It Don't Mean a Thing...

For a select number of undergrads, Harvard's jazz program is thriving. But where does that leave the rest of us?

“Up until a few years ago, jazz had little place on the college campus. It was music fit for night-clubs, sleazy joints and bad hotels.” This description could very well apply to the status of jazz at Harvard today: though most students are aware of its existence, few devote substantial time or serious attention to either its study or its performance.

But the quote is not a description of the current jazz scene: it comes from a 1974 article by Jim Cramer ’77 in these pages, reviewing a Harvard Jazz Band concert with trombonists Phil Wilson and Carl Fontana. And although Cramer, who would be come The Crimson’s president, expressed hope that “Monday night’s concert will signal the beginning of Harvard’s sprint to overtake the rest of the collegiate runners in a race to recognize jazz’s rightful place on campus,” not much has changed—at least by way of giving jazz greater prominence in the academic world.

While jazz has yet to make a major appearance on Harvard’s academic scene and remains neither broadly popular nor canonically academic, it has become a thriving but little-known subculture for a few students on campus. Indeed, there are indications that the relative obscurity of the jazz program is not a negative phenomenon: not only does it mirror the status of jazz outside of Harvard, but it has allowed student devotees to connect with some of the most prominent jazz musicians in the world.


The man who best exemplifies the small but well-connected status of jazz at Harvard is Thomas G. Everett, who came to Harvard in 1971. Everett graduated from the Ithaca College Conservatory and was teaching public school when he received a letter from Harvard inviting him to apply for the position of Director of Bands.

Initially, Harvard’s location played a key role in drawing Everett: considering the possibility of pursuing a playing career, he realized that Boston would offer more opportunities for performance than western New York. Over 30 years later, Everett hasn’t left Harvard.

“I didn’t realize I’d get so involved in the Harvard thing that eventually the trombone went by the wayside and I’m more involved in doing things at Harvard,” he says.

When Everett first arrived, his official duties mostly consisted of directing the marching band, but a personal interest in jazz encouraged him to make it a part of his work at Harvard.

“I found as a music educator and just as a person, I loved all kinds of music but really jazz I found an affinity with,” he says.

Jazz was hardly present at Harvard when Everett arrived. He says that there were no jazz activities, and jazz was not considered a subject suitable to academic study.

“It was a while before it was really academically acceptable,” Everett says.

Everett did not begin teaching a course on jazz until the mid- to late-1970s; in the meantime, he assembled a group of students already interested in jazz to form a new group within the Harvard Marching Band.

The students’ level of familiarity with jazz varied widely: some had already played in jazz ensembles, while others were just curious about the music.

Today, Harvard boasts two jazz ensembles independent from the Marching Band but still under Everett’s control: the Sunday Jazz Band, for less experienced students, and the Monday Jazz Band, for more advanced musicians.


As Everett’s group continued to add new members, he also started using his connections outside the University to encourage his students to understand jazz as a living art form. Over the years, Everett has brought such luminaries as Jerry Mulligan and Benny Carter to practice and perform with students.

“This is Harvard University. You study with Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and Nobel Prize-winning chemists,” Everett says. “[Students] should be exposed to the best of American music.”

The benefits for students might seem obvious. Michael L. Schachter ’09, a pianist for the Monday Jazz Band, says that guest artists offer an opportunity to look at the music he plays in a different light.

“I think it’s the perspective and being able to hear from someone who, rather than going the educational route or someone you see every day, being able to have a fresh voice from someone you have immediate respect for,” Schacter says, describing the advantages of playing with well-known figures in jazz. A music concentrator, Schachter also notes that guest artists help students understand the intensity of work necessary to make a life as a musician.

Schachter, who has played with clarinetist Don Byron, singer Jon Hendricks, Latin jazz pioneer Eddie Palmieri, trumpeter Brian Lynch, drummer Bobby Sanabria, and pianist Geri Allen, also notes a more ephemeral benefit.

“There’s this kind of energy or magic that comes out of meeting someone who’s doing what you’re interested in doing and loves it so much,” he says.

Everett argues that coming to Harvard is a valuable experience for the performers, as well. “To invite them to play or talk at Harvard meant a great deal,” he says. “In some ways it was a statement that you’ve done something substantial with your life and your creations.”

