October 4: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Nicholas Serrambana’s ’20 views on playing jazz in his small ensemble.