The room is dimly lit, partially by candlelight. My plate of buffalo wings glows an eerie orange. Players’ feet tap the beat, their fingers push the keys, their torsos swing back and forth, and their heads up and down—jazz, I quickly learn, is a full-body experience. The saxophone player doesn’t move his instrument, he moves with it. A trumpet belts out a pile-driver of a chord, it vibrates across the wooden tap-dancing floor through my toe-tips into my body, and for one second, I am jazz, too.
The power of the music is almost enough to make me forget that this isn’t the real Cotton Club—that famous 142nd Street Jazz Age speakeasy that began Duke Ellington’s career and inspired a Francis Ford Coppola film. No, this is its ’70s remake, a blocky white building under the Manhattanville viaduct and opposite Columbia’s new campus.
This is my first jazz concert, and in many ways it confirms my preconceptions of the genre. Soaring, funky, engaging, but also out of date.
I tear my eyes away from the musicians and start observing the room more closely. The crowd is neither young nor local; on my left is a table of French tourists, on my right a group of white-haired jazz lovers. I glance back at the performers. Their music, while beautiful, feels just a little off. Jazz, in the books and the movies at least, is supposed to be a spontaneous dialogue. One instrument says something, and another responds. The Cotton Club All Stars treat their pieces with perhaps too much reverence, as though they’re trying to be Ellington rather than themselves. Despite this, we’re all having a good time.
When I step out the club’s heavy white doors and come face to face with the jutting steel beams and glass panes of the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, I might as well have exited a time machine. The Cotton Club is a museum of sorts, filled with black-and-white pictures and music from the last millennium. It leaves me thinking—what would a 21st-century jazz club look like?
New York, I’ve been told, is the beating heart of orchestral jazz. And yet, despite living in the city for all 17 years of my life, I’ve never really experienced the genre. When you’ve lived somewhere forever, it’s easy to become jaded to its wonders, or to perpetually condemn their discovery to “tomorrow.”
Somewhere around the middle of my senior year of high school—as I was running out of those tomorrows—I thought experiencing jazz in my hometown would be just another classic New York thing I had missed out on, like visiting Madison Square Garden or going to the top of the Empire State Building. Then, I ended up at Columbia.
“No other university offers such comprehensive exposure to jazz,” boasts Columbia’s Music Performance Program’s website. By nature of our location in Harlem, one of jazz’s key incubators, we must have a history with the art. I decided to retrace the steps of jazz at Columbia, to investigate where it is now and how it got there.
“Jazz” first appeared in Spectator 100 years ago. On May 8, 1917, an advertisement under the Amusements section announced that singer Nora Bayes would be performing at the 39th Street Theater accompanied by a jazz band. In the years that followed, jazz took campus by storm. Similar advertisements multiplied exponentially and, in just a few months, jazz entered articles themselves.
For some time, the word “jazz” did not appear outside quotation marks, as though it was such a new concept that writers did not yet know what it was or how to treat it. A few years later, journalists let the word break out of its shell—it became first a noun (“a little jazz,” “a tantalizing jazz”) then a verb (“jazz it up”). Quickly, jazz grew more and more ubiquitous. It was played at a Varsity Show in 1920 and at the class of 1923 junior prom.
But Columbia doesn’t live in a vacuum; jazz didn’t just wander in. I sit down with Krin Gabbard, an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies, to disentangle the strong ties between jazz and Harlem that brought this genre of music to campus. While the early history of these links is murky, he recounts an interesting anecdote. In 1920, Gabbard tells me, a young African-American man named Fletcher Henderson enrolled at Columbia to pursue his master’s degree in chemistry, but soon dropped out to leave his mark on jazz. (Racial pressures, Gabbard adds, may also have played a part in his decision.) One fateful day, Henderson’s roommate, a jazz pianist, found himself too sick to play for the Riverside Orchestra, of which he was a member. Henderson replaced him, was invited back, and went on to be hired by Black Swan Records—the first major African American-owned record label, which would go on to sign such greats as Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong. In December 1924, Henderson’s name appeared in two Spectator ads: His band was playing at the annual “intercollegiate dance.” Henderson stayed in Harlem and went on to pioneer big band jazz. After his group split, he wrote and sold arrangements that would make Benny Goodman—the “King of Swing”—famous.
Reading and hearing all of this, it’s easy to imagine that, according to Robert O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, “Once upon a time jazz was America’s popular music.” Henderson, then, was his generation’s Vampire Weekend.
But I am reminded that jazz is a full-body experience—one that moves with us. Jazz evolved later on to embody ’60s counterculture. Students heard it blaring not only out of dorm rooms, but also out of local clubs. The Spectator archives are full of incidents that link jazz to protests; the Nov. 6, 1961 issue mentions that “Nat Hentoff, jazz critic,” would be speaking alongside assemblyman Mark Lane and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin to protest a University ban on communist speakers.
On May 20, 1987, Spectator ran a retrospective on jazz as protest music, or at least proto-political music. At a time when “expert but stolid classicism ... is riding a bull market,” it says, “it is good to be reminded that jazz has sometimes been a dangerous art.” Jazz, which emerged out of West African musical traditions brought to America by the slave trade, is rebellious by nature. “The sound of defiance is unmistakable” in it, Eric Lott writes. It was a medium through which artists could express “black discontent and black accomplishment, tempering anger with ebullience, sorrow with nobility, hurt with beauty, impudence with genius,” he continues, quoting from Gary Giddins’ book Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker.
