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Keeping the Tradition Alive

The relatively low percentage of Black students in jazz studies programs remains a topic of interest as scholars want to ensure that the musical culture of an earlier generation of African-Americans lives on.

WHEN 25-YEAR-OLD ASHLIN Parker applied to the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans, he did so not solely because of the school’s well-regarded reputation; he also couldn’t pass up an opportunity to play and study jazz in “The Crescent City.”

“It isn’t just that New Orleans is obviously a city with a great history in the founding and development of jazz,” says Parker, who plays the trumpet, “but that the university encourages its students to get out into the city and perform in clubs where they can meet musicians who actually play for a living.”

That campus-to-clubs universe is anything but accidental, says Missy Bowen, operations manager in UNO’s music department. “There used to be a train called the Smokey Mary that ran all the way from the Mississippi River to what used to be called Milneburg, where the UNO campus is located today. All of the great jazz musicians in the late 1800s and early 1900s traveled that route to play the Milneburg clubs,” Bowen says.

Although the train line has not operated in more than 70 years, the same general movement of musicians from the lakefront of New Orleans to the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny continues, with students from UNO playing in any number of clubs throughout the city, in particular the decades-old Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro.

The UNO Jazz Studies Program, which operates within the school’s department of music and emphasizes jazz improvisation, history, theory and arranging, is such a valued local institution that it survived a withering round of post-Katrina budget cuts that resulted in the elimination of UNO’s opera, composition and classical performance class offerings.

“I think the administration realizes the importance of a strong jazz studies program in the city of New Orleans,” says Steve Masakowski, jazz guitarist and UNO Coca- Cola Chair in Jazz Studies.

“Also, the UNO Jazz Studies Program is highly respected in the jazz community and attracts students from around the world,” he adds. “I’m sure it was a very hard decision, but because of our strength and support, we survived the cuts.”

Yet, despite the good news of its endurance, UNO’s Jazz Studies Program continues to face challenges, one of the most obvious of which is the racial makeup of its enrollment. According to Masakowski, in a city where Blacks make up more than 60 percent of the population, only 30 percent of the jazz studies students are Black.

Although there are no statistics documenting the racial break-down of jazz studies students nationally, the percentage of Black students in such programs remains a topic of interest primarily because jazz scholars want to ensure that the musical culture of an earlier generation of African-Americans is not lost on the younger generation.

“Right now we have in our program about 35 students, and five are African-American,” says Kenny Burrell, guitarist and jazz program director at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Burrell founded the UCLA jazz program in 1996 with the idea of building a faculty that would be composed of both scholars and musicians out in the field. The program emphasizes jazz performance. Upon graduation, students receive a bachelor’s degree in ethnomusicology.

“We’ve been trying to increase the number of African-American students,” adds Burrell. “We’ve secured some new funding for scholarships which will make it easier and more attractive for African-American students as well as other students to come here.”

Such scholarships range from $1,000 per year to more than $10,000 a year, from a number of sources, including the Don Ellis Scholarship in Jazz Trumpet, the Duke Ellington Jazz Piano Scholarship and the Marty Feldman Jazz Scholarship.

Newly appointed director of Jazz Studies at Northwestern University’s School of Music Victor Goines, also a famed jazz clarinetist and saxophonist, says that he is committed to attracting more Black students. However, says Goines, “just because we are not seeing a large number of African-American students in these kinds of programs, does not mean they are not into jazz. A lot of musicians simply choose not to go to school.”

Dr. Lewis Porter, the founder and director of the master’s program in jazz history and research at Rutgers University, which emphasizes jazz scholarship (the New Brunswick campus offers both a bachelor’s and master’s in jazz performance), wonders whether the low number of Black students studying jazz is not misleading: “I am always interested when I meet African-Americans who are interested in studying jazz, and I know our school makes a real recruitment effort in this regard.

