Columbia recently hosted a group of six Ukrainian jazz professors and musicians interested in the music department's approach to teaching jazz as part of a four-city U.S. tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Ukrainian music scholars attended a lecture featuring Columbia's Director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program Chris Washburne and then enjoyed a jamming session with one of the University's talented jazz ensembles.
The State Department-Kennedy Center Jazz Ambassadors Program, which sends American jazz musicians on concert tours in foreign countries, "has been expanded to provide delegates from overseas with exposure to jazz's role in American society and culture," explained Washburne. "Jazz is seen as a metaphor for American democracy, and yet today it is no longer just an American phenomenon. Its rhythm, themes and artistry transcend borders. It's really global music."
The group of six international visitors, after stopovers at other top jazz academic centers in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Miami, reviewed Columbia's unique program which explores jazz's influences on other arts, society and politics in the United States and worldwide. The University is the first research institution to treat students to a multidisciplinary jazz education taught by English and cultural study professors, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists as well as private classes with top musicians in New York.
"We teach how jazz relates to other systems of improvisation and personal expression," explained Washburne during the lecture period. "We'd also like to impart to students jazz's impact on shaping a whole generation, its expansion into other regions -- Latin, Caribbean or Creole interpretations -- and an understanding of jazz roots in modern day music, even hip-hop."
Washburne approached Columbia's administration a couple of years ago with the idea of further expanding the jazz curriculum at the University by forming an ensemble under the auspices of the music department.
"We held extremely competitive auditions attracting many qualified students -- some professional musicians and a couple with already-brokered record deals," says Washburne, an accomplished musician himself who has played with the likes of Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Marc Anthony and Gloria Estefan.
The Department initially formed an octet comprised of two vocalists, a trombonist, a saxophonist and piano, bass and drums. Thanks to a grant from the Louis Armstrong Foundation, the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program expanded to four ensembles of 25 students, currently playing at major campus events as well as off-campus jazz clubs.
The State Department group dropped in on one ensemble's weekly Friday rehearsal, enjoying the music of both Thelonious Monk and Donald Brown. One scholar from Kiev sat in one session, jumping on the piano and pounding out a rendition of the jazz classic, "New York".
The tunes of the great Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington are not new to Columbia. The University was the first Ivy League school to hire a jazz historian and musicologist Mark Tucker, in 1987. Robert O'Meally, a literary scholar and editor of the first textbook on jazz, launched Columbia's Center for Jazz Studies in 1999, gathering intellectuals for regular discussions. Over the years, the Center has attracted noted musicians Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach and Randy Weston.
And if he has it his way, the Ukrainian music scholars will not be the only ones to explore the importance of the jazz movement in U.S. history. "We'd hope to encourage a cross-section of Columbia students to specialize in jazz studies -- whether they be English Ph.D.s or undergraduate sociology majors," says Washburne.
"Jazz is one of America's greatest art forms and it deserves a place in our core curriculum."