Published: Feb. 1, 2024 By

Vintage microphone with blurred neon jazz sign in the backgroundThe College of Music is set to launch an exciting addition to its curriculum this fall—the new Bachelor of Music in Vocal Jazz degree in our Thompson Jazz Studies Program will offer intensive development of all aspects of musicianship as a jazz vocalist with study in jazz improvisation, theory, arranging, repertoire and history as well as individual study and performing in our jazz ensembles. 

Professor of Jazz Studies John Gunther shares details of the long-anticipated program: “Thanks to the generous support of Jack and Jeannie Thompson, this program is finally coming to fruition. Jack and Jeannie are astute supporters of the College of Music and are very involved and aware of the needs of the college.”

He continues, “The program is not only for aspiring jazz vocalists, as we hope it will serve the College of Music more broadly. Jazz improvisation is such an important part of the history of performance of American music and the skill sets that our musicians need to have in the 21st century.”

The methods incorporated into the Thompson Jazz program reflect a commitment to providing real-world experiences. Unlike traditional audition-based ensemble formation, the program embraces a unique approach. “Ensembles are formed without auditions and then rotated every few weeks, fostering an environment where students of varying ages and experience levels come together and collaborate,” Gunther explains.

“This approach encourages students to build relationships, learn to communicate effectively and navigate the dynamics of working with musicians of varying backgrounds—mirroring the professional world, where collaboration is essential and musicians must adapt to different skill sets within the group.” 

Developing and implementing the new degree program was both a response to internal recognition and driven by external demand. “The Jazz Studies department had been receiving inquiries from high school directors and prospective students eager to know when such a program would be offered,” Gunther says. “The call among young musicians for a broader experience is a clear recognition of the importance of engaging with contemporary music making, improvisation and diverse styles beyond their primary focus.”

Additionally, the jazz program has introduced a new extracurricular ensemble—Ralphie’s Ramblers—committed to embodying the spirit of New Orleans brass bands. Ralphie’s Ramblers ensures that students across disciplines have the opportunity to experience and collaborate in jazz in meaningful ways.

Looking ahead, over spring break, faculty and students from Thompson Jazz will spend a week-long intensive in Havana, studying and performing with master musicians of Afro-Cuban jazz, underscoring the College of Music’s commitment to providing a comprehensive education beyond the classroom walls. “With nearly 30 participants—20 students and 10 faculty—we’ll immerse ourselves in the culture and vibrant musical landscape of Havana,” shares Gunther. “This trip will broaden our understanding of Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz, and our appreciation for the cultural nuances that shape these genres.”

In sum, the opportunities within the jazz program at the College of Music extend beyond traditional education. In addition to immersive experiences, cultural exchanges and a comprehensive curriculum, students are actively engaged in shaping their musical journeys by producing their own music, composing original pieces, overseeing the production process and independently releasing their works. According to Gunther, the program’s commitment to fostering this creativity is further exemplified by its record label, Thompson Jazz Records, and strong student support: “We not only encourage but actively support students in entering professional recording studios, ensuring their artistic projects receive the attention they deserve. Our faculty supports students throughout the process—whether it’s recording in the studio or securing copyrights.”

As the Thompson Jazz Studies Program continues to empower students to be performers—as well as creators and contributors to the ever-evolving landscape of jazz music—it serves as a hub for innovation and artistic expression, and a space to pursue limitless creative possibilities.