At Yale, the jazz community is expanding. A bastion of student advocacy, students interested in jazz form a united front, seeking legitimacy from the University that has historically undermined Jazz, and nurturing what has become the stronghold for jazz artistry at Yale.
This paper will discuss the emerging jazz community through examination of available history — progress made, progress not made — and observing where and how these students have made an impact on the Yale community, the greater New Haven community, and each other.
For documentation, I utilized interviews, articles (primarily from Yale Daily News), and other secondary sources. A young undergraduate saxophonist attending Yale with years in the jazz world, I also relied on my personal experiences as primary accounts.
Eight years young, I touched the saxophone for the first time. The curved bell and hard brass sheen left me mesmerized. My early associations with the oddly shaped instrument were persuasive. Before then, the saxophone only appeared in the large hands of tall dark figures occasionally seen with puffed cheeks, scrunched eyes, and various other facial distortions. The sound created from breath rushing through the complex channels was instantly recognizable. Always expressive. Always lively. Always moving. Always jazz. To this day, these words in my mind represent the soul. The sound society labeled “jazz” voiced my emotional sensibilities. I have never not felt anything from jazz, it has always intensely affected me.. Musical phrases
sound like adjectives, verbs, and nouns — building narrative that inevitably evokes emotional reaction. Every word for every sentence for every paragraph encases intentionality, stitched together as the musician’s tale. Even though my more youthful self would not have articulated this sentiment this way, my instrument of choice was the saxophone, the vessel that could embody my soul. Thus, with my saxophone, I embarked on my musical journey in the jazz world.
Many jazz youths start their musical journey in the same fashion — with intrigue, with curiosity, and most often, with chance associations that birth attraction towards certain instruments. The initial awe never fades, the volume of material to study and practice seemingly endless. Many journeys are cut short, young musicians overwhelmed with how much they do not know. Even with mentorship and guidance, a jazz musician’s path is long and difficult.
Still, our paths look very different depending on our starting point. A brief look at the direction jazz has taken through history helps to contextualize the disparity in jazz education today.
Before New Orleans, the origins of jazz could be traced back to the fields in the South during the Jim Crow era. The blues was the foundation for jazz. Born from the African American experience, the blues expressed “the pain of lost love and injustice and gave expression to the victory of outlasting a broken heart and facing down adversity” (Scholastic). Spiritual, work, and social functions were accompanied by the hymns, work songs, and field hollers that evolved into what we call today the “blues.” Looking even farther back, the musical traditions of Africa and Europe heavily influenced jazz, musical improvisation deriving from both continents. From Africa: (1) rhythm and “feel,” (2) “blue”quality, and (3) treatment of your instrument as an
“extension” of your voice. From Europe: (1) harmony (similarities with classical harmony) and (2) instruments (most instruments, including the saxophone, originated in Europe) (JazzInAmerica). From the start, serious engagement with jazz involves navigating the complex intersectionality of cultures and ethnicities. In history, the most successful musicians negotiate the varied influences while remaining firmly rooted in the origins that define jazz.
After the Great Migration, the commercialized jazz (record industry, radios, dance groups) skyrocketed popularity (Gustafson). With commercialization came big bands. With big bands came less improvisation — time for individual expression cut short to accommodate performance time and fit onto records. As improvisation, the crux of jazz, faded over time, jazz took new direction. After World War II, jazz notably shifts “from the club to the classroom” (Gustafson), gaining popularity among college students. By the late 1950s, universities integrated jazz education into their curriculums. “In the classroom, jazz was explored in a new way. Rather than hearing jazz played while grinding on the dance floor, it became something to dissect” (Gustafson). This shift marked the transformation “from the music of the youthful rebellion to that of the cultured elite” (Gustafson). Academia transformed jazz into “high art,” as an attempt to elevate the genre to the status classical music has held for decades.