Tomorrow, Benny Golson and Mulgrew Miller will join the jazz bands for a spring concert to wrap up several days of activities at Harvard, including rehearsing with students, participating in a Learning from Performers conversation through the Office for the Arts, and, for Miller, teaching a master class.

Golson, a saxophonist, composer, and arranger, has played with a number of bands and collaborated with such jazz musicians as Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1995, he received the Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor in jazz. A New York Times poll of jazz musicians that year also found Miller to be “the most in-demand pianist.”

Golson says he hopes to ground the students in the roots of their art. “History is always important. I’ll have to talk about things that took place before any of those students were born,” he says, adding that the lessons he has to offer are more than relics of the past.

“It relates to today. We’ll talk about things that today affect those students.”


Yet the number of students involved in the jazz scene today is relatively small—jazz does not constitute a substantial portion Harvard’s academic offerings, like classical music, nor is it as prominent outside the classroom as pop or hip hop.

Everett used to teach a course co-listed in the Departments of Music and African and African-American Studies that, like his extracurricular offerings, had strong ties to the jazz world outside Harvard. The class met twice a week for two hours and alternated Everett’s lessons with guest lectures. Everett cites pianist Teddy Wilson, who played with Benny Goodman, as an example of a performer he might bring to class.

“It would be like giving a lecture on gravity and then Newton would come in on Thursday and talk about it,” he says.

After offering the course every other year for four years in the 1970s and 1980s, however, Everett’s appointment did not allow him to assume any further teaching responsibilities. This year, Ingrid Monson’s Literature and Arts B-82: “Sayin’ Something: Jazz as Sound, Sensibility, and Social Dialogue” is the only class to focus on jazz. The course was offered through the Core rather than the Music department.

Both Everett and Schachter, as well as Noah L. Nathan ’09, the student manager of the Monday Jazz Band, believe that greater curricular offerings could benefit the jazz culture at Harvard. Everett says that incorporating jazz into the curriculum could help expose the music to non-performers, while Schachter says he believes that many musicians would be interested in engaging with jazz academically if the opportunity were available. Nathan notes that Columbia has a jazz studies track.

“It’s not unheard of for an Ivy League school to have a program that devotes itself to jazz,” he says.

As for the status of jazz as popular music, Everett recognizes that few students are aware of it. He cites the example of Joshua S. Redman ’93, the jazz saxophonist who will receive this year’s Harvard Arts Medal, as an example of an important figure with whom many students might not be familiar. Everett says that many students who hear Redman’s name will react by saying he’s a famous saxophone player, but far more will have no clue who he is.

“It’s a small group of people who are knowledgeable about the music, and maybe it’s always going to be that way to a degree,” he says.


But, as Everett notes, the status of jazz at Harvard echoes the dynamics of the broader jazz culture. Although jazz is not quite cult music, it is also not the music of the masses. Everett paraphrases a saxophonist who describes jazz as “an unpopular form of popular music.”

Besides reflecting the situation of the jazz world outside Harvard, the relative smallness of the student jazz culture has allowed a few dedicated undergraduates to form intimate connections with some of the most prominent figures in that world. Perhaps no student’s experience better demonstrates the unique opportunities available to those passionate about jazz than Nathan’s.

Nathan says he auditioned for both jazz bands his freshman year but didn’t make either. Within a week, however, the departure of one musician and the resulting reshuffling of band members made him the first chair alto saxophone in the Monday Jazz Band. Since then, he has met and jammed with a number of top musicians.

“This has been the most ridiculous school year, because in a single school year I can think of eight amazing jazz musicians we’ve played with, including the two who will come this year,” Nathan says, calling the jazz program “Harvard’s best kept secret of the arts.”

Like Nathan, a government concentrator, the vast majority of jazz band members do not study music academically, nor do they plan to continue on to careers as performers. Still, these students have the responsibility of representing jazz to the student body and Harvard to the jazz world.

For his part, Benny Golson seems unworried that the majority of the students he’s worked with this week treat jazz as an extracurricular activity and nothing more. Although he notes that “music, like anything else, can be as important as the time and effort you put into it,” he also praises Everett and the Harvard jazz program for addressing students’ needs. Golson describes his aspirations for his own contributions to jazz at Harvard in terms of practicality.

“I hope it will be something that will be of interest and something that they can use in their pursuit of music.” He pauses before adding, “To the extent that they want to.”

—Staff writer Marianne F. Kaletzky can be reached at


Recommended Articles