The Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program

Many students arrive at Columbia with little knowledge of the music that was revolutionized no more than a subway stop away from 116th Street. For all the grief Columbia gets about erasing the history of that neighborhood a subway stop away from 116th, students might be surprised to know that the University is unique among its Ivy League counterparts for offering an interdisciplinary program dedicated to the studying the history, theory, practice, and cultural legacy of jazz music, with emphasis on the genre’s ties to New York.

Founded in 2001, the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program welcomes all students, music majors and non-music majors alike, to enroll in its classes and apply for the special concentration in Jazz Studies. Professor Chris Washburne, who founded and directs the program, makes a case for trying out a jazz class, even to students who don’t know much about it or don’t think it will relate to the rest of their academic programs, on grounds that jazz can teach students critical lessons that extend far beyond its practical application by performers.

“Jazz matters, and it matters in a variety of different ways,” Washburne says. “Not only as a musical style, but as something that can really offer very valuable lessons to society.” He suggests that for students to “[perfect] their skills in improvisation, deep-listening, adaptability, spontaneity, and creativity could be something valuable in other places.” Washburne also led a successful campaign in 2003 that introduced jazz as a part of the Music Humanities component of the Core Curriculum, which guarantees that undergraduates at Columbia are “at least exposed to jazz”.

For Washburne’s own part, he thinks jazz has potential as an area of study far beyond the undergraduate level. He lectures on the lessons that jazz offers to audiences as wide-ranging as MBA candidates at Columbia Business School, prison inmates, government officials, and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The goal is to “hone in on some skills that we all possess that we don’t necessarily think about, and how we can apply them in various settings.”  

—Alec Mauro

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