Welcome back to The Ear, Spectator’s podcast dedicated to documenting, excavating, and investigating Columbia’s past and present.
In this week’s episode, reporters Noah Sheidlower and Sam Hyman capture the voices and issues surrounding jazz at Columbia. How has the community’s perception and involvement in jazz progressed over the years? What are the concerns about the lack of racial and gender diversity in our jazz program? Considering how Harlem is rife with musical history and significance, how has Columbia threatened or connected with the neighborhood’s iconic jazz scene? Listen to find out!
[Steven Fowler:] “I think the term jazz is steeped in a lot of controversy, but it’s also steeped in a lot of history as well.”
[Ugonna Okegwo:] “It gives you a lot of freedom, it gives you a lot of responsibility. It gives you a lot of room to explore yourself, explore your talents, and explore your creativity.”
[Dylan Delgiudice:] “So for me, it’s another way of communicating with people, sometimes a way I prefer to communicate rather than just talking.”
[Stephanie Chow:] “But I think there’s also just like, a strange sort of, like, othering of jazz in some way that like, it’s kind of a, it’s intimidating, it feels kind of exclusive in some ways.”
[Chris Washburne:] “Harlem touches all of our lives, and the whole history of Harlem completely shapes the music that we listen to, our fashions, the way that we think about our politics, our race relations, everything that goes on.”
[Leo Traversa:] “One moment in time that these guys played, it’s still alive 70 years later—solos that they just played spontaneously just like we would pick up an instrument right now and just solo on a blues, and that moment is immortalized and people are learning, studying, just like they studied Bach and Beethoven.”
[Damon Banks:] “But you know, it started to change the music in the sense that people didn’t have the opportunity to kind of stay in their own neighborhood and play the music that they wanted to play.”
[Victor Lin:] “You really want to get the kids that don’t know how to play, you want to get their confidence up so they participate. You want participation; you don’t want exclusivity.”
[Steven Fowler:] “These men and women contributed to the forward movement, the forward progression of the American culture on every level of societal existence.”
The upbeat syncopations of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train.” The intricate harmonies and rhythms of bebop. The soulful saxophone and trumpet improvisations that fill the Cotton Club. The singing and shouting at Minton’s Playhouse and Bill’s Place.
Harlem has long been a national center of jazz in the United States. Following the Great Migration of Black Americans to northern cities, the Harlem Renaissance blossomed in the 1920s. Jazz icons like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller got their starts in Harlem. Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith popularized jazz and blues vocals in Harlem’s jazz clubs, and Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie captivated audiences performance after performance at the Apollo Theater.
Within this jazz hub, Columbia played a significant role in the development of jazz’s many different styles and genres. Today, Columbia has one of the largest jazz programs of its Ivy League peers, offering ensembles from Big Band to Afro-Colombian Jazz to Brazilian Jazz. In the fall of 2014, students founded the Jazz House, a special interest housing community, where students can live and jam with fellow jazz musicians. Yet despite Columbia’s expansive jazz program, there issues still remain within the campus jazz scene, ranging from concerns about the lack of racial and gender diversity in ensembles to the University’s fraught relationship with Harlem.
Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans and was influenced by West-African and African-American music traditions. Jazz often features swung rhythms, call and response, improvisation, and blue notes. Jazz first started to gain popularity in the early 1910s, and subgenres like blues, ragtime, and swing jazz began to emerge. Following World War II, new genres of jazz developed that incorporated elements from other cultures and traditions, such as Afro-Cuban jazz, jazz-funk, and free jazz.
According to German-Nigerian bassist Ugonna Okegwo, who teaches jazz acoustic bass at Columbia, jazz allows musicians to freely and creatively explore themselves. Okegwo notes that jazz musicians can bring a very personal approach to the music and can adjust their playing styles depending on the setting or audience they play for.
[Okegwo:] “It helps you develop yourself as a musician because you have to deal with a lot of different aspects of music. It’s not just reading music, it’s not just playing parts, like when playing classical music, that you are like, at least nowadays, for the most part confined to whatever is in front of you, and that interpretation of that, and that’s important, and that’s musical. And in jazz you have that too, but I mean, then you have to prepare yourself for dealing with improvising over different rhythms and harmony and melodically. And so you have to know a lot about harmony and not about theory, or at least internalize it in some kind of way.”
