Keeping the Tradition Alive: The Relatively Low Percentage of Black Students in Jazz Studies Programs Remains a Topic of Interest as Scholars Want to Ensure That the Musical Culture of an Earlier Generation of African-Americans Lives On

By Boulard, Garry | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

Keeping the Tradition Alive: The Relatively Low Percentage of Black Students in Jazz Studies Programs Remains a Topic of Interest as Scholars Want to Ensure That the Musical Culture of an Earlier Generation of African-Americans Lives On


Boulard, Garry, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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WHEN 25-YEAR-OLD ASHLIN Parker applied to the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans, he did so not solely because of the school's well-regarded reputation; he also couldn't pass up an opportunity to play and study jazz in "The Crescent City."

"It isn't just that New Orleans is obviously a city with a great history in the founding and development of jazz," says Parker, who plays the trumpet, "but that the university encourages its students to get out into the city and perform in clubs where they can meet musicians who actually play for a living."

That campus-to-clubs universe is anything but accidental, says Missy Bowen, operations manager in UNO's music department. "There used to be a train called the Smokey Mary that ran all the way from the Mississippi River to what used to be called Milneburg, where the UNO campus is located today. All of the great jazz musicians in the late 1800s and early 1900s traveled that route to play the Milneburg clubs," Bowen says.

Although the train line has not operated in more than 70 years, the same general movement of musicians from the lakefront of New Orleans to the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny continues, with students from UNO playing in any number of clubs throughout the city, in particular the decades-old Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro.

The UNO Jazz Studies Program, which operates within the school's department of music and emphasizes jazz improvisation, history, theory and arranging, is such a valued local institution that it survived a withering round of post-Katrina budget cuts that resulted in the elimination of UNO's opera, composition and classical performance class offerings.

"I think the administration realizes the importance of a strong jazz studies program in the city of New Orleans," says Steve Masakowski, jazz guitarist and UNO Coca-Cola Chair in Jazz Studies.

"Also, the UNO Jazz Studies Program is highly respected in the jazz community and attracts students from around the world," he adds. "I'm sure it was a very hard decision, but because of our strength and support, we survived the cuts."

Yet, despite the good news of its endurance, UNO's Jazz Studies Program continues to face challenges, one of the most obvious of which is the racial makeup of its enrollment. According to Masakowski, in a city where Blacks make up more than 60 percent of the population, only 30 percent of the jazz studies students are Black.

Although there are no statistics documenting the racial break-down of jazz studies students nationally, the percentage of Black students in such programs remains a topic of interest primarily because jazz scholars want to ensure that the musical culture of an earlier generation of African-Americans is not lost on the younger generation.

"Right now we have in our program about 35 students, and five are African-American," says Kenny Burrell, guitarist and jazz program director at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Burrell founded the UCLA jazz program in 1996 with the idea of building a faculty that would be composed of both scholars and musicians out in the field. The program emphasizes jazz performance. Upon graduation, students receive a bachelor's degree in ethnomusicology.

"We've been trying to increase the number of African-American students," adds Burrell. "We've secured some new funding for scholarships which will make it easier and more attractive for African-American students as well as other students to come here."

Such scholarships range from $1,000 per year to more than $10,000 a year, from a number of sources, including the Don Ellis Scholarship in Jazz Trumpet, the Duke Ellington Jazz Piano Scholarship and the Marry Feldman Jazz Scholarship.

Newly appointed director of Jazz Studies at Northwestern University's School of Music Victor Goines, also a famed jazz clarinetist and saxophonist, says that he is committed to attracting more Black students. …

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