Born with the 20th century in the American South, jazz has been called the only music entirely original to the United States.
Yet no less a figure than Duke Ellington once said, “It is becoming increasingly difficult to decide where jazz starts or where it stops, where Tin Pan Alley begins and jazz ends, or even where the borderline lies between classical music and jazz. I feel there is no boundary line.”
The expansive nature of jazz, of course, is what makes it such a vibrant art form. Jazz instruction was introduced at Blair in the early 1990s and has been a growing presence ever since. There’s a practical reason for that, says Billy Adair, senior lecturer of jazz studies and director of the Blair Big Band.
“To be blunt, it has to do with making a living with music. There are only X number of symphony jobs, and the competition for those is intense. But if you can also play jazz, you can at least make money on the weekends!”
Indeed, many Blair graduates have gone on to make money in jazz on more than a weekend basis. Multi-instrumentalist Rose Rutledge, BMus’06, who played with the Blair Big Band for four years, recently headlined with her quintet at Dizzy’s, the jazz club at Lincoln Center in New York City. Others, like Matt Belsante (BS’06), Sarah Williams (BMus’06), and Molly Jewell (Class of 2010), are budding jazz, R&B and alternative rock artists with solo CDs under their belts.
While the success of Blair graduates in the world of contemporary music is impressive, students on a classical career track also benefit from jazz instruction. “Jazz opens the ear so you can more freely interact with musicians in performance,” explains Roger Spencer, adjunct professor of jazz ensemble and co-founder of the Nashville Jazz Workshop. “As a working musician in the real world, you play different styles and must be able to improvise. Jazz training helps students learn how to do that.”
For many years the cornerstone for jazz at Blair was Adair’s wife, well-known jazz pianist Beegie Adair. This year Blair has expanded its jazz faculty to include Dennis Solee, jazz saxophone; Liz Johnson, jazz vocals; and Jody Nardone, jazz piano. “I think the jazz program is growing at Blair because it benefits all students,” says Adair.
“Studying jazz greatly improves sight reading, and jazz improvisation helps get the student away from the page and encourages creative thinking. After all, jazz is nothing more than telling your story in a song.”
© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Steve Green
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.