After 40 Years, Harvard Jazz Still Groovy

“There was no smooth road leading here,” said legendary jazz composer and tenor sax player Benny Golson as he addressed a packed Sanders Theatre during the culminating performance of the “40 Years of Jazz at Harvard” celebration. The retrospective concert on April 9 retraced the bumpy road to which Golson makes reference—the historical progression of the Office for the Arts at Harvard Jazz Program that began in 1971 with the hiring of the current Director of Harvard University Band, Thomas G. Everett. As challenging as Everett’s work may have been over the last 40 years, Saturday’s concert revealed a thriving Harvard jazz community with a rousing series of historically contrasting pieces and a variety of performers, including current students, an alumnus, and a handful of jazz masters, young and old.

When Everett arrived at Harvard in 1971, he discovered a jazz wasteland. “I didn’t find any jazz above the surface, and in talking to students, few seemed interested or had past experience in it,” he said. Instead of begrudgingly bearing the institutional apathy towards the music that he so revered Everett decided to establish his own jazz band. As the Harvard Jazz Program grew over the years, he began bringing in jazz masters for residencies and master classes on campus. He invited not only band members, but all members of the Harvard community to elicit more exposure to jazz and its affiliates.

At the 40-year mark, Everett has hosted and commissioned an exhaustive list of the highest-caliber jazz artists for residencies and concerts at Harvard. His fledgling group of 1971 has expanded into two full big bands, known as the Sunday and Monday Jazz Bands. Harvard has also gradually developed a number of course offerings pertaining to the study of jazz and its history, many of which are taught by the Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music, Ingrid Monson, currently the Acting Dean for the Arts and Humanities. “I think that all along, jazz has been about excellence in music, really studying hard, and insisting through the excellence of the music that it be taken seriously,” said Monson.

In order to capture the breadth of the Harvard Jazz Program, last weekend’s celebration featured two events outside of Saturday’s concert. The first was a reception last Thursday for the opening of an exhibit in the Loeb Music Library, which displays part of the “The Tom Everett Collection of Jazz Manuscripts.” The collection consists of manuscripts and letters Everett has compiled over the decades from the jazz artists with whom he has worked. The second, a public conversation between Everett and Monson in the Barker Center last Friday, highlighted the richness of Harvard’s jazz history and Everett’s quirky humor as he expounded on the philosophy of jazz, the history of Harvard’s jazz community, and the wit and witticisms of the jazz masters he has hosted.

As the last event in three jazz-jammed days, Saturday’s concert was intended as a summative presentation of how much the Harvard Jazz Program has accomplished during its 40 years. Beginning with the Sunday Jazz Band, directed by Assistant Band Director Mark E. Olson, the concert proved instantly engaging, although it revealed some flaws. The Sunday Jazz Band suffered from a dragging drummer, clashing intonation, and severe sound muddling due to poor engineering in the echo chamber of Sanders Theatre. Although the latter problem persisted when the Monday Jazz Band took the stage, they otherwise sounded consistently controlled. They began with a smooth and nonchalantly reserved rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Take the ‘A’ Train” and proceeded to the head-scratchingly difficult Charles Mingus piece “The Shoes of The Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive Ass Slippers,” which contains countless tempo changes, chaotic breakdowns, and searchingly arrhythmic interludes. Despite some transitional messiness, this piece proved to be a highlight of the concert, a shameless display of the Monday Band’s flexibility and bravery.

After an adept though dry vocal performance by Samara R. Oster ’13, the stage began to flood with jazz celebrities, starting with Harvard alum and professional tenor sax player Donald K. Braden ’85 and soon expanding into the “Harvard All-Stars,” which consisted of Benny Golson on tenor saxophone, Brian Lynch on trumpet, Eddie Palmieri on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. This collection of stellar musicians—all of whom have visited Harvard in the past—breezed through tunes ranging across jazz history, moving flawlessly from bebop to the more modern “Blues for Moody.” The performance displayed a tremendously rich spectrum of artists and styles from the young to the old and from the brassy confidence of Lynch to the smoky, labyrinthine lines of Golson. What resulted was a spectacular display of everything the jazz idiom has to offer.

After 40 years, jazz still continues to reverberate throughout the halls of Harvard, and it shows no signs of fading away. “Due to Tom’s efforts,” said Golson, “jazz will go on long after he’s gone, after I’m gone.”

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