Go to a college campus anywhere in the United States today, and chances are that you might well find jazz music in some form, either being played, listened to, or taught. For better or worse, it’s a long way from the brothels and speakeasies and brownstone basement bars where jazz was born and evolved. On this edition of Night Lights we take a look at the moment when jazz became a staple of college concert halls and helped pave the way for the rise of jazz education.
The story begins with pianist Dave Brubeck. In the early 1950s Brubeck’s quartet was beginning to surge in popularity, eventually landing him on the cover of Time Magazine. Brubeck, who along with his wife Iola had several small children, was already beginning to tire of long road tours, and it was his wife who came up with the idea of the Quartet playing one-off concerts at college campuses instead. As Fred Hall writes in his biography of Brubeck, It’s About Time,
Iola searched the list of colleges and universities in the World Almanac for every institution on the West Coast, and personally wrote to more than one hundred of them, suggesting the Brubeck Quartet as great enterainment for campus concerts, citing their recordings and reviews. So successful did these events become that they spread nationwide and opened an entirely new avenue for expressionand income for jazz groups everywhere. Before that, many bands had played college dances and fraternity parties, but very few concerts.
Brubeck was no stranger to college campuses—in fact, he had honed his skills and put together his first significant group while studying with the classical composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in the late 1940s. His successful concerts were documented on a series of LP releases. Decades later Brubeck cited the album Jazz At Oberlin as
a breakthrough album for the Quartet because it caught Desmond and me in the early days when we were beginning the concept of ‘jazz goes to college’ as a concert performance… we were told we were going to face a very difficult audience from the Conservatory students, who didn’t understand jazz. But just listen to their reaction. If you’re trained in classical music, and you hear good jazz, you recognize the great similarities. Music is music.
As the idea of playing concerts for college audiences began to catch on, sometimes it was enough just to secure a venue in the town where the university was. In 1954 the recently-formed Chet Baker Quartet was another group gaining in popularity, especially with younger listeners, and Baker decided to head out for his first national tour. Among his stops was Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the quartet played for Michigan University students at the city’s Masonic Temple, with the concert being heavily promoted in the university’s student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. The local jazz DJ who organized the concert also recorded it, and the results came out two years later on the album Jazz At Ann Arbor.
Like Baker’s quartet, a number of the groups who followed in the wake of the Brubeck Quartet’s path were West Coast jazz outfits who, given the rapidly expanding nature of California’s state education system, found plenty of venues to play. One such group, the Bud Shank Quartet, landed at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1956, joined by Shank’s musical cohort Bob Cooper. The two had recently released an album called Oboe/Flute, featuring Cooper and Shank respectively on those instruments, creating a sound that many found appealing but that some jazz lovers considered a little less than jazz. The duo recreated the sound for a couple of performances at the Cal-Tech concert, including Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington’s and The Nearness Of You.”
There was one group that was extremely popular on college campuses that got its start on a college campus–Indiana’s aptly-named Four Freshmen, who founded their unique vocal ensemble in the late 1940s while attending Butler University’s Jordan School of Music in Indianapolis. The Freshmen eventually came to the attention of bandleader Stan Kenton, who helped catapult them into the spotlight with their hit “It’s A Blue World,” launching a career for the vocal group that extended many, many years beyond their undergraduate days. At the end of the 1950s they were captured in concert along with the Kenton orchestra at Purdue University. One of their performances is featured on the program, along with an appearance by the Lighthouse All-Stars at UCLA.
So far we’ve heard professional jazz groups playing college concerts, but what about college musicians playing jazz themselves? Although jazz education now forms the foundation of the music’s continuing existence, in the 1950s it was a newly-emerging phenomenon, with one DownBeat writer proclaiming in 1956,
Jazz as played in nightclubs may have been important historically and commercially up to this point… but its salvation in the future in in the Educational institutions of this land.
North Texas State College helped lead the way, becoming the first university in the world to offer a degree in jazz studies in the late 1940s, and their student bands became the stuff of legend, with a number of musicians going on to achieve success in the professional world. We’ll hear a North Texas State College band featuring a young Marvin Stamm on trumpet, as well as a group that got a break from Howard Rumsey, founder of the Lighthouse All-Stars, when he invited them to play at a collegiate jazz festival at the Lighthouse, the All-Star’s home base in Hermosa Beach, California. Some record label executives heard the group, a quintet from Hollywood’s Westlake College of Modern Music, and gave them a recording date, where they laid down some standards and some compositions by a West Coast French horn player of note, John Graas. The resulting album was called College Goes To Jazz.
We close out this jazz-goes-to-college edition of Night Lights with a performance from a group whose popularity rivaled that of Dave Brubeck’s in the 1950s—the George Shearing Quintet, with a piano, vibes and guitar sound that went down as smoothly as a well-mixed drink, even if some listeners tired of the taste rather easily. In March of 1958 the Quintet was recorded in concert at Claremont College in California, and pianist and writer Dick Katz, writing about the date decades later, singled out pianist Shearing’s rendition of Randy Weston’s “Little Niles” for praise, saying that
Shearing’s ease with the triple meter and masterful chorded solo shows what he is capable of when more than routinely challenged.