Jazz Courses for Non-Jazz Students

September 5, 2018

by Eugene Marlow, Ph.D., MBA

Much has been written and discussed at conferences and among jazz industry professionals about the apparent diminishing audience for jazz music. This is especially true in New York City, the perceived epicenter of the global jazz world. The leading factor in this context is the “fact” that CD sales of jazz music – as a percentage of all music sales – is dead last in the music sales hierarchy, even falling behind classical music (although not by much).

Virtually every conference or seminar I have attended in the last few years has at least one speaker or panel on “Growing the Jazz Audience,” but much of it is aimed at attracting audiences to live performances or community engagement. In a way, this is a short-term effort to solve a long-term trend of the “apparent” shrinkage of the jazz audience over a period of at least 50 years.

A major key to rejuvenating the jazz audience is outreach, of course, not only to adults, but also to younger generations. There are many examples of “audience engagement” directed at kids, such as the Sunday “Kids Jazz” activity at Jazz Standard in New York City. But what about reaching out to college level students with the “jazz” message? Sure, there are hundreds of jazz education programs in the United States at the high school, undergraduate and graduate level, but all these courses are directed at students interested in playing jazz or composing jazz. The wider challenge is bringing the jazz message to students who are not directly studying jazz, but are interested in another discipline, as a way of growing the audience for jazz in the longer-term.

At Baruch College (City University of New York), we have been able to infuse “jazz content” into the academic context in three instances:

  • The Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives Concert Series
  • an undergraduate honors course titled “Jazz: Cultural Touchstone of the 20th Century”
  • a graduate course in the nascent arts management master’s degree program entitled “Jazz: The Music, The Business”
  • There are also plans to initiate a weekly jazz program on the college’s online radio station – WBMB.

The Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives Concert series (as of this writing) is in its 26th season. The season coincides with the academic year – September through May. Dozens of jazz artists have appeared in the series, starting with Milt Hinton himself (in 1992) leading an all-star ensemble, including Wynton Marsalis. The 2017-2018 Hinton series season presented the Appalachia-gone-Afro-Brazilian sound Matuto, Israeli-born jazz guitarist Yotam Silberstein with his quartet, and soprano saxophonist virtuoso Jane Ira Bloom and her quartet. The overall mission of the series (supported in part by the Baruch College Fund and the Weissman School of Arts & Sciences) is to bring America’s classical music – jazz – to the student body (primarily) and the college’s faculty and staff. The series mounts three-four concerts each season. 

Several years ago I was approached by the organizer of the Feit Honors courses with the concept of teaching a course on jazz – but with a difference. Feit Seminars, endowed by the late Charles Feit (‘48), bring together two or more instructors from different departments in the college and a small select group of students (16 max). Each student must have at least a 3.3 GPA. Seminars speak to important themes and issues not ordinarily covered in the standard Weissman curriculum and reflect the special interests and research areas of the faculty.

Instead of being asked to team-teach a course on jazz with a professor from a disparate department, I was offered an opportunity to bring jazz-connected professionals from the New York City area to the classroom. In effect, each guest speaker was my counterpart professor. Each guest speaker was offered an honorarium. Moreover, the budget allowed me to take the students to a jazz club. Very conveniently, one of the leading jazz clubs in New York City – Jazz Standard – is only a few blocks from the college. The Feit Seminar budget covered the club’s cover charge. Food and beverage were each student’s responsibility.

I’ve offered this course several times now and without exception, the vast majority of the students say “This is my first time going to as jazz club. I never knew I would like this music so much.” In other words, put jazz music in front of students not primarily interested in jazz and it opens their eyes and mind.

I will be teaching this course again in spring 2019.

Another opportunity to put jazz in front of students is more recent. A couple of years ago Baruch College inaugurated a master’s degree program in arts management under the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences umbrella. The director of the program and I had several serendipitous conversations about the program. I saw an opportunity to spread the jazz gospel in this program to students at the graduate level.

After a year of waiting, this past fall 2017 I taught a course in jazz from an arts management perspective. Interestingly, this group of students (several of which were from another country) in the main, did not have much experience with jazz. I decided from the outset to teach this course in a similar fashion to the Feit Seminar outlined above. I brought in numerous guest speakers from various aspects of the New York City jazz world almost on a weekly basis. Because there was a budget I was able to take the students to three jazz events: Jazz Standard (a leading jazz club), Kitano (a more boutique jazz environment), and a performance of the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra under the direction of multi-Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria. In this way, the graduate students were exposed to a broad spread of the jazz experience: a solo pianist at Jazz Standard, a singer with a trio at Kitano, and a big band from a leading music college.

With few exceptions, the reaction of the graduate students was the same as the students from the Feit seminars. Again, put jazz music in front of students not primarily interested in jazz and it opens their eyes and mind.

Each student was required to write a reaction paper following each jazz outing. They were also required to do a problem-solution case study of a New York City-based jazz-related institution. This semester-long work further solidified their understanding of the jazz world.

Collectively, these jazz events and courses keep the jazz message alive in a college known primarily for its Zicklin School of Business and accounting program, but Baruch College is also one of the most diverse public colleges in the United States with over 80 languages spoken on campus. Jazz is also a language of culture that cuts across demographic boundaries. Presenting jazz performances and infusing academic content into undergraduate and graduate courses for students not primarily focused on jazz is a way of sparking interest in the genre that just might last a lifetime.   

Eugene Marlow, Ph.D., is an award-winning composer/arranger, producer, presenter, performer, author, journalist, and educator. Marlow is senior co-chair of the Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives Concert Series at Baruch College (The City University of New York), now in its 26th season, where he teaches courses in media and culture. Author of eight books and 400+ articles, his book on jazz in China (From Dance Hall Music to Individual Freedom of Expression) was released on July 16, 2018. He is a 2010 recipient of the James W. Carey award for journalism excellence from the Media Ecology Association for his numerous contributions to www.jazz.com. Marlow has written over 250 classical and jazz compositions for solo instruments, jazz and classical chamber groups, and jazz big band. Three of his big band charts appear on three Grammy-nominated albums. Under his own MEII Enterprises label, he has produced 22 critically-acclaimed CDs of original compositions and arrangements. 

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