Juilliard’s Jazz Studies Program Turns 10

DownBeat
(January, 2011)

On a recent day October, the sloping lawn outside the office of Juilliard Jazz Studies Artistic Director, Carl Allen, was specked with students sunning themselves. But inside, through a giddy hum of chart pages turning and instrument cases snapping open, the vibe was far from idle. With less than a week to go before their season’s opening concert with John Clayton, the program’s big band was soldiering through a three-hour rehearsal.

“What’s ‘Evidence’ look like, trumpets?” Assistant Conductor and Juilliard Jazz alum, Brandon Lee asked.

“Better than ‘Eternal Triangle,'” mumbled a trumpet player from the back row. Lee offered some “nit picky” notes, a student suggested a change to the way the horns are shift from unison to harmony. Six days later, the same students, now in suits and under Clayton’s direction, closed a near-perfect concert with the same tune that had given them so much trouble days before.

As the school’s Institute For Jazz Studies enters its tenth year, it’s found a rhythm for its focus on performance. Students like these are churning out memorable, professional-quality concerts each month, thanks to Juilliard’s formula for teaching students to become not only great artists, but employable players.

“Our students are performing all of the time,” says the program’s executive director, Laurie Carter, adding that the performance-based program strives “to replicate the tradition of younger musicians learning from older musicians,” on the bandstand.

“When I was in school, a lot of the greats that I grew up reading about and listening to were still alive,” says Allen. “It’s incumbent on me and other players of my generation to be the conduit for those guys.” As such, the program boasts a litany of marquee names on its faculty and as guest artists or conductors, including Allen and Ron Carter. Students in all three degree programs—undergrad, artist’s diploma and master’s—tour internationally, all while maintaining full course loads.

After completing both the artist’s diploma and the master’s program at Juilliard Jazz, trombonist James Burton started his own jazz program at Snow College, where he teaches a wide variety of courses and conducts two big bands. “There is no college music program quite like Juilliard,” he says. “It’s not college. Although you’re college age, it is truly a pre-professional program and that’s the way you’re treated there.”

Pianist Jon Batiste, who expects to complete the undergraduate degree in February, found that despite having played professionally since the age of 8 with his family’s band, Juilliard taught him invaluable protocols about the industry and his role in it. “A lot of the stuff they show you is geared towards understanding the politics of music business, a great tool for any musician to have.”

In some ways the program is still finding its footing. There is currently no vocal major, and given the current student-faculty ratio (Carter says they “have almost as many faculty as [they] have students”), Allen points out that probably won’t change, while Polisi thinks the idea of a vocal major could work down the road. Funding also remains a major challenge, especially given that 100% of the jazz students receive scholarship assistance.

The implementation of the curriculum has also been somewhat in flux since the beginning.

Discussions about how to present a jazz program at Juilliard began between the school’s president, Joseph W. Polisi and Wynton Marsalis, when Marsalis took the helm of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Marsalis, an alumnus of Juilliard himself, was adamant that the curriculum should educate students about composition, arranging and “more traditional approaches like 18th Century counterpoint,” so that the goal “wasn’t just performance,” Polisi recalls.

Over time and after trying out various approaches, performance developed a heavier influence. Burton’s artist’s degree experience was somewhat experimental. “They were curious to see how much we could handle as students,” he says. “We were exposed to composition and arranging classes, jazz history classes, the business of music … they were still figuring out the course of study for students so I took almost everything.”

A few years later, when Batiste started, the program was still “really Lincoln Center based, out of the Wynton concept,” he says. “Now, it’s more a progressive institution, but keeping that one leg in tradition.”

Given that Juilliard was founded in 1905, though, 2001 seems like a late start date for a jazz program. But looking ahead, Allen and his team believe firmly that once people understand his team’s goals, they’ll see it was worth the wait.

“I’m glad to see that finally there’s some jazz in places [like Juilliard], because jazz deserves to be represented on a high level,” says Juilliard faculty member Kenny Washington. “At the end of the day, we all really care about getting some players out here to keep this music going.”

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