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Harvard is a dead-beat in the East Coast jazz world. Still, subdued, or even anemic, the crimson jazz scene is far from defunct. Today merely marks a downswing in the whimsical curve that has plotted the campus jazz-wise since long before Count Basie wrote his Harvard Blues back when college life in Cambridge meant big bands and hot sounds. A strange student apathy explains why interested elements make so little noise here today, and what passes for apathy stems less from dislike than from lack of jazz education and organization.
Undoubtedly lots of students are baffled at the bulk of material labelled "jazz" on the record counters, and buy Debussy to escape confusion. A term must be vague to embrace so many extremes, and talk--especially talk with opinionated jazz-lovers--seldom clarifies the issue. Then those in the jazz know too often mumble an "It would be nice if ...." and do nothing themselves to promote activity.
The post war period saw a Dixieland revival on college campuses--a merger of old New Orleans traditions with modern technique and Harmony--and Harvard was no exception. Harvard dixie activity hit its stride in the early Fifties, when Crimson Stompers made many sounds and WHRB assumed the roule of a jazz-oriented station. Herb Pomeroy, now a Boston bandleader, helped link Harvard and Boston jazz.
Dixie remains the most universally popular jazz form, either as an end in itself, or the first step towards "intellectual" jazz. Yet the remnants of this era--the few dixie bands centered at Harvard and the musicians who play in make-shift Combos--find Cambridge surprisingly cool to straight Dixieland, at least job-wise. Herb Gardner's Royal Garden Six, for example, has four Harvard members, yet seldom plays in town. "Around here anyone who wants six pieces wants a dance band; so we play Dartmouth and RPI--mostly frat parties. Dixie fits in a frat, but it's out of place at a House dance." Clubs and fraternities certainly contribute to the more thriving Dixieland activity at Princeton, Dartmouth, and the local B.U. and Tufts. To land Harvard jobs groups must either play half-and-half dixie-and-dance, or go straight commercial. As one fellow said, "Sure, I'd like to blow every night, but I need the bread."
Time poses another problem to jazz growth at Harvard, as at any college. Most Harvard jazzmen play for fun, or spare change, and if they find the rat-race for contacts and publicity takes too much time, jazz fades out. A shortage of skilled players and the lack of practice time kills most chances for a well-rounded dixie group--a band without a "weak link." The missing "weak link" makes Gardner's group unique, and even here the talent is one third alien.
This crimson cold shoulder to Dixieland may have daunted or diverted Harvard dixie activity; but Mel Dorfman, Bowdoin grad and clarinet man, hurls a challenge of his own at collegiate non-concern. Remember jazz at Tulla's last fall, or Crimson Cafe Dixieland early this year? These were Dorfman's groups--the most recent phases of a three-year campaign for Harvard Square jazz. As Mel will say, "Since last fall things have really started to move."
"We really packed them in at the Crimson. No cover, no minimum. Why, we had pizzas and fights every night--regular cool times, 'til the cops broke it up. All kinds of people came down: fellows from B. U. and the local frats, some bohos and pinball players, MTA conductors and a few bums. Even the Harvard gang came after a while."
Mel had three Harvard students in the Crimson opening-night band, and the Tulla's groups were almost completely from Harvard. These nights at the Coffee Grinder were open sessions where anyone who wanted could play. They used to split half the take, and each man made maybe a dollar a night. "The Crimson offer meant a lot more bread, so we decided to grab it."
Jazz left the Crimson Cafe under pressure from the law. The Cambridge licensing bureau proscribes anything but a "three-piece string orchestra" in public drinking places, and Dorfman's dixie group failed to fit. "I've been to Europe and I've seen how good they treat jazz over there; and it's a shame they make it run away from where it started." Dorfman now plays in Boston, but is planning another venture into the Square this fall "if we can get around the law." "What we need is a student-run place where the kids will know it's cheap. We'll bring names in on week-ends and draw the crowds. First we'll find out about this law."
If dixie has its troubles in the Harvard area, modern jazz is not much better off. Yet during the past few years people have noticed a remarkable internal shift in Harvard jazz activity from the day when it was "all dixie with a modern jazz splinter" to today, when a student can remark: "Dixie's joe-college stuff; you find it in your state universities, or maybe at Brown, but it's out of place here." In the opinion of most observers Steve Kuhn, more than any other force, has caused this change to a modern jazz approach from the neo-dixie outlook.
