Do you have jazz? Cairn University students shake up traditional music curriculum

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include contributions from former Director of Jazz Studies Ruth Naomi Floyd, who will be featured in an upcoming article in the Courier Times and Intelligencer.

Sweet, mellow melodies filled the chapel of Cairn University’s Smith Administration Building as professional saxophonist Daniel Bennett offered guidance to an intimate scene of talented student musicians.

“It has to be softer when the pianos emerge, and maybe a little louder and bolder when the guitars groove,” the Manhattan-based jazz executive, wearing a saxophone strap, told them during a break. of rehearsal between playing the jazzy tunes “Comme c’est insensible” and “Michelle”.

Bennett, a native of Rochester, New York, boards a two-hour train to Langhorne every Tuesday to lead students in the private Christian University’s jazz program — a notable departure from the classical focus of his music department.

“Cairn is a traditionally classical institution, it has a world class vocal department and string department, and we’re really trying to pivot and introduce these other kinds of music,” he said. “The school has been very supportive of me.”

But jazz has been a staple of the private Langhorne University for several years.

Ruth Naomi Floydan accomplished musician who just released her “Frederick Douglass Jazz Works” and adjunct professor at Cairn since 2006, was appointed Director of Jazz Studies in 2016 and led a highly respected program as the first black woman to hold that role in a US She is recognized in the arts community for founding and shaping an innovative and creative curriculum at Cairn before parting ways with the university in 2021.

The singer and songwriter now teaches at Temple University and is his artist-in-residence at Philadelphia College.

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Bennett’s tenure is more recent and he previously taught music classes at the college’s Csehy summer school for several years, which is how he met the classical musician and dean of the Cairn music department , Benjamin Harding.

“He wants to grow the jazz program, I mean, he has big, awesome, big dreams of having the school at the helm and being a real institution for new music, experimental music, jazz, all kinds,” Bennett said.

Harding, who plays the piano and received his bachelor’s degree at Cairn, said the idea of ​​incorporating jazz studies into the university’s musical mix was born “several years ago”, when students were starting to explore wider musical varieties.

Music schools are best known for the Western classical tradition, but as student musicians broaden their horizons, schools are beginning to broaden their offerings, according to Harding.

“(Jazz) has been around in this country for about 130, 140 years, and it’s American musical tradition,” he said.

“Whether it’s blues, gospel, pop or world music, we hope to continue to grow the jazz program here so that students can continue to immerse themselves in this incredible art form,” said Harding said.

Daniel Bennett, centre, director of jazz studies at Cairn University, Langhorne, Tuesday March 22, 2022, mentors his students during a rehearsal for an upcoming concert.

Bennett seems like the perfect instructor for the group of gifted students, who showed off their refined skills playing piano, guitar, vibraphone and their own vocal chords during a Tuesday jam session with the seasoned musician. .

“It’s professional quality,” he said of their talents. In another mid-rehearsal tip, Bennett explained to students how he uses what he calls the “grandmother effect.

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“My grandma isn’t a musician, but she knows when a band is out of tune or the tempo is off,” he said.

When he’s not teaching all things jazz to students at Cairn University, Bennett leads the Daniel Bennett band, which he says visits more than 150 appointments every year. While he played sax and flute during this particular rehearsal, the musician is also familiar with clarinet and guitar, among other instruments.

“My two older sisters played clarinet, so I kind of inherited free instruments that were lying around the house,” said Bennett, who also played church music as a child. “I taught myself the guitar, took a few lessons, and at one point I just wanted to be a singer-songwriter.”

Close-up of the hands of jazz student Wade Shiley from Warminster during a rehearsal at Cairn University, Langhorne on Tuesday March 22, 2022.

He aims to bring his own passion for jazz – clearly evident to anyone who might observe him interacting with the students – to the approximately 25-30 musicians who Harding says attend some type of jazz instruction at Cairn.

With many of them familiar with multiple instruments, Bennett says, it’s standard at gigs for student jazz musicians to switch from clarinet to vocals, or piano to guitar.

“Everyone just does different things to create,” he said amid the loud, confused sound of multiple instruments playing at once during a song break.

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The only kind of noise Bennett chooses to stifle is any negative talk about jazz’s decline in popularity in recent years.

Jazz, with musicians Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker and Wynton Marsalis counted among its greatest, has become one of the the least popular musical genres over the past two decades.

Bennett simply never bought into the idea that jazz is dead or dying, he shared.

Josah Baldwin, from Morrisville, Pennsylvania, studying Jazz Studies, at Cairn University, Langhorne, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, reviews the lyrics of a song he will sing for an upcoming concert.

“Obviously, statistically, jazz sales are very low, they always have been, I mean, even in the 70s and 80s, they were low,” Bennett explained.

“But people are monetizing music in all sorts of cool ways now, so it’s not fair to say, ‘Well, the stats are low, so jazz just isn’t popular’; it’s just not true,” he said.

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For this reason, he says, Cairn students looking for a career in music after college will have the opportunity to turn their own musical gifts of pleasure into trouble-free funds, using his own performing career. as proof.

“In their scene, their ecosystem, they have followers and they can monetize and grow slowly; there are ways to make money from it,” Bennett said.

“If you can play as a woodwind player – I play flute, saxophone, clarinet, oboe – if you’re well educated and can play different styles and genres, there’s a way for those students to really thrive in this world of jazz,” he said.

Corina C. Butler