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The musical genre of jazz embodies so many of the things that constitute a college environment. Jazz music draws from a deep tradition, while at the same time prompting innovation by recontextualizing certain intellectual and theoretical structures. At its core, jazz is social — relying on group dynamics and teamwork. It demands respect, dedication to the artistic process. Above all, jazz takes hours and hours of practice. In short, jazz encompasses academics, art, history, social interaction and a lot of work: Basically, a Princeton education in a nutshell.
Princeton’s jazz program is one of two such programs in the Ivy League. The other comparable program is at Columbia. This Saturday, students from both programs will be teaming up in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium for the 3rd Annual Columbia/Princeton Jazz Summit. The concert will have two sections. The first will feature Princeton’s Concert Jazz Ensemble. The second will feature two mixed groups, each comprised of a handful of students from each school. During this portion, all of the music performed will be original compositions by students.
Spencer Hadley ’17, a trumpeter in Princeton’s program, is excited to be contributing one of his original compositions to the performance. “It’s a way for us to get our original material out there,” he said. “It’s always exciting to hear the music people write and how it relates to their playing. A lot of times you can hear certain parallels between their writing and their thoughts on music. And sometimes not. It can be an interesting contradiction.”
Jazz ensembles at Princeton include the CJE (a big band consisting of about twenty students) and several smaller ensembles that change each semester. Neither ensemble features original music often, so the 3rd Annual Summit will provide a relatively rare opportunity for student composers to showcase their own music.
Hadley added that the Summit should be high-energy, especially since the CJE just returned from a tour over Intersession. “We’re just getting back from Italy. We got to play more as a band and gel a little bit more. The band definitely improved over the course of the tour,” he said.
Though this is Hadley’s first time at the Summit, other members of the program are veterans. Drummer Phil McNeal ’14 performed in and contributed a composition to the Summit last year, which was held at Columbia. McNeal and a handful of other Princeton musicians drove to Columbia last spring, where they premiered compositions to a receptive New York audience. The jazz world has a reputation for being ruthlessly competitive. However, the atmosphere at last year’s Summit surprised McNeal. “Maybe there was pressure to show up and represent,” McNeal said. “But I don’t think there was any inherent competition between us. It was fun to hear and get to play with other people.”
The Italy tour and the Summit, among other things, make jazz at Princeton far more than an extracurricular. At Saturday’s concert in Richardson, the CJE segment of the concert will feature guest trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, who was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Blakey was a fiery, soulful bandleader for over three decades. His band, The Jazz Messengers, included some of the biggest names in jazz. The group’s alumni, those who were on the Messengers’ roster at one point or another, often went on to become some of the greatest jazz musicians of our era. For a jazz trumpeter like Spencer Hadley, playing with Jazz Messengers alum Ponomarev will be like a college point guard getting to play pickup basketball with legendary Lakers player Magic Johnson.
Saturday’s concert will be an opportunity for Princeton students to flex their improvisatory and performance skills, both individually and with Columbia students. At the same time, the show will reveal these young musicians’ dedication to the jazz tradition by putting them onstage with one of the genre’s seasoned veterans. The Columbia/Princeton Jazz Summit will be a memorable performance, a rare opportunity to see both old and new take the stage as equals in the spirit of improvisation and collaboration.