As early as 1917, Spectator’s archives boast of “wicked jazz” performances that “kept the junior banquet going,” students “sway[ing] and rambl[ing]” with the Jazz Band, and advertisements for Thorey’s College Orchestra. By the 1920s, advertisements for jazz “For Women Only” were posted in Spectator, posing the question “Do you play The Saxophone? The Drums? The Violin? The Banjo or Cornet?”
As Harlem’s Jazz Age began to accelerate, so did Columbia’s jazz scene. The West End Bar on Broadway was a prominent center for jazz performances near campus, while both student and professional jazz orchestras and ensembles performed weekly at John Jay and Earl Hall. Fraternities in the 1920s even hosted their own jazz bands, hosting campus concerts in which students would “revel in the ecstatic joys of cinnamon toast and jazz.”
However, jazz wasn’t without its critics. In a 1936 Spectator article, Teachers College professor Miles A. Dreskell advised students to go to “Haiti or Africa” for “some really good jazz.” Dreskell also wrote, “Jazz music in this country in comparison to that found in Haiti seldom has more than one basic rhythm which is broken up periodically.” Students also had plenty to say about George Gershwin’s jazzy new composition “The Second Rhapsody” in 1932, a performance of which left a Spectator author with “profound disappointment, with a deep conviction that seldom had interpretative effort been more uselessly expended, seldom a finished performance more futile.”
However, the jazz program as many Columbia students know it today only arrived at the University in 1999 with the creation of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies. The center “views the interdisciplinary expansion of the intellectual conversation surrounding jazz, and especially its lifeblood practice, improvisation, as tracing a path toward the development of new knowledge that illuminates the human condition.” In fact, jazz studies has been integrated into the Core Curriculum. Jazz standards like Joe “King” Oliver’s and Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” have been featured on the Music Humanities syllabus since 2004. Just last year, the syllabus shifted to include jazz music from the Civil Rights era, featuring Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite,” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn.”
Founded in 2001 by Chris Washburne, the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia has also contributed to the diversification of jazz on campus. The program comprises 17 jazz ensembles, 14 professional jazz musicians, and a special concentration in jazz. According to Washburne, a highly acclaimed trombonist and author of many articles on jazz, Latin jazz, and salsa, Columbia never had a centralized jazz program until the development of the LAJPP.
[Washburne:] “There’s been a jazz student club dating back to the 1930s, but it would have never been part of the curriculum, we couldn’t actually earn credits for taking the classes, and there was no structure for, like, private lessons and different ensembles and things. And I thought that that was a shame, since Columbia is in the neighborhood that abuts one of the most important neighborhoods in jazz history, that of Harlem. And I thought, that should be started, and so I lobbied the University to help begin that process, and we started with auditions and eight students in one ensemble, and with a very short amount of time we started attracting more students because I knew the jazz musicians were on campus, they just weren’t studying music, or they were playing professionally on their own. And as we started bringing them more into the fold, within a very short amount of time, we became the largest jazz program of all of our peer institutions.”
According to Washburne, who teaches the popular course Salsa, Soca & Reggae, Columbia has one of the largest faculties of professors who do not work in the field of music, but instead research and lecture about jazz, from jazz film to jazz and literature courses. Many of these interdisciplinary jazz classes attract hundreds of students per semester. Washburne’s own classes teach sound as a way to navigate the world and understand how music reflects and constructs culture.
Through these courses, students with different musical backgrounds study the principles of improvisation and adaptability of communication—skills that are vital for everyday life. Leo Traversa, a music associate at Columbia and co-director of the Brazilian Ensemble, has used his extensive knowledge of “straight-ahead jazz” and Caribbean and Brazilian jazz to teach students about different cultures as well as applicable business skills. At Columbia’s Business School, for example, Washburne helped start an initiative called Leadership Jazz, in which professional jazz musicians play concerts for business executives and students and explain the concepts and ideas behind each number.
