CU-Boulder continues a rich jazz tradition

April 22, 2013

Jazz is flourishing on the CU-Boulder campus where big band pioneer Glenn Miller attended school in the 1920s and where today’s music students are making recordings that earn national attention.

Since 1996, when the Jazz Studies Program was formally established at CU-Boulder, the program has been distinguishing itself as a place where future generations of jazz masters are being trained and where community appreciation for jazz is advanced year round.

Graduate student Amy Peck took a leave of absence from teaching instrumental music and directing a high school jazz program in Whitby, Ontario, to study jazz performance and pedagogy at CU. She learned about the program from John Davis, director of the Jazz Studies Program, when he gave a clinic on band performance in Canada.

“I thought getting a master’s degree here would be the perfect place for me to keep pushing myself to do more performing,” said Peck, who plays the saxophone. “It’s a special community feel in the jazz studies program and we’re all supportive of each other. I can’t imagine any other place that’s like this program.”

This year, CU-Boulder alumni Jeannie and Jack Thompson committed $1.6 million to the jazz studies program and helped raise matching donations to establish a new endowment totaling $2 million. In honor of the gift, the already-existing program was renamed the Thompson Jazz Studies Program. This is CU-Boulder’s first named academic program.

“It’s not just the gift itself that’s so amazing,” said Peck. “When we’re onstage performing and look into the audience, the Thompsons are always there. And they’re the first to come up on stage to talk to us and offer congratulations. It makes taking risks and doing the things you need to do to become a better musician much more fun when you have that kind of community support.”

Davis expects the endowment to help fund guest artist residencies, professional recordings of CU jazz ensembles and trips to national competitions, he said. “The sky’s the limit on how the endowment will benefit the program,” said Davis.

The program offers an undergraduate major as well as master’s and doctoral degrees. In addition, each year more than 1,300 non-music major undergraduates take the history of jazz classes, according to Davis. 

“It’s important for students to learn about jazz history because of its uniqueness to our heritage,” said Davis. “The history of our country is reflected in the progression and development of jazz, especially between 1910 and 1970. You can track what was going on in the country socially and economically through the different types of jazz. In the 1960s when social rules were being broken and boundaries were being pushed, jazz exploded with avant-garde and free style.”

Jazz is a collaborative and improvisational form of music—and the only art form to originate in the United States.  It has had an influence on most other types of music throughout the world, and is now played by musicians in about every country. The spirit of American culture is embedded in the rhythms and structure of jazz and reflects the history of America.

Davis has been director since 1999. In that time, the program has been awarded 14 Down Beat magazine awards for student recordings and is recognized as one of the university’s “core programs of excellence.” Davis recently published the Historical Dictionary of Jazz, a monumental reference book that covers the history of jazz and includes a dictionary section with more than 1,500 cross-referenced entries, from significant jazz performers and bands to recordings and record labels.

Sophomore Riley O’Toole, who is majoring in jazz studies for piano as well as computer science, vividly remembers an uncomfortable, yet valuable, learning experience. In a master class concert presented last year, Jon Faddis, a jazz trumpet player renowned for his playing and for his expertise in the field of music education, critiqued O’Toole’s piano playing.

“His critique was brutal, but I did learn a lot,” said O’Toole. “The master classes here are great. We recently had a 2½-hour master class given by Art Lande, a fantastic jazz pianist.”

In addition to bandleader great Glenn Miller, the university’s jazz lineage includes CU-Boulder alumni Dave and Don Grusin.  Dave is an artist, arranger and producer, and has won an Academy award and numerous Grammy Awards. Don is a Grammy Award-winning musician, songwriter, producer and keyboardist.

“Everything the Grusins have accomplished in their careers is astounding,” said Davis. “They’re so generous with their time and have conducted many music workshops, performances and master classes at CU over the years.

“We enhance our students’ experiences with an ongoing slate of guest clinicians throughout the year,” he said. “Our students graduate with the skills and experiences that make them competitive right away in the performance market.”

Jazz Appreciation Month, each April, pays tribute to the rich history of jazz as America’s original art form. Through the Thompson Jazz Studies Program, the music’s lines and phrases and riffs will continue to be taught and celebrated because jazz is cool, man.