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District Jazz

Washington, D.C. Reclaims its Role as a Jazz Destination

By Published: June 27, 2013
One should not take for granted the creation and development of the many robust jazz studies programs. They are built on the blood and sweat of generations of musicians, most of whom did not have the advantage of a college education of any kind.

The Washington, DC metropolitan area is teeming with jazz and it's a hot bed of jazz education. Jazz students and fans can hear many university jazz professors playing in surrounding clubs and concert halls. They're releasing new albums and contributing mightily to the jazz canon.

We surveyed jazz programs at five DC-area universities and one in nearby College Park, Maryland. (A seventh did not respond to inquiries.)

American University

The major in jazz studies began eight years ago and Joshua Bayer is at the helm. Jazz is part of the music division in the department of performing arts. A bachelor's degree in music with a jazz emphasis is offered, and about 15 of 50 students involved in the program are jazz majors. Bayer says the related audio technology department is "one of the best in the country." A music business degree is offered in connection with the business school, and AU offers a graduate arts management degree.

George Mason University

Director of Jazz Studies Jim Carroll is enthusiastic about this promising new area in the School of Music, College of Visual and Performing Arts. There are 15 majors, 15 minors and four graduate students in jazz studies. A minor was offered in 2000, a B.M. in 2004 and an M.M. in 2010. One full-time and a dozen adjunct professors include heavy hitters such as Assistant Director Dr. Darden Purcell
Darden Purcell
Darden Purcell

and world-class jazz pianist Wade Beach. The program offers instrumental and vocal jazz ensembles, including a traditional jazz ensemble and two big bands, including the Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra. GMU also hosts Jazz4Justice, a program integrating the law communities and the jazz program, raising funds for the poor and educating the public about jazz.

Wade Beach recalls a time when music students were discouraged from listening to or playing jazz. When he earned a master's degree in classical piano performance from the University of Maryland that was the case. After earning his M.A., Beach was determined to play jazz and became an apprentice of Sir Roland Hanna in New York. Thus today he is known for extraordinary improvisation—unfettered by stylistic limitation. He is also known as the busiest gigging musician in the region.

George Washington University

Peter Fraize
Peter Fraize
is the area coordinator for jazz, begun in the 1980s in the department of music. Fraize describes it as "a smallish program in a liberal arts environment. Many of the students pursue jazz studies as an interest and a passion but not necessarily a career path." A bachelor of arts in music is offered with a minor in jazz studies. Besides the expected jazz combos, the program offers a Latin band and the 12-piece King James and the Serfs of Swing, directed by James Levy. Weekly faculty-student jams help prepare students to go into any jam session and play with confidence.

Howard University

In 1970 Howard was the first historically black institution of higher learning to offer a B.A. in jazz studies. In 1983, the master of music degree in jazz studies was approved. Situated in the department of music, the program is led by Charles Young and serves 40 students, including instrumentalists and vocalists.

Among the ensembles is vocal group Afro Blue. Coached by Connaitre Miller, the group has numerous awards and TV appearances to its credit. Many Howard grads are well known to the public, including Roberta Flack, Benny Golson
Benny Golson
Benny Golson
sax, tenor
and Marcus Johnson
Marcus Johnson
Marcus Johnson

As Young explains, the objective of the jazz program is to preserve and perpetuate jazz through instruction, performance and research. Undergraduate jazz studies majors can add a concentration in music technology. Young conveys a sense of mission: "The courses are tools to bring young people into a full realization of who they are and what they can contribute to the world through their music."

University of the District of Columbia

The director of jazz studies is Allyn Johnson, a noted pianist in the Washington, D.C. area. The program serves about 70 students with instrumental and vocal performance courses. About 15 students are jazz studies majors working toward a bachelor of music -music performance degree. Nine jazz professors include accomplished bassist Steve Novosel. Practical courses address music business, music technology and computer applications to music. Ensembles include a big band, a jazz lab band and small jazz ensembles for instrumentalists and vocalists. UDC graduate, Davey Yarborough
Davey Yarborough

sax, alto
, received a master's at Howard and now heads the program at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and the Washington Jazz Institute.

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