The early beginnings of jazz saw knowledge passed down from mentor to pupil or gained through trial and error. Lessons came not from the classroom but on the bandstand. Today, school programs, method and theory books, videos, and transcriptions exist. Although the
internet boasts bountiful resources about jazz education, the information easily overwhelms aspiring players (I know because I myself experienced this frustration). Guidance is key. In the present, jazz education remains generally inaccessible to the masses. Guarded behind college
tuition, most cannot afford the limited opportunities for jazz education out there. Jazz education exists for youngsters lucky enough to live in certain area of the country, more even for those with parents that could afford to hire private tutors to guide them.
“With its clinics, performances, ceremonies and panels, the conference is where the disconnect between jazz education and the performance and business of jazz comes into starkest relief. Still, the event illuminates how profoundly jazz education has come to influence the aesthetics and mechanics of the music” (Chinen).
With years of experience under my belt, I still consider myself tangentially related to the jazz community. I spent my formative years playing in jazz bands. There were no lessons on theory or technique, only lead sheets in Western notation instructing when, what, and how to play. It was fun. However,with high school applications looming, I juggled academica, sports, art, and music the best I could with the time I had. With school, track practice, rehearsal, and the long commute from Manhattan to JFK, no time was left in the day to dedicate myself to my craft. So I didn’t. Unbeknownst, I attended weekly rehearsals and performed for proud parents and instructors, my improvisational skills never improving. Hopeful, I imagined myself flourishing in my later years.
The same time predicament would continue in high school, juggling all my interests, never fully dedicating myself to any over the others. My high school jazz career would be spent with the exclusive Jazz at Lincoln Center High School Academy. Honestly, knowing my improvisational skills at that point, I was surprised by my acceptance. But compliments from jazz greats on my musicality, sensibilities, and tone on my instrument built my confidence. My consistent
excellence with the existing repertoire, in the practice room and on stage, preserved my confidence that I belonged alongside my bandmates from educational institutions with extensive improvisational instruction and well-established jazz bands. These schools produced the next up-and-coming jazz artists on the scene. In comparison, my high school lacked any jazz activity, the only existing school-sanctioned performance group being classical which explicitly excluded non-traditional instruments such as the saxophone. Consequently, the entirety of my high school jazz career spanned Sunday rehearsals and two to four performances over the year at several special venues and festivals: Carnegie Hall, Essentially Ellington Festival, Charles Mingus Competition, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, and more.
At Sunday rehearsals tension was tangible. Less confident than my peers in improvisational practice, I always played second (even third) fiddle to fiercely competitive saxophonists. An unspoken disrespect was implicated towards my less than stellar improvisational skills from
some “serious” about their craft. The “best” musicians were buddies with each other, the “average” musicians searched for social interaction. They were either silently excluded, shunned for lacking a skill that the “best” had the chance to hone since their early years.
In my later years, the JALC High School Academy program would expand. Two-hour rehearsals was joined with an hour of theory and an hour of combo sessions or private lessons. That hour of theory proved helpful in classifying sounds and such. However, the same problem that plagues most high school students in rigorous schools persisted: too much to do, not enough time. Without an established structure, some skills remain overlooked and do not receive the adequate care needed for growth. My sight-reading skills continued to be sufficient to produce satisfactory performances and so I never adequately carved out time to practice. I never had an incentive to
practice other than my desire for self expression. Matching the need to practice against my future goals (college and otherwise), my responsibilities to secure my future prevailed. With jazz, I settled, enjoying myself but doing just enough to get by. In High School Jazz I accomplished much and accomplished very little at the same time.
