New Stages for the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective

New Stages for the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective

Dora Guo

It’s been an intensely productive year for the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective, despite all pandemic-era expectations to the contrary.

First, when the pandemic suddenly felled plans for the YUJC’s annual jazz festival, student musicians put together a virtual artist relief concert for the New Haven Art Council’s Creative Sector Relief Fund. Instead of full-capacity concerts at the Saybrook Underbrook came a series of carefully edited video projects, including a multi-media show in collaboration with the undergraduate spoken word poetry group, WORD, that streamed early this March. Since last summer, the YUJC — a group of undergraduate students that has convened since 2007 to perform jazz and promote jazz opportunities at Yale — has debuted two issues of its new magazine, “The Turnaround,” dedicated exclusively to promoting the jazz community at Yale and in New Haven. And this past semester, its 18 undergraduate board members have created a fully subsidized lessons program that employs New Haven musicians to coach Yale students with less formal exposure to jazz. 

 This outpouring of activity over the past year, even while the group has not been able to play with each other in person, may strike one as particularly unexpected: jazz, after all, per the words of Yale ethnomusicology professor Michael Veal, is a “music of real time togetherness, of interlocking reciprocity, and of collaboration.” 

Without student jam sessions or in-person performances, YUJC organizers have been taking stock of the year to reimagine what the jazz community at Yale may become.

“We’re like the roots of a tree trying to find where the water is,” YUJC President Jason Altshuler ’23 said. “We’re searching for the things that are the most fun, most entertaining and most inclusive. As a student organization, we’re trying to foster a community that feels welcoming and open to anyone.” 

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Jazz may seem intimidating and insular from an outsider’s perspective, Altshuler added, and several members pointed out that a gender disparity persists in many jazz communities, including at Yale. 

In one effort to make the community more inclusive for underrepresented musicians, board members established the new jazz lessons program — which has granted 10 students five free lessons over the course of the semester — to lower barriers of entry for students with limited prior exposure to jazz.

Musicians in the collective come from varying degrees of formal training themselves. While several members of the collective said that they had known about the jazz collective as they were applying to college, others stumbled upon the group by chance. Graham Stodolski ’23  said that he signed up to play at a student showcase organized by the YUJC in December of 2019 that celebrated the 60th anniversary of 1959, a significant year in jazz history. That performance was enough to convince him to join the organization formally. 

“Everyone sounded so good that night,” Altshuler said. “The backstage was humming.” 

Zach Gilstrap ’22 grew up going to church in Dallas, Texas, where his grandmother played piano. And while he had always been surrounded by music, Gilstrap had not expected to perform at Yale until another YUJC member invited him to a student jam session in the early spring of 2020. 

“It was really beautiful to see something I love so much being embraced by so many other people in the community. I had this feeling that these people loved music as much as I did, if not more,” Gilstrap said. Gilstrap, who is now on the programming team and helped design the magazine, filled out an application to join the collective from his phone — while he was still at the jam.

Jenny Lee ’22, who also joined the board this past year, had spent her childhood playing piano and saxophone, but soon left her high school jazz band experiences behind once she came to Yale.

“I felt like I was losing a part of myself while I was so busy in college. I went to one of the YUJC concerts and the first song they played — by Cannonball Adderley — is one of my favorites,” Lee said. Her term as the co-treasurer on the board began right after students left campus last spring. 

“There are definitely people who have been together for a while and who are tightly connected. You would think you would feel excluded, but I’ve never felt that way. I walked across New Haven and bump into [some YUJC members] in the streets and know that we share a passion for jazz.” 

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Jeff Fuller ’67 MUS ’69, who now serves as an ensemble coach for the Yale School of Music Jazz Initiative, said that during his time as an undergraduate, there was always “a passionate, committed core of students pursuing jazz as the important art form and musical expression it was and still is.”

Now there are several undergraduate courses in jazz culture, history and theory — while he was a student, Fuller said, there were none. Jazz performance and listening existed nearly exclusively outside of schoolwork, and yet students still assembled together, setting up at gigs in local restaurants and coffee shops or practicing jointly in a dining hall or student lounge. 

The role of the jazz collective, historically, has been to fill in the gaps where institutional support was lacking: The first iteration of the undergraduate jazz collective was established to connect and train musicians who did not play in the University’s audition-based jazz ensemble. Revived again in 2012, musicians sought to use the club as a platform to expand upon existing jazz opportunities that Yale offered.

The organization, whose activities range widely under the banner of jazz, organizes concerts with professional artists and students alike, and puts on other events free to the public each year, including the Yale Jazz Festival every spring. As musicians-turned-advocates, YUJC members are also broadly interested in increasing jazz curricular offerings, locking in place Yale credits for jazz lessons and jazz combos — like classical lessons and ensembles.