[Traversa:] “It’s really incredible how valuable jazz is to not only your everyday life but your business life, your relationships. … First, listening skills like improvising, being able to adapt to a situation that you might not have expected, coming into a situation without an agenda, in music if you do that, the chances of failure are good, your relationship to failure, what do you do about that, what do you do if you make a mistake if you’re a musician, do you compound it by stopping or do you move on, risk and reward is part of jazz. These are all things that are relevant to the business world, but they’re at the center of being a jazz musician and playing jazz.”
According to Traversa, jazz education allows students to not only connect with African-American or Caribbean-American culture but to also understand the development of music as a “universal language” that fuses different cultures together. With the development of technology that allows people to compose music on their computer just by dragging files into a recording, Traversa fears that composing jazz is, as he puts it, “getting a little bit too easy.” Jazz has long lost its prime spot in the mainstream media, and jazz stations and programming have been in decline. He notices, however, that more and more students have been expressing interest in jazz at Columbia, and new fusion jazz ensembles are formed every few years. With classes in jazz history and fusion jazz, Columbia has been able to continue its traditional jazz curriculum while making this musical tradition accessible to everyone.
[Traversa:] “You know like when you study jazz and you listen to Kind of Blue, right. How many people can sing the solos on “So What”? How many people can sing John Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps”? One moment in time that these guys played, it’s still alive 70 years later—solos that they just played spontaneously just like we would pick up an instrument right now and just solo on a blues, and that moment is immortalized and people are learning, studying, just like they studied Bach and Beethoven. So, I do everything I can to continue that tradition and expand on delving into a world of music as well.”
Although many jazz students at Columbia major in other disciplines, Okegwo finds that his students quickly adapt to criticism and put in significant effort to master their instruments. Having taught music at other institutions, Okegwo acknowledges that although many Columbia jazz musicians focus academically on majors like engineering or history, the level at which Columbia students engage with the music and its historical and cultural importance is at a similar degree to full-time music students.
This engagement partially stems from the personalized instruction that the Columbia faculty provides. Victor Lin, who teaches jazz piano and jazz ensembles at Columbia, reflects that when jazz instructors put in the effort to help students of all competencies develop their skills, students will feel valued and empowered to keep practicing. When Lin was a graduate student at Teachers College, he learned to play upright bass so that he could join jazz combos at the University. As a part of these combos, he sat on the audition panel and scored students who would play for a minute, sight-read something, and be sent out the door. Here, Lin recognized the issues with the audition process, which led him to become a resource for less-experienced musicians.
[Lin:] “What I watched was student after student who didn’t have any experience coming in there and basically just leaving feeling terrible, and the people that just knew they were the shit just coming in like, ‘Oh yeah, you guys are cool.’ And I’m kind of sitting there like thinking to myself, this is a really shitty way to treat students, right, you really want to get the kids that don’t know how to play, you want to get their confidence up so they participate; you want participation, you don’t want exclusivity.”
Lin recognized the endless cycle in which students would get rejected and then told to reapply next year but were given no guidance on how to improve their chances. Lin sought approval to teach a beginner jazz class at Columbia for those who were not accepted into an ensemble, but was denied. This policy did not change until 2007, when Columbia began to guarantee all auditioning students some sort of music education. He contacted those who were rejected to attend a free class in a random Teachers College classroom. For 90 minutes each week during the fall semester, Lin taught around eight students in jazz performance; that following spring, three of the students were placed into jazz combos.
[Lin:] “Overwhelmingly, the majority of my bands would be what you would consider the lowest ranking ones, which already kind of tells you a little bit about the way that the system itself is constructed. You know what I mean. But I will tell you one thing— you know like, two-some years ago, like when they asked for a representative band to actually play on the steps off Low to represent Columbia, my band is the one they chose.”
For Lin, the important part of teaching beginner jazz students at Columbia is offering encouragement and making them feel a sense of community. Lin teaches with the following philosophy: You treat a professional like a beginner and a beginner like a professional. For him, effective teaching means helping students silence that inner voice that tells them they are not good enough, because many students improve their technique or interpretation quite quickly. He does this through legitimate peripheral participation, a practice in which newcomers become experienced members of a community or group. According to Lin, those in a combo don’t just want to play music, but also find a sense of community.