In the eleventh grade, I traveled to New Orleans to help rebuild the community after Hurricane Katrina. The raw talent showcased on the city streets blew me away. One particular trio stuck out. Inspired, I attempted to describe the scene, atmosphere and sensations and all:
“Shaded by the massive of girth of the live oak, its ginormous roots securing the ruptured sidewalk, was a rambunctious trio--a gathering of varied birthdays in threadbare blue jeans and bright, rumpled tees, jamming to “Second Line.” With calloused fingers, the smooth-skinned bassist struts his nylon strings, holding his mates in time. The drummer masterly wields her whittled boughs upon a rusted steel drum and white construction pail. Dreadlocks escape from her crocheted head wrap as she gifts her infectious groove. The alto enters her groove, and his lithe digits furiously glide through the chord progressions like an avatar. As the mesmerizing pleasure ends, he unhurriedly lowers his horn and opens his piercing blue eyes to hearty appreciation. A finely tailored listener’s once rigid physiognomy relaxes, his pointy alligator shoes shuffling to the jive. The unlikely trio crescendoed in measured unison.”
To achieve that level of artistry, the ability to express myself and effectively and concisely move an audience, I realized I had a long way to go. I realized I had gained invaluable experience in
the jazz performance art but I ultimately stunted any real progress with improvisation. Improvisation remains the chip on my shoulder. I looked forward to improving my Jazz at Yale.
I attended Bulldog Day Jam Session in the Underbrook Theatre. I did not have my instrument and probably would not have played in either case. I felt an active effort to alleviate the tension in the atmosphere. A fakebook accompanied each stand, no memorization required. Chord changes were written out. The memorization component, one that discourages many novices, was slightly alleviated. But inevitably, the memorization component cannot be fully erased as improvisation requires proper attention/knowledge concerning both tune and changes together. The novices, having not internalized the music, still struggled and some remained discouraged from even attempting. I had arrived at Yale with notifications about jazz opportunities and performances flooding my inbox. I initially sought out the seemingly vast opportunities for improvisational improvement and defining my craft.
“Jazz@Yale” appeared in my inbox. In the email, YUJC President Hersh Gupta details the options available for participating in formal instruction ensembles: (1) COMBO Program: 3 combos with no explicit regulations for instrumentation’ (2) Yale Jazz Ensemble: traditional big band instrumentation (3) Jam Session: hosted in Saybrook Underbrook Theater. Contact info for other email recipients became accessible and connected those interested in jazz. As most other official YUJC documents end, Gupta encouraged those with questions/concerns to reach out and requests the email recipients to recruit anyone “even remotely interested” with jazz on campus. Setting reminders about upcoming audition dates and deadlines, Gupta sent his gratitude towards the simple interest shown by each individual.
I tried out for the Yale Jazz Ensemble: high marks for musicality, deductions for improvisational capability. I sought out educational resources on improvisation with no results. In its current state, my musicianship built over the years was not enough. After my attempts and subsequent rejections and dead ends, I became too discouraged to perform before the other “more accomplished” musicians. Innumerable obstacles blocked the gates into the jazz community. History repeated itself with my involvement with the Yale Precision Marching Band, the barriers for entry much, much lower. The same old feelings arise: no skill development or personality, no community-driven elevation, no soul — not like jazz.
On their website, the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective (YUJC) clearly lays out everything-to-know about the organization. The messaging is purposeful. Most content references their agenda. The consistent message becomes: here’s the problem and here’s the working solution. The establishment and continued existence of the Jazz Collective focuses heavily on the fact that the organization currently provides structure and community for (JAZZ?) students where Yale has not.
“YALE UNDERGRADUATE JAZZ COLLECTIVE: PROVIDING PERFORMANCE OPPORTUNITIES FOR JAZZ MUSIC ON CAMPUS” welcomes visitors to the Collective’s homepage. The About Us section offers the Collective’s mission statement, established student-run programs, and their history. Each page remains consistent in messaging: we are frustrated, we have been fighting, and we will continue to fight to be relevant. . Every sentence seeks to legitimize, to defend, and to support their cause.
The first sentence retelling the origin story of the Collective is telling: “Founded in 2012, the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective (YUJC) was formed by a small group of Yale undergraduates (Sam Frampton ‘15 and Ethan Kyzivat ‘15) frustrated by the University’s deficiency in jazz courses, ensembles, and private lessons offered on campus.” Frustration with institutional deficiency birthed the Collective.
