Studying Jazz in the Pacific Northwest


Guitarist Bill Frisell, right, rehearses with University of Washington students.

(Photo: Steve Korn)

When it comes to studying jazz, the best known programs usually come from the East, like Manhattan School of Music, Berklee or The New School. But, as jazz is American music, it’s taught with expertise and artistry all over the country.

The American Northwest has established an ample reputation for jazz education, including Cornish College of the Arts, University of Washington, Portland State University, University of Oregon, University of Idaho and more offering a rigorous learning experience with a low-key, often unconventional approach and style unique to the region.

University of Washington

Nestled minutes from downtown Seattle, University of Washington and the Jazz and Improvised Music program run by Department chair and renowned jazz trumpeter Cuong Vu offers three jazz degrees — a B.M. in Jazz Studies, a B.A. in Music, Instrumental Option in Jazz Studies, and an M.M. in Jazz Studies and Improvised Music — through a mixture of traditional and non-traditional coursework and ensembles.

The non-idiomatic material can be largely credited to Vu, who modernized the curriculum after his hiring in 2007.

While students are taught jazz history, the standards, rhythmic feel and other essential aspects, UW’s program also emphasizes contemporary classical and pop music, as well as free improvisation — and even requires students to study on a non-dominant instrument, so they can understand how to wield the qualities of experimentalism in different contexts.

Cornish College of the Arts

Also in the Seattle area, Cornish College of the Arts offers another angle on jazz studies.

With approximately 50 music students per year and no degree that’s jazz-specific, Cornish is a sleeping giant. The school brings students a high-caliber faculty, as well as a non-traditional learning environment built on flexibility, intimacy and pushing boundaries that helps to shape a solid jazz understanding.

Curriculum at Cornish strikes a balance between structure and freedom. There are no music majors like jazz studies or classical voice. Instead all music students learn core musicianship: improvisation, composition and digital audio and recording.

“It’s a unique approach and one we’re still defining, but it is what we believe to be Cornish’s important contribution to music education and mirrors the experiences of what it means to be a musician in the world today,” said James Falzone, music department chair.

Cornish also offers jazz theory and harmony, improvisation, large and small jazz ensembles and private jazz lessons, opportunities that exist because of the vision of Jim Knapp, the late jazz composer/arranger and trumpet player hired by the school in the early 1970s.

“He created jazz courses and ensembles and began hiring great players and singers to teach, including Gary Peacock, Art Lande, Julian Priester, Jay Clayton, Chuck Deardorf, Randy Halberstadt and many others,” said Falzone.

Portland State University

A few hours south of Seattle is another strong jazz program at Portland State University, which sees about 40 to 50 jazz students per year. This program offers a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Jazz Studies.

About 25 years old, the jazz program at PSU has been run by jazz pianist and organist George Colligan since 2011, whose approach to teaching is informed by the contrast he sees in the teachings of classical and jazz, and his belief in jazz as living music.

Colligan, a classically trained trumpeter turned jazz pianist, is careful to leave space for freedom within the traditional classical-informed academic lens, which most university music programs rely on when teaching jazz.

“Great artists make their own choices. They go against the grain and do something that’s their own,” said Colligan. “They don’t have other people make the decisions for them. This is sort of part of the big difference of how classical music is taught and how jazz, I believe, should be taught or should be approached. To me, it’s more about creating an artist than somebody who’s going to recreate something or sort of fit into a certain mold.”

Colligan balances the traditional classes, like ear training and theory, with the spontaneous way he learned — on the bandstand. PSU students are to perform works they’ve written or that were written by peers at student concerts, and to go out into the community and gig. To Colligan, this is the way students take ownership of their individual expression.

University of Oregon

A couple hours south of Portland, in counterculture Eugene, Oregon, Steve Owen, a composer and long-time director of jazz studies at University of Oregon, helps students find their niche in jazz through composition, pedagogy and business know-how.

Owen started the jazz program at UO in 1988 and helped the school develop one of the first bachelor’s in jazz studies programs in the Pacific Northwest. While Owen plays well, he defines himself as a jazz writer and arranger. So, at the center of UO’s program is the open-minded belief that you don’t only have to be a player to be significant in the jazz world.

“People forget that jazz is pretty wide open to a lot of different skills,” said Owen. “For me, my career or my relationship with music is different than one size fits all and that’s important to realize. One of our old students ended up being a club owner — and he’s great at it.”

With that in mind, the curriculum balances performance skills with the composition, arranging and pedagogy — and, Owen, who says he absolutely adores teaching, strives to make it a welcoming place for a variety of backgrounds, interests and skill levels.

“Our philosophy when we get together as faculty is not to go, ‘Boy, that person isn’t getting their act together.’ It’s more like, ‘Well, why hasn’t that happened yet? What can we do? Is there a different way to approach this?’” he said. “Our goal isn’t to create necessarily create the next generation of jazz musicians. It’s to use jazz as a platform for studying music and to see where [they] want to go with it.”

UO’s program also exists in a jazz literate town. Eugene may be small, but it has its own all-ages jazz club, The Jazz Station, which hosts student bands and major out-of-town talent. There, community members are highly supportive of jazz gigs, especially those put on by students, who’ve been known to build followings there and sell out multiple nights. In this lower-stakes environment, jazz students gain the business know-how they need to be successful in the New York or Chicago scene.

University of Idaho

Finally, there’s University of Idaho’s program in the small, 25,000-person city of Moscow, Idaho — which packs a punch for a school with only a minor in jazz studies.

Along with having a strong program run by University of North Texas alum Vern Sielert, UI is home to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, the largest educational jazz festival in the U.S., and the International Jazz Collection in the UI library, which houses artifacts from past Lionel Hampton festivals, including Joe Williams charts, Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone and one of Ella Fitzgerald’s dresses.

At UI, the jazz curriculum emphasizes the jazz masters and the real world experience of performing with peers and faculty. And, beyond the concert halls of the music program, many local coffee houses host student jazz regularly.

As a bonus, students are often tapped to drive guest festival artists and volunteer behind the scenes during the Hampton festival, giving them the chance to rub shoulders, learn from and play for internationally recognized performers.

Hence, studying at UI is more than the curriculum — it’s the chance to get exposed to the larger jazz industry and learn experientially from a quaint, approachable place. DB

  • DB2016_Wayne_Shorter_Earshot_Jazz_Daniel_Sheehan.jpg

    Shorter performing at the 2015 Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle.

  • Keith_Jarrett_by_Michael_Jackson_lo_res.jpg

    “There was a time I decided I was not a composer, only an improvisor, and I find that very difficult to do with one hand,” Jarrett says. “Jumping off a cliff takes two hands and two feet.”

  • img206_AFI_March_1%2C_1984%2C_Carol_Bayer_Sagar%2C_Burt_Bacharach%2C_Miles_Davis_photo_by_John_McDonough.jpg

    Burt Bacharach with Carol Bayer Sagar and Miles Davis in 1984.

  • Samara_Joy_Grammy_Win_Kevin_Winter_Getty_Images_copy.jpg

    ​Samara Joy gives her acceptance speech at the Grammys on Feb. 5.

  • Fred_Hersch_Esperanza_Spalding_Erika_Kapin_Photography.jpg

    The album Alive At The Village Vanguard (Palmetto), featuring Hersch on piano and spalding on vocals, was recorded in 2018.

On Sale Now
April 2023
Brad Mehldau
Look Inside
Print | Digital | iPad