[Lin:] “Somewhere along the line, there was somebody who said, ‘hey, you’re good at this, you should try to do it more.’ Right, in jazz music in particular, there’s almost none of that. No one is looking at a college-aged beginner and going, ‘yo, that is freaking awesome. Keep doing it.’ If you got into Columbia, you are beset with this terrible self criticism, right, nothing’s good enough. Oh, that wasn’t good. We learn how to do that. That’s like poison to yourself if you’re trying to become, like, if you’re trying to learn a craft.”
Columbia students echo Lin’s sentiments on accessibility. New York City is one of the best destinations for young people to cultivate and explore their interests in jazz. From the 1 train, Columbia students can reach countless venues and concerts. According to Washburne, Columbia students have engaged quite closely with Harlem venues, and those who choose not to learn about Harlem’s jazz history miss out on a valuable opportunity to understand how jazz has shaped daily life.
[Washburne:] “Harlem touches all of our lives, and the whole history of Harlem completely shapes the music that we listen to, our fashions, the way that we think about our politics, our race relations, everything that goes on. … Many of the things that go on in Columbia are inseparable from the cultural milieu in which Columbia sits which is it abuts Harlem, and Harlem is a huge influence. So the students that don’t take advantage of that close proximity, if they do so, if they choose to ignore that relationship, it’s to their own peril of their understanding of who they are. And I think it’s missing out on a very, very important part of our history, our shared history.
The jazz students we interviewed also valued the significance of campus’s proximity to Harlem. The opportunity to explore the neighborhood’s jazz scene especially excited Columbia College sophomore Stephanie Chow. But she warns of an exclusive aura that surrounds jazz, which may discourage students from experiencing Harlem’s culture.
[Chow:] “When I got to New York, when I got to Columbia, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everybody here is kind of vaguely interested in jazz,’ or was like, ‘Oh, I’d love to go to a club sometime, when they like, found out that I like playing jazz guitar.’ But I think there’s also just like, a strange sort of othering of jazz in some way that it’s kind of a, it’s intimidating, it feels kind of exclusive in some ways. Which is in part, part of the sort of intellectual culture that’s, I think, been building around it.”
It can be incredibly frustrating for students with a knack for jazz to find themselves in a city filled with music and life only to leave dismayed and discouraged by the competitive jazz culture on campus. Ensemble auditions, for example, require instrumentalists to prepare two jazz standards and demonstrate ear training and improvisational skills. These expectations might intimidate jazz musicians who haven’t received a lot of formal training. Parallel to this, Chow is disappointed with the “intellectual fetishization of jazz” that seems to take away from the creative and improvisational nature of the genre.
[Chow:] “Now, especially as people are trying to codify it, get it into the books, make a way to like teach it on paper, even though it’s not—like it’s an oral, instrumental tradition. And then it starts becoming a little too formal and inaccessible to people who just want to play and just want to feel.”
Echoing Lin’s observations, Chow feels passionately that jazz life at Columbia is not limited to the official ensembles; she views those as just another way to meet other musicians. What is much more important is the exploration—jamming, visiting venues and attending concerts, which happens not only with one’s fellow students, but also musicians outside of Columbia.
For Chow and Dylan DelGiudice, a Columbia College graduate who majored in music, jazz can and should be a fun and engaging space to meet and interact with new people—a space to converse through music, exchange riffs, and bounce solos off each other. Some students have really taken it upon themselves to emphasize this aspect over the more intimidating ones. But the present exclusivity of the jazz scene is still a pressing issue that students and faculty alike are trying to counteract.
[DelGiudice:] “I think a lot of it comes down to the attitudes of certain people, you know, and I think, I think there are certain people who, not just at Columbia, but in a lot of ways to take the attitude of like, jazz is this very one thing, if you can’t hang with us, like, jamming-wise, like, if you can’t hang with us on these certain tunes and play in a certain way that like, lives up to some standard, whatever that is, then, you know, you’re not with it. And I think that breeds can breed, like a kind of a competitive or elitist environment.”