The 2015 U.S. News & World Report featured the top 20 universities in the nation, all equipped with at least one school-sponsored jazz band (Naik). All except Yale.
Jazz and Yale have history together. Mostly a forgotten history. The Yale Bands website loosely strings together information and photos for some cohesive narrative: “The Yale Jazz Ensemble traces its official roots to the 1970s, even though Eli’s Chosen 7 and other jazz combos operated at Yale before then” (Yale Bands). The earliest account appears as an alumni story from a member of the then-named Yale Jazz Orchestra 1965-1966, John Bay. In his account, Bay writes “YJE started in the fall of 1965 (if memory serves) as a student-run organization billed as the ‘Yale Jazz Orchestra’, under the leadership of Jack D. Lantz.” When discussing the band’s early repertoire, Bay reflects that the repertoire “probably left something to be desired.”
Little to no information exists for the years between 1965 and 1981. Afterwards, with some exceptions, available information includes the director, business manager, and concerts and repertoire with more recent years including photos and videos.
In 2015, Yale suspended the Yale Jazz Ensemble “citing a lack of qualified undergraduates and suitable practice space” (Naik). “University Bands Director and music professor Thomas Duffer, 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 together” (Naik). Duffy seems to have grown tired and caves in.
The event sparked debate on the place of jazz within academic institutions, particularly Yale’s undergraduate curriculum and the graduate School of Music. On the matter, School of Music Dean Robert Blocker weighed in: “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” Blocker severely undermines the jazz education favoring classical music. Alex Ross, music critic at The New Yorker, heard the statement “as backwards and reminiscent of 1930s’ America - an era when public authorities campaigned against the so-called vulgarity of jitterbug dancing” (Naik).
Furthermore, growing the jazz community cannot be accomplished without institutional support. Administrative input is necessary for success. Without adequate funding, students cannot invite prominent jazz artists to talk, to play, to teach, to share valuable knowledge. Students cannot host events with food and beverages, essentials for incentive and consequently successful turnout. Students cannot reserve time and spaces for these events to take place. These aspirations require established structure, something the average student cannot afford out-of-pocket and should sacrifice neither academics nor passion projects at the detriment of the other.
Luckily, former Head of Saybrook College Paul Hudak shared a passion for jazz with the frustrated students. Hudak provided the necessary administration and financial support that set the foundation where the students could nurture the jazz community at Yale. With the financial support, the students launched the Underbrook Concert Series, a key program that provides jazz
education (previously nonexistent) and increased awareness and presence on campus. As word spread and turnout improved, the jazz community grew. Within the first year, the momentum from the Underbrook Concert Series garnered support for what would eventually become the Yale Annual Spring Jazz Festival. Attendance and reception saw even more growth from “students, community members, and Yale administrators alike” (YUJC). Former YUJC president Alexander Dubovoy ‘16 previously highlighted the continued negotiations with the administration for organized jazz programming (Naik). Although the students passionately advocated for themselves, without the early partnership with an administrator, the Collective would not have existed and jazz would have no place at Yale.
Taken directly from the Student Organization section, when regarding funding sources from the university, Yale claims the following: “Yale recognizes that organizations under the leadership of undergraduates can and do enhance a student’s education by providing additional opportunities beyond the curriculum for personal development and growth. Furthermore, the University and the community benefit from the variety of services and activities provided by undergraduate organizations.” If this statement stands true, does Yale not believe jazz benefits the community? Given the University’s storied and continued deficiency in support, unfortunately, presently the answer is yes Yale does not believe.
Dubovoy exposed the underlying issues below the surface: “The problem isn’t that Yale doesn’t offer jazz coursework. 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” (Naik). This revelation questions Yale’s priorities concerning their commitment to expansion. This question seems more prevalent than ever. In recent years, Yale has undertaken massive construction projects with the
Schwarzman Center and the new residential colleges. The University has consistently chosen to allocate massive endowment and rich resources elsewhere. Alumni funds heavily influence the content of the curriculum, supporting the study of classical music. Yale appears more committed to financial self-interest than the needs of the student body.