“As I’ve constantly alluded to, offering jazz lessons, combos, ensembles and performances for academic credit would be a sure-fire way to preserve and grow the tradition of jazz at Yale,” Fuller wrote in an email to the News. “From my experience as a former Yale student and now as an instructor … [a Yale] degree should include the study of jazz if that’s what the student wants and cherishes.”

YUJC is far from the only opportunity for undergraduates to participate in jazz on campus: Many other students who are loosely or un-affiliated with YUJC play for the Yale Jazz Ensemble or for smaller groups. But Veal said that the YUJC is distinguished from other groups on campus because it is “the real substantive attempt to institutionalize jazz performance on the undergraduate level.”

Its prolific organizing has helped fill out the cavity of institutional resources dedicated to jazz performance and instruction. That absence spurred a national-newsmaking controversy in 2015, when the Yale Jazz Ensemble, a University-sponsored big band, was temporarily suspended. The sudden absence of an extracurricular outlet for jazz musicians and appreciators on campus resulted in a push to standardize a formal jazz studies certificate program encompassing jazz theory, practice and history — that is, one akin to those of institutional peers.

Those demands were met with something of a compromise: According to Fuller, the Yale School of Music announced in 2016 a three-year Jazz Initiative that reinstated the Yale Jazz Ensemble, hired saxophonist Wayne Escoffery to teach a jazz improvisation course and introduced a jazz combo program, with three groups coached by Escoffery and Fuller. 

Still, however, Yale does not grant students credit for jazz performance lessons, even though comparable lessons for credit are offered for classical training through the School of Music. And at the School of Music, Yale still does not incorporate a formal Jazz Studies program, unlike its peer institutions.

Associate Dean for the Arts Kate Krier emphasized that relations between the student organizers and administration have been “collegial.”

“The Yale Bands regularly lend equipment, instruments, and space to YUJC events and artists; the Ellington Series makes tickets available for free to members of the YUJC and the Yale Jazz Ensemble/Coached Combos Program; Professor Duffy regularly promotes student jazz combos for professional and/or university events,” Krier wrote in an email to the News.

While the organization is still advocating for increased programming from Yale, Altshuler also added that they have been largely funded by the Yale College Arts Discretionary Fund: a “huge part” of how the group has been able to put on events at the Underbrook and support initiatives like the lessons program.

Now, however, while remaining closely affiliated with Yale, the group is in the middle of a process of transferring its status from an informal student group to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which should generate opportunities for the organization to receive outside donations and thus become less financially reliant on the University. Long-term plans for the continuation of the collective are ambitious: The website notes that the Alumni Board may provide support in investing an endowment to support the creation of a jazz studies program. 

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“In an ideal world, YUJC would be superfluous,” said Dani Zanuttini-Frank ’22, the organization’s chief publicity officer, implying that if the University filled out a robust jazz program on its own, demand for the YUJC would be diminished.

It’s a strange statement to hear from a group whose future plans seem expansive. But perhaps the strength of Yale’s jazz community is precisely that it is built by students; the dearth of a strongly institutional jazz program may have also generated more student engagement. That is not to say that student creativity and institutional support cannot exist side-by-side: Altshuler added that a “student run scene” can be a blessing, even if there are specific decisions — like offering credit for jazz lessons — that can only be handled by the University.

“What binds us together is a love of jazz — our loves are different, and they’re not based in the same artists, history, but they all come together into this abstract, amorphous thing,” said Ethan Dodd ’22, the chief financial officer and advocacy officer on the YUJC Board. “There’s not such a dedicated undergraduate spirit at other comparable universities, even if they have more institutional support.

Dodd recalled a Jazz Festival concert that the YUJC put on in his freshman spring, headlined by jazz drummer Nate Smith. As the lights dimmed in the Yale University Art Gallery’s Robert L. McNeil Jr. Lecture Hall, he strode up towards the back of the auditorium.

“I saw a father and a son — New Haveners. The father was showing his son what this is about, and I remembered that my dad loves jazz, too,” Dodd said. “There’s a wider community that appreciates what’s going on, and I was so in awe of what we had created.”

It is still — optimistically — months before students will be able cluster in Underbrook, listening to their peers play on stage with each other. And their music is play: joyous, provocative, moving, sometimes rakishly fast, other times halting and still.  

When this is over, Veal said, we will need music to wake our spirits up.

“The greatest musicians can wake spirits up in two or three notes,” Veal said. “Music will be a horn that calls everyone back to life.”

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu


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