Although competition and elitism in jazz is not something found ubiquitously on campus, exclusivity still characterizes a fair amount of personal attitudes—which can easily lead to racial and gender biases.
On June 18, a popular Columbia Confessions post on Facebook accused the Jazz House for being overtly racist and white-centric. One of the claims the post made was that the house was “like 10 rooms of entirely all white MEN no women in sight, minus the few girlfriends who pass through like once a semester.” DelGiudice, who ran Jazz House for a year, responded to these comments, saying that there was in fact both racial and gender variance. Several members of color of the community, alongside Chow, who was offered a spot in the house, refuted the claims as hyperbolic in the post’s comment section. DelGiudice and the other commenters acknowledged that the Jazz House has historically had these issues, but claimed the house is currently trying to make progress. It is nevertheless clear that there are racial tensions among students in the jazz community, which certainly relate to institutional issues of recruiting underrepresented identity groups.
Although Columbia offers many jazz ensembles, students have noted that some of these groups are inaccessible to students from underprivileged backgrounds. According to Washburne, Columbia’s music faculty members have been actively recruiting from neighborhoods like Harlem for over 20 years, yet jazz education has shifted. High schools with successful jazz programs tend to be in more affluent and supportive environments, and many students interested in pursuing jazz at Columbia come from these programs as they have experience and wish to continue building off their previous jazz education. Meanwhile, many inner-city schools have had their music programs cut or reduced; the 2021 New York City Department of Education budget will see $15 million cut from the $21.5 million budget for middle and high school arts education—a 70 percent reduction. More broadly, New York City cut its arts spending by 11 percent after facing a $9 billion loss in tax revenues. Thus, Columbia’s jazz faculty has found it difficult to attract lower-income students with little jazz experience. The increase in financial aid for low-income students has certainly helped attract some low-income jazz performers, but Washburne says that there is still much more work to be done.
Additionally, Washburne explained that Columbia is committed to overcoming the gender disparity in the jazz world. Washburne notes that only a small number of women jazz performers are supported through middle and high school, but with funding from several institutions that help promote gender and racial diversity, Washburne hopes that Columbia’s jazz scene will attract more women and members of other underrepresented identity groups.
[Washburne:] “When I went to New England Conservatory, for instance, my alma mater, to be a guest artist, and I played in the big band, there were no students of color in the big band. This is one of the premier conservatories and I talked to the professors there and they said, ‘Yeah, we cannot attract students of color so easily. They’re just not applying.’ So I try to figure out why that is and what the problems are, and I remember that there was a very talented African-American musician in this program a couple of years ago, and he opened up to me and he said, ‘You know, my parents are really against me playing jazz while I’m at Columbia,’ and I said ‘Why?’ He says, ‘Because I am the first person in my family to get a college degree, and they feel as though coming to a place like Columbia and having this great opportunity is squandering that opportunity if I’m spending my time playing jazz.’”
The exclusivity that characterizes Columbia’s jazz program is a complex issue. At the very least, it involves race, gender, intellectual stigma, and troubling personal attitudes. As Washburne noted, recruiting from Harlem seems like a great way for the program to become inclusive. But in order to fully understand the potential difficulty in recruiting jazz students from Harlem, we have to travel back to the neighborhood’s state immediately after the Harlem Renaissance.
[Banks:] “Because my parents were born and raised in Harlem, you know, I have a much deeper organic connection with Harlem as, as a community and as a village, you know, and so many things happened in Harlem across all genres, across all disciplines, across all cultures, politically, socially, economically.”
This is Damon Banks, a Harlem-raised jazz and world musician who has performed in many venues across the city. His parents lived in Harlem immediately after the Great Depression and passed down to him a painting of the neighborhood, whose music scene began to grow in the years after the Depression.
[Banks:] You know, when my parents were growing up in Harlem, the venues that presented bebop music like Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, and Max Roach, and those people, you know, they went downtown to hear that music, just like all the other parts of the city, like 52nd Street was the, was the hub of activity, you know, and they had clubs there that presented bebop music as this new form of, of music, new form of expression, like in the late ’40s. And then it shifted in the early ’50s, then jazz kind of widened out to the other five boroughs, or at least two or three boroughs at a time, and became international.
