“We can never get enough jazz,” President Peter Salovey wrote near the end of his Monday note from Woodbridge Hall. His University-wide email chronicled the long history of Yale’s “serious devotion” to the African-American artform. Most recipients, unenticed by the email’s crafty subject line, “All That Jazz,” probably skimmed the note quickly. Others may have found the email strangely similar to another we received in August, when School of Music Dean Robert Blocker announced the new Jazz Initiative. His email at the time cited many of the same talking points: Professor Willie Ruff’s arrival to the Yale School of Music faculty in 1971, the “Jazz Convocation” in Woolsey Hall, and the start of the Ellington Jazz series in 1972. But despite this self-congratulatory list of events, Yale still has no Jazz Studies program, unlike all of its peer institutions.
Moreover, the people on this campus who are working to further the study and practice of jazz largely go unmentioned. Dean Blocker and President Salovey’s messages ignore the few dedicated professors who teach jazz history and theory despite the lack of administrative support.They fail to mention the students who continue to play and advocate for jazz even when it seems to have no place in Yale’s bluebook.
Daphne Brooks, a professor in the African American Studies and Theater Studies Departments, is one of these unacknowledged academics. She expressed concern about the President’s email: “Salovey’s apparent love of jazz seems to demand a robust and rigorous scholarly engagement with the music,” she said, one that we don’t yet see at Yale. Instead of scholarship, we get spectacle—the Schwarzman Center Jazz festival this weekend, which Salovey described as “a continuation of Yale’s rich history of celebrating and enjoying” jazz. Music to be celebrated and enjoyed, rather than an artform grounded in racial tension, seems to be the version of jazz that the university can’t get enough of.
Under Dean Blocker, the Jazz Initiative reinstated the Yale Jazz Ensemble after a two-year hiatus, hired a new professor to coach students and teach a Jazz improvisation course, and hired a classical saxophonist to give private lessons. These announcements came as a surprise because, just a year earlier, Blocker rebuffed the idea of including jazz in the YSM curriculum. “Our mission is real clear,” he told the New York Times. “We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” It’s possible the Jazz Initiative was simply the Yale School of Music’s way of saving face after Blocker’s dismissal of jazz—which is both Western and new—was poorly received. But regardless, the program has provided incredible opportunities to current students. Members of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective have long pushed for more institutional support for jazz. These students now have new formal outlets to practice their craft than before—though none are for credit.
Unfortunately, the Jazz Initiative fails to address the deeper issue: Jazz is still largely excluded from Yale’s academic world. The music department’s deep Western classical focus mainstreams white culture while sidelining art produced by people of color. Music is by no means the only humanity department in which Eurocentrism persists. English and Directed Studies often provoke similar debates, but the void in the music curriculum is particularly gaping because African-American music is so deeply central to our national sound.
Liana Ambrose Murray (TD ‘18) responded to this issue with pointed questions: “How often do we all talk about the permanent impact Black women’s innovative genius and artistic craft have had on the American music genres we know today? Do people graduate from the [Yale School of Music] or music major understanding this?”
Jazz is a music of resistance and liberation, and its development is deeply entwined with African-American history and transnational black cultural movements. A liberal arts music program that ignores this and other non-“Western canon” genres not only fails to teach the origins of our nation’s music but also perpetuates a racially unjust curriculum.
So where to go from here? The easy approach for an undergraduate railing against the system would be to attack the Music department for resisting change and diversification. But the problem may lie above the heads of any DUS or tenured professor. Professor Brian Kane, who teaches Jazz Harmony (the only jazz course that fulfills a core music major requirement), acknowledged that “everyone in the Music department knows there is a need to change.”
Last year, Professor Kane lead the original charge for what would eventually become the Jazz Initiative. His initial proposal included, in addition to what the current initiative provides, funding for proper jazz studies. New courses, film screenings, master classes and discussions would be organized by “a steering committee with people from all over the university—from English, Af-Am, the libraries, the administration—an interdisciplinary group that could get together to figure out how to promote jazz studies on campus.” Kane’s plan both responded to the requests of the student body and drew from Yale’s existing assets instead of relying on new hires. The proposal, backed by the Music department, made its way to the administration and even secured a donor. But Kane explained that “the Provost’s office rejected the offer from the donor…but the donor was so persistent that they were directed to the School of Music, which instituted part of the Initiative but also figured out ways to fund projects of their own interest like hiring a classical saxophone teacher.”
“All That Jazz”? The reality appears to be that President Salovey has enough jazz. A swingin’ concert every now and then at the Ellington series—which Yale proudly named after the Duke in 1967 after awarding him his first honorary degree—is just enough. But incorporating the work of Ellington, his contemporaries, and their musical descendants into our own music degrees is deemed unnecessary.
What the jazz-initiative-that-never-was teaches us is that we do not need to deconstruct our academic departments to broaden their scopes and make them more inclusive. In the case of music major, such a deconstruction would likely require changing the history sequence, which mandates three semesters of European classical study and one on the rest of the world. Changing such a long-standing requirement would be an uphill battle. And while structural revisions of this type feel increasingly necessary, interdisciplinary programs like Kane’s can make huge strides to help rewrite the cultural and historical narratives Yale propagates. The proposal is already written—all that’s missing is some help from our friends at the top of the administrative ladder.
Jack Broza Lawrence (JE ‘18) is a Music major and the programming director of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective. Unsurprisingly, he hated La La Land.