When the Yale Jazz Ensemble disassembled, students filled the void. Under the student=run Collective, Benji Steinberg ‘17 established the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Orchestra. “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” (Naik).
Brian Kane, an associate professor in the undergraduate Department of Music, argues that jazz education at Yale would flourish if outside donors desired so, not the students: “While the music department has the will, we don’t have the means” (Naik). In 2016, an anonymous donation to the Yale School of Music did just that. School of Music Dean Robert Blocker announced the three-year pilot Jazz Initiative with three promises: (1) reinstate the Yale Jazz Ensemble, (2) provide an improvisation course, and (3) provide private saxophone lessons and undergraduate jazz combos. “The initiative was a significant milestone for the establishment of jazz at Yale, and represented promising results of the Collective’s advocacy” (History)
As many youths do, five-year-old Hersh started his musical journey with classical piano. When Hersh was slightly taller, he picked up the saxophone, which became his main obsession. He continued to study on both instruments, seeing that “they really complement each other well”. Hersh warmly recollects days practicing with his mentor, a high school student interested in jazz.
The pair bonded over their shared interest, Hersh attending many of his performances until he graduated. Eventually, Hersh himself graduated, moving onto his own teacher where he began his deep dive into the study of jazz on the saxophone. He equates learning jazz to learning new
languages, both processes requiring more than simply exposure. Deep immersion and critical engagement with the material is essential for even getting comfortable. Mastery involves an immense amount of listening, memorizing, and executing. Musicians must build their vocabulary before they can from sentences, let alone essays and books. Hersh attests mentorship and instruction are priceless influences. Learning directly from another person, passing down knowledge, is part of the journey. Other than his previous mentors, Hersh has many musicians he find influential, integral in the formation of his own sound. Cannonball Adderley, an alto saxophonist, is his primary influence.
On the fact that Yale offered no lessons for jazz, Hersh says “one of the most frustrating parts of the current situation.” Regarding community engagement, Hersh emphasizes with the plight of fellow Yale students with any interest: “If there is no real incentive for it, unfortunately it’s not something you can really prioritize.” While programs are available, they are “limited in their scope.” For example, last semester, I took “Jazz Improvisation” with Wayne Escoffery. The class counted for 0.5 credits and met once per week. Even though there were assignments and an existing incentive to academically excel, the class did not have much weight or significance in the grand scheme of academic obligations and responsibilities. This semester, I enrolled in first-ever iteration of “Jazz in American 1900-1960” with Brian Kane, a rare case of advocacy within the administration. Kane spearheads the jazz initiative on the administrative front, personally integrating jazz into the Yale music curriculum/vernacular. However, as many theory
classes and jazz history classes become available, the execution and continued practice of principle and culture remains absent. Hersh sums up the problem perfectly: “if you want to play, and you don't receive a spot in any of the, be like, y'know, you can count one hand how many spots there are, right? Then, there really is no infrastructure to support that interest or develop an interest further so that you can reach that point.”
Is jazz dead? This question resides in the minds of jazz musicians. Hersh describes jazz as “often misunderstood as overly complex,” partly responsible for the absence of lyrics in the genre. To that point, classical music does not have lyrics either. Today’s top charts struggle to “reach deep into what makes strong music,” Hersh continued.
Another member of the YUJC has spoken out about this ongoing debate. Ethan Dodd tackled the question in his piece published in the Yale Daily News aptly titled “Is Jazz Dead?” Dodd begins by recounting the early history of jazz, mentioning the “derision of Victorian moralists” as an indicator for feelings towards jazz. Dodd claims “jazz is a rebellious teenager” as the viewpoint educators had towards the artform. Brian Kane: “Jazz is dead if one thinks about a certain set of narrow conventions to define it. If it has to look like jazz of the past, jazz is dead.” “People don’t really know what jazz was, much less what it is.”
