The Music at the Margins

Illustration by Felicia Chang.

The Saybrook Underbrook, a performance space in the basement of the college, is unusually packed. The crowd spills over from rows of chairs and onto the stairs. They’re all waiting for New York Times-featured saxophonist Steve Wilson featured with his pianist and friend Pete Malinverni. Whispers of anticipation fill the room as the performers explain that they will play whatever music speaks to them. Malinverni’s feet zealously tap to the beat as his fingers dance around the keys. Wilson carries the rhythm, holding a prolonged brassy note with impeccable breath control.  Malinverni jumps from one end of the keys to the next in a jumble of complex notes. A woman in the front row is smiling, wide-eyed, nodding, entranced by the music, the rhythm and energy of the performers. A few rows behind her, a man sits with closed eyes, tapping his feet along. This is happening on a Saturday night for the annual Yale Jazz Festival, organized by student members of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective — and all in the name of jazz.

The Collective, a nine-member group of undergraduates, also brings established jazz musicians like E.J. Strickland and Nicholas Payton to Yale for free concerts, hosts jam sessions, organizes master classes, and plans the annual three-day Festival. But despite all it does, the group survives on grants from the Dean of Arts and Saybrook College, with no guarantee that the funding will continue next year.  

Founded in 2012, the Undergraduate Jazz Collective has become key for students at Yale interested in jazz. When sophomore Hersh Gupta arrived at Yale, he had been playing saxophone seriously for years and was excited to play with other like-minded musicians. This year, however, only two faculty members specialize in the genre, and the School of Music offers only two academic courses on jazz. There are only three jazz combos, one ensemble, and no private instruction in jazz performance. The audience at the Collective’s events spills out the door; someone sitting in the crowd might not know that these students are going it alone.

In 2015, when the building that houses the ensemble practice room was closed for renovation, the group’s director decided to cease operations for the following year. Frustration among Yale students boiled over, and word of the controversy spread beyond campus borders: the New York Times published an article about the Collective’s dissatisfaction with the university’s efforts to teach jazz studies. Dean Robert Blocker, Dean of the School of Music, told the Times, “We train people in the Western canon and new music,” suggesting that the university had space for classical music but not jazz. Blocker continued by saying that he was interested in hiring a saxophone teacher, but only if they could teach the classic repertory as well. Yale’s classical music bias is evident in its faculty, which is primarily composed of classically-trained musicians, and includes degree programs that offer instruction in classical, chamber and baroque music, but not an official jazz studies program.

“African Americans [have used] music as a way to archive their history when they didn’t have access to erecting their own institutional archives,” Brooks says. “The music was the thing we can use to document our hereness, as well as our past, as well our futurity.”

In July 2016, after the article, Blocker announced on the Yale School of Music’s website that the School of Music had been offered “an anonymous gift… to continue and expand its legacy of jazz studies at Yale.” Out of that gift came the Yale Jazz Initiative, a commitment by the School of Music to expand the legacy of jazz at Yale. The initiative involved bringing in musicians like Grammy-winning saxophonist Wayne Escoffery for jazz improv lessons, and opening the Yale Jazz Ensemble to all Yale students –– not just undergraduates. But Yale has a long way to go in order to rival peer institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia. Harvard has two eighteen-piece ensembles and brings in jazz masters-in-residence every spring –– this semester, it’s three-time Grammy winning Angelique Kidjo. Princeton offers a Certificate in Jazz Studies which requires four jazz courses, participation in one of the faculty-led jazz ensembles, and a recital performance. Columbia has eight jazz ensembles, including a group specializing in Afro-Cuban and Brazilian jazz, and it offers thirteen different private jazz instruction courses ranging from jazz piano to jazz vibraphone. The Columbia’s Music Department’s jazz section boasts the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance program, the Columbia Jazz Composers Collective Recording Series, a Jazz Studies Special Concentration, and a Jazz House where students “live and jam together.” Yale’s website offers a list of members, a schedule of events, FAQ and a mostly dormant livestream broadcasting performances and sometimes rehearsals. 

Sophomore Nicholas Serrambana, President of the Collective, is an African American Studies major with a music concentration. In his view, the lack of institutional support for jazz at Yale demonstrates a problem with the university’s values. “There is the issue of representation and the canon, and a major controversy is that the School of Music made a statement saying, ‘Look, we’re only interested in classical music and music of the western canon,’” Nicholas says. “Jazz is something that people consider quintessentially American. It’s interesting [that] that’s something that Yale’s not proud of.”

Daphne Brooks agrees. A professor in African American Studies, American Studies, Theater Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Brooks teaches classes focused on jazz and co-leads the Black Sound and the Archive Working Group, a two-year initiative led by a group that focuses on researching and archiving the history and significance of African American sonic practices. She aims to facilitate more communication between the African American Studies department and the Yale School of Music to create a structured curriculum. “African Americans [have used] music as a way to archive their history when they didn’t have access to erecting their own institutional archives,” Brooks says. “The music was the thing we can use to document our hereness, as well as our past, as well our futurity.”

The Yale Jazz Initiative will end in Fall 2019, but the Collective hopes to continue projects like the combo coaching program, which brought renowned musicians like saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and bassist Jeff Fuller to work with the jazz combos. Despite the buzz that the Collective has created, it seems that the School of Music does not plan to take on any financial or logistical responsibility for its activities. Serrambana says that working with Dean of the Arts Kate Krier and the Black Sound and the Archive Working Group has been helpful, and that his own band has seen how the Collective has succeeded in increasing attendance and having more inclusive events. He thinks that whether it be through bringing musicians to the Underbrook or putting on a festival, the Collective is doing worthwhile work in giving the Yale community the jazz music that they want to hear, and keeping the conversation going.

One week before the Jazz Festival, the Ensemble holds a special joint rehearsal with the nearby Hamden Hall Country Day School’s jazz band. As the event begins, Melissa Hudson, the band’s smiling director, explains how grateful she is to collaborate with the ensemble. A B flat resounds through the room as woodwind and brass instruments begin tuning. The notes they attempt mingle in the air with small conversation. The sounds eventually devolve into a clamor of instruments, then a pause for clarity –– and the music begins.  Gupta is focused, poised and secure,  sitting up front with the saxophone while Serrambana nods to the beat, plucking away in the bass section. Feet tap and eyes close as the bands play “Moanin,’” a jazz standard by drummer Art Blakey. A Hamden student shakily attempts a drum solo, and then watches, wide-eyed, as Yale student Colum O’Connor perfects it on his first try. Hudson walks around the room taking pictures with sheer awe on her face. The Jazz Ensemble displays the same soulful energy. It’s impossible to tell that some of its members are planning an entire weekend of jazz in their heads, and hoping for more.

—Amanda Thomas is a first-year in Saybrook College.

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