In what began with the Harlem Renaissance, which was characterized by jazz stars like Duke Ellington moving from places like Washington, D.C., and Chicago to Harlem, African-American genres of music flourished for decades to come.
[Banks:] “It was a self-contained autonomous village of people of color who migrated to Harlem from all parts of the world, you know, from down South, you know, the typical Black migration patterns, moving up from the South to look for a better life, like an industrialized city, whether it’s Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, but Harlem in particular. Black people that migrated from West Africa, from the Caribbean—it was the personification of living, living your dream, you know, being with your community and being with your own culture. But also, you know, living a full life, you know, having everything available to you, never needing to go downtown or any other part of New York City to be able to live and do everything you want to do. And that’s what Harlem was for my parents. And they took so much pride in being from Harlem because that’s where it came from.”
But the success and prevalence of jazz in Harlem wouldn’t last. As New York City received more and more wealth, realtors expanded and applied extreme pressures on local venues. Eventually, hubs for jazz and night life couldn’t survive and in the 1970s and ’80s, the music scene moved from the five boroughs only to downtown Manhattan.
According to Okegwo, there were many jazz venues in Harlem in the 1990s that provided regular outlets for musicians to play, sometimes featuring multiple bands per night. Yet he notes that many venues have since closed, and the city’s center of jazz moved further downtown since musicians can get paid bigger salaries at those more accessible and popular clubs. Additionally, he fears that making jazz available to the community has not been at the forefront of a lot of businesses or musical outings. Increased rents have also forced jazz venues to ramp up prices, making jazz less accessible to members within the Harlem community. In a 2019 study conducted by the Real Estate Board of New York, among 17 researched Manhattan retail corridors, Harlem’s 125th Street showcased the largest year-over-year growth in rent prices, an increase of 10 percent. Additionally, only 5.18 percent of the buildings constructed for New York City’s 2008 rezoning plan for Harlem’s 125th Street were affordable for the average Harlem resident.
Traversa notes that at venues like St. Nick’s Jazz Pub, his friend would host an African jam session featuring jazz from the Ivory Coast. Washburne and Traversa used to play at the Lenox Lounge, which was demolished in 2017. Traversa reminisced about its Zebra Room, where the great jazz musicians would play, noting its neighborhood ambiance and homey feel.
As venues continue to close, jazz musicians in Harlem have found it increasingly difficult to make careers out of performing. According to Okegwo, the ability to play in groups depends on who you know, and if you are close with the bandleader, you will likely be offered the opportunity. When so much of jazz is word of mouth, young musicians may feel disconnected from the community, especially those who cannot afford to attend jam sessions or concerts.
Lin faced similar struggles that Okegwo outlined when he was trying to make a name for himself in the Harlem jazz community. Lin, who discovered jazz in high school, felt that he was years behind his peers who attended specialized jazz high schools. Upon coming to New York, Lin struggled to find his footing due to Harlem’s hyper-competitive jazz scene.
[Lin:] “The music was great, the music was great, but the scene was terrible. There was nothing about the scene that I like being in. It made you feel self-conscious. … It was hyper-toxic masculinity, you know, racism, you know, plus no one looks like me because there’s hardly any Asians that are in really, at least at the time, you know, nobody in the audience looks like me. And so it’s just like, ‘Oh my God, what the fuck am I doing?’”
When one could hear music reverberating from every direction on any corner or block in Harlem, capturing the youth’s interests in jazz was much more doable. But when only a fraction of venues survive in Harlem today and downtown Manhattan is far and inaccessible for many families, jazz in Harlem continues to lose its connection to young people. To make matters worse, Columbia might be exacerbating the already-endangered jazz scene in Harlem.
Columbia’s continued expansion into Harlem, particularly with its Manhattanville campus, has been met by both students and local community members with skepticism out of concern for the economic consequences to the neighborhood. Such an expansion might result in increased rent prices that further drive venues to close. But even beyond rent concerns, there have been several occasions in which Columbia has attempted to purchase jazz-rooted and other historic Harlem properties.
