A Jazz Education Initiative To Strengthen Jazz at HBCUs

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One of the clear victories for jazz is in the field of education. Many predominantly white institutions of higher learning have credentialed jazz programs, which is not the case for most Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The HBCU Jazz Education Initiative (HBCU-JEI) was formed to narrow that gap.

Created last year, and incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in June in North Carolina, the HBCU-JEI was, according to its mission statement, created “to enhance the status of jazz on HBCU campuses and to be a vehicle for those educators to communicate and explore ideas.” The organization’s goal is to increase funding for HBCU jazz departments, create stronger networks for HBCU jazz graduates and forge pipelines of education for students in and out of school. The tools for implementing the initiative’s goals are its website, Facebook page, Zoom meetings and a GoFundMe campaign.

The initiative was primarily the brainchild of Dr. Ira Wiggins, the retired director of jazz studies at Durham-based North Carolina Central University (NCCU). With about 40 jazz music majors, and alumni that include drummer Grady Tate and trumpeter Al Strong IV, NCCU offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz performance and jazz studies.

With Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo serving as artists-in-residence, the initiative largely stemmed from Dr. Wiggins’ conversations with colleagues about jazz at Black schools. “I wanted to make everybody aware of the situation currently in the country, in terms of jazz studies and curricula being underrepresented at HBCUs,” Wiggins says. “The Black student deserves to have this type of training. I wanted to make sure everybody understood why we needed to do something like this … that we address the situation, because if we don’t do it now, in 10 years, it may be too late.”

The university’s jazz program — the only one functioning in the state when it started — was co-founded in 1977 by trumpeter/educator Donald Byrd, who created the jazz-funk group N.C.C.U., which released the album Super Trick that same year. The group was modeled on an ensemble Byrd created in 1973 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., called the Blackbyrds, which were Byrds’ students in the jazz program he created there, making it the first HBCU with a jazz-degree granting program. Some of the musicians who studied in this program include Wallace Roney, Greg Osby, Warren Shadd and Geri Allen. Today, with 45 jazz students, the program features pianist Cyrus Chestnut as an instructor, as well as Connaitre Miller, who leads the highly decorated vocal jazz ensemble Afro Blue.

For Dr. Fred Irby III, director of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and an HBCU-JEI board member, the initiative can ease the tension that at times exists between the larger school faculty and the supporters of the jazz curriculum.

“Dr. Byrd really wanted to have a jazz program here,” Irby says. “But the people on the faculty, the deans, didn’t want him to have the program. They hired Dr. Byrd, but they didn’t give him the support that he needed. He ran the big band, taught jazz history and improvisation … you couldn’t get a better jazz historian than Donald Byrd, but he needed help.”

Irby notes that although HBCUs were late to offer jazz studies programs, those schools still played major roles, albeit informally, in the formation of the music.

“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, jazz was not taught in Black colleges,” Irby says. “But there were great jazz bands in those schools like Alabama State, which had the Alabama State Collegians with Erskine Hawkins. Tennessee State University had some great groups, [as did] Florida A&M. But these groups were run by students.”

According to another HBCU-JEI board member, Robert Griffin, those anti-jazz attitudes stemmed from an ingrained sense of cultural inferiority that Black educators had at the time toward music.

“For HBCUs, to be considered educationally sound and viable,” says Griffin, who is director of jazz studies at Florida A&M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Florida. “They tended to downplay anything that would be less ‘sophisticated’ than European classical music. So jazz was kind of looked down upon, and that’s really a travesty because your jazz musicians tend to be the more skilled musicians in the music department. They’ve got to learn all of the classical technique. They’ve got to master their instruments, be able to improvise, understand harmony and chord progressions and musical form. So when a jazz musician is improvising, they’re actually composing on the spot. It’s really kind of sad that jazz has been downplayed at HBCUs.”

FAMU’s jazz program, founded in 1995 by Lindsey Sarjeant and funded by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, offers a both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music with a concentration in jazz studies. The school’s alumni include trumpeter Scotty Barnhardt, leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, but two of the school’s brightest stars were brothers Nat and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who performed in the famed FAMU Marching 100, the school’s marching band, back in the late 1940s.

“We are establishing the Cannonball and Nat Adderley Institute for Jazz, for music industry and jazz studies as a curriculum modification, where students can pursue and earn a music degree that will give them the skills and techniques they need to be managers, producers, engineers, as well as recording artists,” Griffin says.

Though the HBCU Jazz Education Initiative is in its formative stages, it stands poised to propel jazz to levels never achieved before.

“We just want to promote the value of jazz music in the educational curriculum at HBCUs,” Griffin says. “The music is of value, culturally, socially and politically. It’s powerful, and it’s important that this message gets promoted. And that’s what we’re really trying to do with this initiative, to assist universities that want to do it and don’t have the tools to do it.” DB



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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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