Yale students and their jazz band

Today I read an interesting piece in the New York Times on the lack of jazz at Yale- and the suspension of the one university sponsored jazz band. Any number of people have tweeted reactions, which all basically boil down to: really Yale? Really?, and while I had the same the same reaction I began considering some of the perceived hardships in relation to my own experiences regarding jazz and the tertiary environment.

The first thing that struck me (in the first paragraph not surprisingly) was that they cited a “lack of qualified brass players” in addition to the loss of rehearsal space (which is undergoing a massive, and quite expensive renovation). This struck me- partly because of the phrasing, what do you mean by ‘qualified’? Part of it, I’m presuming is that they had a level of ability commensurate with the repertoire that they wanted to play and would have to bring in ringers form outside in order to fill the seats. To which I reply: welcome to the club! I’ve never been involved with a university ‘related’ big band that didn’t need ringers! Is this really such a big deal? This band is (or rather, now, was) sponsored by the university- is it a requirement that only students (or perhaps staff) play in it? And is that part of ‘qualified’? Why not use the lack as a method of community outreach?

In contrast: good on the students for deciding to keep going even without university support (and I can’t even begin to say how shocked I am that music studies at Yale are so incredibly restricted and restrictive! Also other people have said it better than I could here, here, and here), and using it as a way of connecting with the local community and the wider music community. Whether or not it their activities result in a change in policy regarding music courses at Yale remains to be seen, but it is good to see that the students are not waiting for the institution to organise a band for them.

I do have to wonder though at the insistence at the band be of a traditional big band configuration. Given the issue of finding enough brass players for traditional big band sections (4 trumpets and 4 trombones), why not try other configurations? Other combinations of brass instruments, other wind instruments; how about adding strings? If there’s an issue about repertoire for ‘unusual’ instrumentation, why not get some of the compositions students to help out with arrangements- or do it themselves? Jazz history is full of musicians recreating repertoire in different configurations- and arranging and composition is a vital part of jazz (let alone general music) education. Take a leaf out of the third stream and make use of the classical musicians and composers floating around- you never know what might happen. If there was a wide enough pool of instrumentation combinations and arrangements then sustaining “17 top-flight section players throughout the year” shouldn’t be an issue because there is greater flexibility- and let’s face it, jazz should always be about flexibility, challenges, and improvisation.

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