Music Professor Builds Jazz Performance Program
at Columbia

Special from The Record

Dec. 22, 2010Bookmark and Share

Almost a decade ago, music professor Chris Washburne set up a jazz ensemble at Columbia for non-music majors. The first undergraduate jazz ensemble in University history, it drew just enough students to form an octet.

Columbia students and program organizers talk about the growth of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program and the importance of jazz education at the University. (5:31)

Today, the jazz performance program is thriving with 125 students enrolled this year, majoring in everything from premed and pre-law to philosophy, economics and English. Just 5 percent are music majors.

“I was amazed at the high level of musicianship among our undergraduates,” says Washburne, an associate professor of music and highly acclaimed jazz trombonist who has performed with Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Gloria Estefan, among others.

Washburne was lucky enough to find an enthusiastic backer early on. Phoebe Jacobs, executive director of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation and a longtime publicist for Armstrong, heard the first ensemble play at St. Paul’s Chapel in 2001.

After the performance, she grabbed Washburne’s arm, declared the student musicians “amazing” and offered to do everything she could to help the program get off the ground. In 2002, the fledgling effort was named the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program, with Washburne as founder and director.

As the number of students has increased, Washburne has formed new ensembles for students focused on different genres of music, such as Latin or bebop; there are now 15. He also has hired 12 music associates—professional musicians working in New York City—to help him teach and lead the groups.

Among the students is Sam Reider (CC’11), an American Studies major. As a high school senior and jazz pianist, Reider had to decide between attending music school or Columbia.

“In the end I decided to go to Columbia … most of all because I feel strongly that music draws its creativity and power from other things than just music itself,” he says in a 2008 interview on Marian McPartland’s NPR show Piano Jazz. “I owed it to myself to let myself have the most comprehensive education that I could.”

Another student in the program is Armand Hirsch (CC’13), who was featured in a recent Jazz Times piece by Nat Hentoff, in which the noted jazz writer described the 20-year-old’s “ceaselessly original and surprising conception.”

“People are still sort of surprised in this day and age that people who are interested in music to the extent that I am are spending their time studying neuroscience or fulfilling the Core Curriculum requirements,” says Hirsch. “And I always have to remind them that it’s a means to the same end and that it’s all self-improvement.”

This idea of a well-rounded education is what prompted Washburne to suggest in 2002 that jazz become part of the Music Humanities segment of the Core Curriculum. Today, Columbia is one of the few universities where all undergraduates will study jazz. The student ensembles also visit the Core classes, performing for their peers and leading discussions about the mechanics of playing jazz and jazz history.

“These class visits provide an up-close-and-personal encounter with jazz for our undergraduate humanities students and invaluable teaching and performing experiences for our jazz students,” says Washburne.

The students in the performance program can also count on getting Columbia gigs; Reider’s band, for instance, played at a gala event for the American Studies department, and this month performed for major donors at a dinner celebrating the opening of the Northwest Corner Building. Last year, students traveled to Beijing and Amman, Jordan, to play at the opening of the Columbia Global Centers in those cities.

At the close of each semester, the ensembles perform at Miller Theatre. “What’s remarkable … is how quickly young musicians grow and how quickly they can adapt,” says Washburne. “They come in … with a little bit of jazz experience, playing in a local rock band or playing in their high school band, and by the end, they’re these refined young men and women who have really started to develop their own voice on their instrument.”

—by Nick Obourn

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