Jazz was part of people’s lives, and this made the idea of an academic jazz studies course inconceivable to Gabbard. No one had yet taken a step back to examine it through an interdisciplinary, theoretical lens.
At some point in the ’80s, Gabbard recalls, “people said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something going on here.’” He was one of the first to recognize that jazz could be studied not just as a musical genre but also through a myriad of other disciplines: culture, literature, history, gender. Struck by these possibilities, he held a panel at the annual Modern Language Association conference that drew a surprisingly large crowd of intellectuals. Gabbard stayed in touch with them, and O’Meally soon invited many of them to a study group at Columbia, which eventually morphed into the Center for Jazz Studies, founded in 1999. “Looking back on it, it was kind of a wild thing to do,” he reflects nonchalantly—but that, after all, is the improvisational spirit of jazz.
Today, the CJS conducts fascinating research: It recently worked with neuroscientists to study the effect of jazz rhythms and improvisation on the brain. But the most pressing question it must contend with is how to institutionalize jazz without freezing it. We live in a time, O’Meally says, in which “people begin learning about it more at school than from their siblings or going to parties.”
This trend isn’t entirely recent. A Feb. 15, 1999 Spectator article about Harlem’s Jazz Age documents students’ lack of interest in going to local clubs. “The problem,” staff writer Akiva Shapiro writes, “is that students generally do not know that they exist.” The academic importance of jazz is undeniable: It can illuminate countless aspects of African-American culture and its impact on mainstream music. The African American Registry, a nonprofit education organization on African American culture, says that jazz “remains on the outskirts of the public eye of contemporary American recognition and acceptance. This is consistent with its African-American origins and mentoring.” But turning jazz into a strictly academic subject risks students treating it the same way as they do classical music: “museumification,” as O’Meally puts it.
The CJS’ second major concern is accessibility. As jazz moves into classrooms, the fear is that it will also move out of the neighborhoods that created it. O’Meally worries that the rising costs of clubs are pricing out local communities and curtailing younger generations of opportunities to discover jazz. The extent of Columbia’s role in furthering this trend is debatable, but instances of it have been documented. In “Clubbed to Death,” a November 20, 2007 Village Voice article, John Beatty revealed that the University had attempted to buy out and tear down the Cotton Club to make space for Manhattanville.
Even so, O’Meally sees hints that his department has made “successful, progressive impacts” on modern-day jazz. He tells me that the CJS has been recognized as a major Harlem music producer by venues like the Apollo Theater and Jazzmobile, and it has won this reputation primarily by reinventing the jazz concert. Drawing from its interdisciplinary roots, it often commissions jazz pieces written about paintings or movies, and experiments with novelties such as tap dancers on stage. O’Meally helped organize a reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man set to jazz.
My search for jazz at Columbia seemed to have ended there, on a strangely unsatisfactory note. Jazz, apparently, now existed in two forms—as a museum artifact and an esoteric genre. Then, something strange happened. When I stopped looking for it, jazz found me.
Walking out of the Carman elevator one day, I overheard jazzy bars ringing through the lobby. Our music-loving security guard Michael Layne was playing some background music, Fats Domino’s jazz-inspired Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I sat down to talk to him, and he told me about how at some point, “Jazz just took over [his] life.” (Although he dabbles mostly in pop, you can find him on SoundCloud at @MLayne.)
The other day I attended a concert by my friend’s a capella group, Uptown Vocal in the Furnald lounge. The second they started crooning the funky, soulful tune of Stompin’ at the Savoy, a jazz standard about a New York City nightspot made famous by Benny Goodman—that same musician who paid Fletcher Henderson for arrangements—something happened. I started hearing scatting, syncopation, and call-and-response, all hallmarks of jazz. Uptown Vocal, it turns out, is a jazz a cappella group, dedicated to performing old, universally loved standards in new and interesting ways.
Jazz’s newfound omnipresence in my daily life made me recall one of Gabbard and O’Meally’s greatest points of pride, the inclusion of jazz in Columbia’s Core Curriculum as a section of Music Humanities. The works in the Core exist in a certain limbo, created before our times yet deeply and subtly present in our worlds. Their study mirrors that state of being. It makes us explore the past, but also opens our eyes to the ways and places in which they continue to grow today—outside elevators and inside dorm lounges, all those parts of our lives so mundane we rarely stop to listen to what they have to say.
America, Ralph Ellison once said, is “jazz-shaped.” Our culture, art, literature, music—our lives—are steeped in jazz. If we’ve watched La La Land, we’ve listened to Thelonious Monk’s Japanese Folk Song; if we’ve listened to Kanye’s Jesus Walks, we’ve heard him sample Lou Donaldson’s crisp drum kicks. We just might not notice it. Echoing this idea, O’Meally leaves me with the thought that “it’s always so hard to look at contemporary history” because “it’s still happening.” Jazz has always grown by absorbing and infiltrating other genres—blues, swing, gospel—as well as by forging a new path of its own. It continues to do so behind the scenes. “In a history of jazz,” says O’Meally, quoting composer Henry Threadgill, “we’re still in the first 20 minutes.”
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