In 2007, for example, Columbia attempted to buy a historic jazz venue for its Manhattanville expansion. The Cotton Club, which used to be on 142nd and Lenox but moved down to 125th Street, featured artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. When venue owner John Beatty received a call from Columbia, he was disgusted at the thought of selling, saying, “Under no circumstances will I sell.”
Queens-born Harlem musician Steven Fowler, who is also an alumnus and an educator at Harlem School of the Arts, fears this exact scenario:
[Fowler:] I’ll never forget it. There was a club in Harlem called St. Nick’s, St. Nick’s Pub, and then one mysterious evening, the club just caught fire and the entire building was, you know, completely compromised and they had to tear it down and you know what happens. The investors with all the money, places and institutions like Columbia, because Columbia has bought up so much property, they get a hold of the place, historical places like that, historical sites like that, and then subsequently the history is completely forgotten and erased. And that is something that has been happening more and more and faster and faster in the village of Harlem.
Fowler also describes an account of Columbia just barely failing to purchase a historic Harlem property.
[Fowler:] And I remember having a conversation with someone who just by the hair on their chin outbid Columbia University for a very, very desirable property. And had they not done that, Columbia would have started to take over even more real estate in Harlem.
The cultural impacts of Columbia’s real estate ventures deserve serious attention. But if gentrification and expansion-related pressures on Harlem’s jazz scene aren’t enough, both Fowler and Columbia jazz faculty underscore a lacking relationship between Columbia’s resources and the threatened state of jazz in Harlem.
[Fowler:] “I think that that is the largest gap that sort of needs to be bridged, the relevancy of these institutions in these communities. Columbia owns a good deal of the Harlem community, yet the level of interaction from what I can see with those people is very low.”
When we compare Columbia’s resources to the financial conditions and fraught jazz scene in Harlem or consider how Columbia’s property expansions threaten venues and the music scene at large, Fowler’s call for a healthier relationship between Columbia and Harlem resonates deeply.
[Fowler:] “I would love to see Columbia reach out to, you know, well, first take the initiative, you know, and then reach out to every institution of learning, every single one, every institution of learning, every community organization that exists and serves the community, reach out to those institutions and just ask them how they can contribute to what they’re doing. And I think that’s the simplest and most fundamental way to start to create change and develop relationships. So then when you do see Columbia buy this or that property, you’re not threatened by it. You see it and you say, ‘Oh, okay. I’m familiar with this. They’ve contributed to my community. They can, they’ve contributed to my life in my overall progression as a human being. I endorse this, I support it.’ Very simple.”
Fowler’s concerns have been echoed by jazz faculty at Columbia. Washburne underscores that the Center for Jazz Studies has been and will continue to work on building these connections. One example of this is how it brought the JVC Jazz Festival, the longest-running series of sponsored performances in jazz history, to Columbia’s campus.
[Washburne:] “At the same time, there’s been a fraught relationship between Columbia and Harlem for many, many years, where there is a perception of some of the community in Harlem that Columbia does not share its resources, it is not a welcoming place where it doesn’t open its doors to those communities, doesn’t invest in those communities and I think that there are many professors that for a number of years have made a big effort to change that. The Center for Jazz Studies has been central to that. When they have programmed a variety of concerts and things, the invitations do go out and they try to bring folks in from the neighborhood and have been quite successful with that. The JVC Jazz Festival, they brought their whole festival to the quad, bringing the entire community and so there has been a lot of outreach and we have ways to go, but I think it’s moving in the right direction.”
In 2009, Columbia pledged $76 million to assist local nonprofits. The West Harlem Development Corporation—or WHDC—was founded to facilitate the allocation of these funds. Although their most recent strategic plan, which spans 38 pages, mentions jazz and music seldomly, the WHDC successfully began an annual Harlem Jazz and Music festival in 2019. An article from the magazine JazzTimes celebrated the festival’s inauguration, saying “Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte, and more will be honored.” But it’s important to note that Columbia’s donation to the charity corporation is equal to only approximately 1.5 percent of the Manhattanville expansion costs, and if operations continue as they have been, this fund will run dry by 2024, thereby threatening the perpetuity of the jazz festival.