“At all of the programs that I am aware of, the demographic is most what we call European American, which is White Americans of European ancestry, with a small contingent of African-Americans,” says Porter. “I don’t know the exact percentage. In any given class there are usually four or five African-American students.

“But these different percentages that you hear about can be deceptive. African-Americans are, after all, a minority of the American population. About 20 years ago there was a survey that was done through the National Endowment for the Arts that said that only 6 percent of African-Americans classified themselves as jazz fans. But keep in mind that about 3 percent of the entire population said they were.

“So even though the overall numbers of African-Americans who are interested in thismusical form are small, they are still higher than any other group, and I think that is reflected in the student enrollment statistics,” Porter adds.

The Expanding Student Demographic

One interesting phenomenon in jazz studies programs is the increasing number of students from other countries enrolling in U.S. programs.

“It really is a remarkable thing,” says Carl Allen, the artistic director of jazz studies at the Juilliard School in New York, where 33 students in the most recent semester, 11 of whom are African-American, focused on public performance. “But we are getting students today from all over the world — Japan, Cuba, Australia, Iceland, New Zealand.

“This tells me that for those who are afraid that jazz will someday die out, not to worry,” says Allen, who is also a well-known jazz drummer and bandleader. “It is a form of music that is in some ways more popular than ever, particularly among young people.”

The expanding student demographic in jazz also includes the nontraditional-aged college student.

“Not all of our students are kids, by any means,” notes Porter of Rutgers.

The majority of Rutgers jazz studies students are in their early twenties, having just completed their undergraduate degrees, says Porter, adding, “But I would say about a third of our enrollment is made up of people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s.

“They are people who are performers and decided that they want to become more involved in research, writing and teaching, [and those] who have done other things career-wise, but always loved jazz and have retired, making it possible for them to study jazz the way they have always wanted to.”

UCLA’s Burrell says he knows for a fact that jazz is not a dying art form. “Every year we have at least 100 kids applying to get into our program” for roughly 40 slots. “That tells me that they are not only interested in this kind of music, but that we have something good that they want to be a part of.”

Even so, saxophonist and composer Bobby Watson is urging educators in Kansas City — a place whose jazz history equals that of New Orleans and New York — to re-explore the city’s roots by bringing back band music as a course offering in area public schools.

“It’s no wonder so many of the younger kids, both African-American and White, got away from this kind of music,” says Watson, who is also the director of jazz studies at the University of Missouri’s Conservatory of Music in Kansas City. “Hip-hop became popular because many students in urban areas like Kansas City didn’t have any instruments to play. And without an instrument, it’s hard to play jazz.”

Watson hopes that reinstating band classes will not only lead to what he believes would be an inevitable renewed interest in jazz among high school students in Kansas City, but provide a pipeline of scholar musicians for university jazz studies programs.

“They have some band programs for beginners in high school,” adds Watson. “But if you are just starting out in high school, it may be too late — you are probably not going to be good enough to get into a university. We want these kinds of classes to be taught at the sixthgrade level, which will give the students plenty of time to get ready to go to college.”

Allen at Juilliard also believes that because the history of jazz is one of a musical genre that is always changing and evolving, it is inevitably incorporating some hip-hop and rap themes, making it more attractive to young African-American students.

“A good deal of jazz came up from gospel music and playing in the church,” says Allen. “Now we are seeing another shift where jazz is influencing other genres of music that may not be readily apparent to the ear or to those who are not musicians.”

That ability to fuse with other musical styles, says Parker of UNO, is one of the things that inspires him the most about the future of jazz.

 “I grew up on hip-hop. But when I was 13, I started to play a trumpet and got into a jazz band. That was when I realized there was more art to it than what I had previously imagined,” says Parker, who enjoys both listening to his fellow jazz artists and playing in New Orleans’ clubs. He says he hopes to create a musical sound that combines jazz with the rap and hip-hop that are often heard on the sidewalks and streets outside those clubs. Says Parker, “I think jazz is entering another era right now — and that’s why I find it so exciting.”

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