Another problem that came up was the perceived inaccessibility of jazz. Hersh shared his precollegiate experience in the jazz world: In high school, I would do a lot of national things with jazz. Studying them now, it's very much recessed into this cerebral music that's really labeled as inaccessible before you even approach it.” Presently, the treatment of jazz seems more geared towards an educational rather than culture. An intellectual pursuit rather than expression.
Hersh agrees that these attitudes have heavily influenced the artform’s trajectory. The fact that Yale refuses to provide proper support for those interested in jazz highlights the inaccessibility factor. Dodd laments that improving proves difficult because “learning improvisation needs a mentor, and Yale lacks them.” Thus, the YUJC and the jazz community almost exclusively consists of people with extensive precollegiate training. Access to quality precollegiate jazz programs requires money, time, and resources, which explains the white and male demographic. As many opportunities appear for jazz education, an organized, didactic, instructional infrastructure is paramount to support aspiring musicians and to help them develop. Frustration with Yale birthed the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective. A healthy relationship with the institution is central to successful growth and future prosperity for any organization (student-run). Small group of Yale undergraduates personally advocated for proper treatment and care towards jazz. They sought to increase the presence of jazz on campus. An early administrative/faculty advocate, former Head of College Paul Hudak laid the foundations for the students to build upon. Hudak provided the necessary administrative (and financial) support to launch the student organization. Lacking an existing infrastructure, establishing the jazz community at Yale was always an uphill battle.
The Underbrook Concert Series is the center of jazz education at Yale. The series seeks to legitimize jazz education on campus through establishing structure.By hosting performances and masterclasses, the series builds the instructional component. Since the institution lacks faculty, the organization searches the entire expanse of (what constitutes) the jazz community. Outside expertise supplies the instructional component (one-off) were the institution fails to adequately direct resources towards. The organization remains restricted by limited budget. Money brings
outside expertise onto campus. Advertising the masterclasses as free and open to the public, the organization actively seeks to encourage other jazz lovers dispersed among the corners of campus to join. The organization seems actively aware of outside image. The organization is concerned with growing the jazz community at Yale. The members actively engage with possible factors affecting engagement, diagnosing/identifying problems and finding solutions.
The early members gradually took methodical steps to lay the foundations and to ensure the future prosperity of the jazz community at Yale.
Hersh sees that the YUJC strives to provide that missing infrastructure for the jazz community on campus. For the past two years, the YUJC under Hersh’s leadership has provided “both educational and performance opportunities to meet the needs of students on campus, given the small scope of the university offerings.”
Hersh excitedly recalled an experience during the jam session they hosted that day. “Today, we actually had a bunch of these high school students show up from North Haven. Their band director was all like "hey, I've been on your email list and I've seen some of your other shows before so I thought to bring the kids down." So that was really really nice, they all went up and played a little bit and like sometimes you get up and fall flat on your face but we want to make an environment where that's really okay to do. So we had it in the JE Common Room, very realized atmosphere and we had 50 people come thru today, which is huge. Usually we are about 20, 30, 40, y'know, but 50s are a promising sign. ”
The YUJC has made progress. But there are still ways to go.
Chinen, Nate. “Jazz Is Alive and Well. In the Classroom, Anyway.” The New York Times, 4 January 2007.
Dodd, Ethan. “Is Jazz Dead?” Yale Daily News, 11 April 2019. Gustafron, Adam. “Did academic kill jazz?” The Conversation, 7 February 2019. “History.” Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective, CampusPress. Naik, Rohan. “Can Yale jazz up campus?” Yale Daily News, 2 October 2015. Ye, Joey. “Blocker announces Yale School of Music Jazz Initiative.” Yale Daily News, 3 August 2016.
“YJE History.” Yale Bands, Yale University.
Hersh Gupta, Conversation with Author, 18 February 2019
Ethan Dodd, Conversation with Author, 2 May 2019