The ardor that Columbia jazz students have in leaving campus to visit and support Harlem venues deserves to find parallel on an institutional level. According to Fowler, the primary association local Harlem residents have with Columbia’s name is fear—more particularly, the fear of losing property and thereby losing history. Though this is reassured by the fact that some Columbia faculty, jazz students, and Harlem musicians carry a similar desire to better connect Columbia to Harlem, there is still a lot of progress to be made. But if these three groups work together—students, faculty, and Harlemites—then there’s definitely hope for a better future for jazz in Harlem and at Columbia.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted Columbia’s and Harlem’s jazz communities. As jazz clubs throughout Harlem remain closed and as ensembles practice remotely, the local jazz scene has tried to adapt to online or socially-distanced settings. Famous institutions like Showman’s Jazz Club and Paris Blues Jazz Club—which lost its owner Samuel Hargress Jr.—still remain shuttered.
According to Traversa, many Columbia ensembles have resorted to mixing audio recordings that students send in and compiling them into a finished product. While some student musicians can record via platforms like Pro Tools, others only can record on their phones. Yet Traversa thinks that the end results are “really, really impressive.” Traversa also learned to record his own music, and he acknowledges that musicians must spend significantly more time on their craft in a digital format.
In the warmer months, jazz musicians in the city, Okegwo included, also performed at live outdoor concerts in parks for passersby. Even last week, Okegwo recalled seeing a talented combo in the park in 28-degree weather.
[Okegwo:] “But the thing is that over the summer, just to be able to play, I’ve played some in Riverside Park and also in Central Park. And I didn’t play for money. I just played with people that I like playing with, and what I noticed was that a lot of people were actually very enthusiastic being around the music, and although we didn’t, we always waved them off, like ‘No money,’ they were insisting on it, you know that they’re putting it somewhere because we didn’t have like something set up. And so like, it was something for them, they really felt, I think, like it was important all of a sudden to them.”
Washburne agrees with Okegwo’s sentiment that today’s jazz clubs have transformed into public performances in Central Park, since many venues and promoters are financially hurting. Although jazz musicians have tried to record their ensembles virtually, Washburne notes that “you can’t play jazz on Zoom” because it’s impossible to have spontaneous interaction and creativity through the virtual platform. Washburne believes that with the help of patrons, many traditional venues can be saved. Yet he also anticipates the emergence of many alternative types of venues, as well as new forms of jazz itself. He remains wholly optimistic that despite the financial struggles of many musicians, jazz will persist, both at Columbia and in Harlem, as it did over 100 years ago during the Spanish Flu epidemic.
[Washburn:] “I think that the most important thing to keep in mind is when jazz first emerged, it was simultaneously and then the aftermath of a pandemic. And the fact that the pandemic had closed so many things down and it changed society in a variety of ways is one of the key components to why jazz emerges and is so vibrant when it does, in the sense that one definition of jazz that I think is quite compelling is that it’s a beautiful response to adversity, in all sorts of adversity, in terms of race relations, in terms of economics, in terms of class ethnicity, gender, all sorts of issues are wrapped up and tied up into what makes this music so compelling. So in terms of the efforts of keeping or reviving jazz or keeping it going, you don’t actually really, really need to do that, it will keep going. Just walk in Central Park on a beautiful day and you will see some of the greatest musicians in the world out there playing. Because jazz musicians play, not because it’s their living, certainly they do make a living at it, but it’s because of their love for the music and they are completely dedicated to it, and it’s not a choice. It’s definitely a need, and this music is one of the best music suited to adapt to change.”
“Jazzy Ear Intro” featuring Dylan Delgiudice and Jonathan Block
“Composition 40B” - Dylan DelGiudice
“As They Really Are” - Dylan Delgiudice
“If I Can’t Jazz It’s Not My Revolution” - Quantum Jazz
“Tulip” - Sam Hyman
“The Pearls” - Jelly Roll Morton
“Wolverine Blues” - Jelly Roll Morton
“Piano” - Josh Kapilian
“Body and Soul” - Dylan Delgiudice
“Passing Field” - Quantum Jazz
Production and Sound Design by Sam Hyman
Script Edited by Claudia Gohn
Illustration by Noelle Hunter
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