Steve and his trio have played at the 47 Mt. Auburn St. coffee house since January, drawing good crowds with consistently fine music. The three year old group has a truly integral modern sound, sometimes complemented by six sit-ins; and whenever they begin playing exciting things happen--and keep on happening. With no injustice they are rated "the only professional group at Harvard--especially Steve."
Kuhn merits his "professional" status for a record of sessions with Coleman Hawkins, Don Elliott, Chet Baker, and other jazz luminaries. He has also played Storyville and appeared on Steve Allen's Tonight, as well as Fr. O'Conner's Boston TV show. In technique and jazz concept he is decisively separated from the other Harvard jazzmen, and steady work has allowed him to practice and progress.
Steve is the only Harvard musician for whom jazz is a "vocation, not an avocation," and he stands almost alone as a music major with jazz orientation. He feels the great percentage of music faculty members snub their noses at jazz, and moreover thinks this is "strange, and a shame, for well-schooled musicians." The reaction is ironically negative: "they won't accept jazz as an art form, when in a way it's the only art form that's truly American."
John Harbison, the other music major with a "feel" for the jazz idiom, works in a wider sphere than Kuhn, playing both modern and dixie piano, and this year conducting the Bach Society Orchestra. John's major complaint is that "most fellows don't get to play enough, and only Steve has had time to find a style of his own. Two years ago there were Sunday sessions in the Union, but no more."
At that time there were "workshops" at Adams House--a series of Sunday afternoon sessions, where students could play some jazz, or just listen. Kuhn acted as technical adviser at the workshops and feels they were "rather successful." "A lot of people had a chance to play, and some learned something. It folded last year when Beckwith graduated." Although many jazzmen miss the workshop sessions, no one has filled the void with initiative.
Neither Harbison nor Kuhn feel there is deep interest at Harvard in modern jazz, and they point to the adverse criticism voiced over the Buck Clayton session at last year's Jubilee. (This year's replacement--Lionel Hampton and the Australian Jazz Quartet--reveals a shift to the commercial side of the jazz world.) John rates the students a shy and unsophisticated audience, who know too little of the modern style to really like it. "Progressive jazz demands concentration. It's intense, and you can't have glasses clinking all the time. There's a meanness to the music that people seem afraid of. They have to get used to it, like anything else that's new."
John compares the real lack of substantial jazz activity at Harvard with the more lively Princeton atmosphere, and notes that there will be no progress until interest increases, and this can come only through hearing men play. "They have to hire what they have or nothing will improve. There used to be a piano at WHRB, and on Fridays really good men would get together and play--fellows like Pomeroy and Twardzik. They'll play for money, or enthusiasm. But they won't play for nothing."
A few years back there was a jazz club --The Harvard New Jazz Society--that tried to supply both money and enthusiasm. It reached a membership total of one hundred and fifty, split between jazz-players and jazz-lovers; and it sponsored the Friday nights at WHRB, as well as several forums on jazz and a "Hot vs. Cool" battle. It also scheduled concerts--all well attended--which brought Brubeck, Konitz, and the Modern Jazz Quarter to Cambridge. The group unfortunately disbanded when the original organizers left Harvard, and to date has not been revived.
During this same period the Adams House activity began, and a student emcee, Tom Wilson, conducted several popular Sunday afternoon sessions. Tom now works with Transition Records, and voices complete optimism over the future of jazz at Harvard. He feels the receptions given Dorfman, Kuhn, and the HNJS concerts adequately reveal how high jazz interest runs on campus; and he envisions Harvard as a thriving jazz center after a few years of jazz-education. "It's important to introduce jazz to the student."
Tom claims "the future was never brighter" and notes that the student is assailed from all sides with jazz--from the hi-fi, the radio, and magazines like The New Yorker and Saturday Review. "The Square record stores sell huge stocks of jazz records, and I know for sure the Turntable made sixty per cent of their sales in Jazz."
Wilson is not alone in a feeling that Harvard should and will take the lead in any new movement having a certain intellectual character. "The West Coast experiments give modern jazz an intellectual aura, and this should rivet the Ivy Leaguer to the idea of jazz as an art form. What we need first is a different attitude in the Music Department. Then we need a club with a definite idea--a fixed purpose--and some means to endure when the original members leave. Once this attracts the Harvard market things will really move fast."
This focus first on the Music Depart-
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