Background Music

For a while, the Harvard Jazz Collective was big time. Really. You may not have heard of us, a modest five-piece jazz ensemble founded in the fall of 2005, but like any other major musical act, we had recordings, a rehearsal space, even groupies. We played with Herbie Hancock; we played for Mitt Romney. At our peak, a Harvard class reunion paid us a thousand bucks to play for approximately an hour and plied us with wine and food. I think it’s safe to say that, as an acoustic jazz group composed of Harvard undergraduates specializing in late 60s modal jazz, we were peerless.

If the stature we achieved seems exaggerated, remember that Harvard sustains a ton of silly, often pretentious things—like bowties and a cappella groups—that the real world has more or less gotten over. This adds to the place’s manufactured mystique: Those outside our bubble of obliviousness recognize that Gatsby parties and fencing are outdated, but our investment in archaisms, niche pursuits, and outlandish concentrations—not majors—is why we’re here. Jazz is no longer the seething cultural rebellion it once was—it’s quickly simmering into a classical genre—and for many, it’s just another goofy tradition that Harvard has saved from extinction. But it actually thrives here, which is part of why I was so eager to come to Harvard.

Like any other Harvard applicant, I was well rounded—or insanely overscheduled—but jazz was a core component of my identity. I was in love with its lore, its improvisatory spirit, and I diligently practiced tenor sax an hour each day. I didn’t apply to conservatories, but my college list was limited to those that boasted strong jazz programs. I listened to the stuff almost exclusively until I was 17, and my application’s personal statement was 500 words of gushed, schmaltzier-than-Kenny G prose—I think, God help me, that I called performing “electric” and music “the highest means of human expression.” (Or something; that essay’s been lost to the ages, and if the admissions office has a copy, I’d like a word, thanks.)

During my first weeks on campus, like found like, and the jazz nerds of the world united. None of us planned on making jazz our lives, but we expected it to be a big part of our college experience. Five us formed a group, self-consciously dubbed a “Collective” because, hey, we knew all about that pretension. We probably couldn’t have found gigs in the real world, but luckily, there are a thousand Harvard organizations that need light jazz for cocktail parties, holiday functions, and formals of various stripes—and they prefer undergrads. We, of course, preferred audiences that came to listen, even if we didn’t necessarily merit them; but we didn’t mind making mood music as long as we were also making money, so we took all the gigs we could get.

All of us in the Collective also played with the Harvard Jazz Band, which allowed us to perform with guest artist luminaries such as Jon Hendricks, Roy Hargrove, and Roy Haynes—musicians I’d been listening to since middle school. That jazz band made us the main act, and for once people sat and listened to us instead of eating hors d’oeuvres in our general vicinity. The group threw around money so that we could play with artists I’d idolized for a decade; even as my technical abilities stagnated, the largesse of Harvard gave me opportunities that friends who pursued music academically didn’t always have. As we realized our luck and the rare position we enjoyed, it became apparent to my bandmates and I that jazz was something the real world treated as background music.

That realization hastened jazz’s fade into the background of my own life. The curious alchemy of Harvard also played a part; my time here transmuted my interests in mysterious ways. I had once treated jazz as a possible future occupation, but during my time in college I stopped practicing and found that I couldn’t ignore the allure of rap and rock (I guess I’d been missing lyrics). I became increasingly interested in writing about music, not playing it.

A few weeks ago, the Harvard Jazz Collective, after almost four years of existence, played its last gig at the Adams House Formal. We’re close friends now, and the experience meant a lot to us, if not to the modest, probably trashed crowd in the dining hall that inexplicably preferred our take on “swing” (mostly later Miles Davis) to the DJ upstairs. For most of us, it was probably our last chance to play the working musician; we were closing our instrument cases on a decade’s worth of practice. We packed up the drums, loaded the dollies, and prepared to move on with our lives.

The most painful aspect of making my way through Harvard was realizing that some things I considered integral parts of my identity were fated to turn into hobbies; that, as time progressed and possibilities were whittled away, not every bullet point on that college application was destined to become my life’s passion. I never planned on making jazz my life—I simply don’t have the love for the saxophone that turns eight hours of practice daily from a chore into a routine—but I never thought it would be relegated to the background to the extent that it has been here. No matter. As long as Harvard supports quaint old jazz, Collectives will come and go, and other musicians will get a taste of what might have been.

Jake G. Cohen ’09, a former Crimson arts chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House.