All That Jazz

March 6, 2017

I hope many of you will join me for “Jazz: A Celebration of America’s Sound” at the Schwarzman Center this coming weekend. We are delighted to host Wynton Marsalis, the internationally acclaimed icon of jazz, who will perform Saturday evening, as well as the Maria Schneider Orchestra—winner of five Grammy awards—and Anat Cohen, a world-renowned clarinetist-saxophonist. The weekend also includes performances by the Yale Jazz Ensemble, films, and discussions.

You might know that Yale’s serious devotion to jazz began with Duke Ellington. In 1967 Yale awarded him an honorary degree—making him the first jazz musician to receive one. Five years later, Yale President Kingman Brewster presented the first “Ellington medals” to thirty jazz phenoms, including the Duke. 

Under the leadership of Willie Ruff, professor in the School of Music and founding director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship program, Yale has hosted some of the world’s most accomplished jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and many others. A film documentary about the 1972 Jazz Convocation, a performance by forty jazz greats organized by Professor Ruff and held in Woolsey Hall, will be screened on Friday evening in the Schwarzman Center during the festival. (View photographs from the Jazz Convocation.) Also be sure to check out “A Riff on Ruff: Yale’s Jazz Ambassador to the World,” an exhibit at the Gilmore Music Library. 

In fact, the first mention of “jazz” in the Yale Daily News appeared much earlier—in 1924, during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance and the “jazz age.” In his article, “Jazz music has passed bounds of dance floor and now pervades all music,” School of Music Dean David S. Smith said he preferred classical European composers, but he recognized that jazz was the music of his time. “Sheer Americanism in art cannot be expected at this time. The melting pot is the symbol of our artistic life, as well as of our hoped-for racial unity.” Dean Smith’s musical tastes aside, jazz was here to stay—at Yale and everywhere.

By the 1950s, jazz was woven into the fabric of Yale’s social and musical life. Students performed in jazz ensembles, traveling to Europe for concerts. In 1957, students in the jazz combo the “Chosen Six” were denied visas to South Africa, likely because the apartheid government objected to the Yale students’ plans to perform in front of black audiences (the students were white). Two years later the “Committee for Jazz at Yale,” a student group, sponsored a “modern jazz concert” in Woolsey Hall. The event organizers wrote, “We think the Yale community should have more opportunities to hear high quality, exciting jazz—and in a hip setting, too.”

We think so, too—we can never get enough jazz. Last year the School of Music expanded Yale’s legacy of jazz studies through the Jazz Initiative, which offers courses, coaching, and opportunities for performance. Wayne Escoffery, the Grammy-award-winning tenor saxophonist and a member of the initiative, will lead a jazz improvisation clinic, open to the public, on Saturday morning. 

“Jazz: A Celebration of America’s Sound” continues Yale’s rich history of celebrating and enjoying this very American—and global—art form. See you at the Schwarzman Center!