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National Endowment of the Arts jazz celebration highlights diverse career paths

NEA, the National Endowment of the Arts, celebrates jazz at Howard University, emphasizing diverse career paths beyond performance for aspiring musicians.

Students listening to 2024 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Master Willard Jenkins speak. (Skyler Winston/The Hilltop)

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) held a celebration of jazz musicians at Howard University’s Chadwick Boseman’s College of Fine Arts. 

Students who study jazz at Howard University learn about improvisation, arranging, composing and history as well as digital music and studies relating to the music business. In 1983, the National Association of Schools of Music approved Howard University’s Master of Music degree in Jazz Studies. 

During an event entitled “Music Careers, Beyond the Bandstand,” participants engaged in a discussion with Howard University students and the 2024 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy recipient, Willard Jenkins.

The convening illuminated the complex nature of jazz careers, resonating deeply with the aspiring artists in attendance. Jenkins, a jazz historian, journalist, and educator, brought his experience to the forefront, engaging students with insight from decades immersed in the jazz industry. 

The discussion transcended mere musical technique. Jenkins emphasized innovation and authenticity, urging young musicians to carve their own paths and to recognize that jazz doesn’t adhere to a single mold; one can contribute to the jazz community without being a performer.

“Being a participant in the music doesn’t stop with playing or singing,” he said. “It also includes those other elements: broadcasting, journalism, presenting, being an audience member, remaining an informed audience member, and those other elements.”

Jenkins also underscored the significance of jazz journalism, at the April 11 event, which involves exploring opportunities and filling gaps by writing about music, starting with student publications. Howard University is a uniquely equipped institution that offers its students opportunities to learn about the history of jazz as well as the contemporary dynamics of the musical art form. 

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Howard initiated its comprehensive undergraduate Jazz Studies program in 1970 and became the first historically black institution to offer a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies. 

According to the Howard website, the objective of Howard’s Jazz Studies program is to preserve and perpetuate jazz through instruction, performance and research. 

Alanah Butler, a junior music business major with a minor in jazz piano at Howard University expressed the need for more journalists to report on jazz music. 

“It is important to have advocates for music, like writing, promoting, and advertising us, because we as musicians, or as creatives, we’re working ourselves to promote,” Butler, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina said. 

“It is important to have individuals who will ensure we’re being reported on so we get full coverage in writing and publishing,” Butler continued. 

Jasmine Brownlee, a junior music business major with a minor in jazz voice at Howard University who is originally from Prince George’s County, Maryland, who attended the event, found it highly enlightening.

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“This was very informative and different from our normal student recitals, which are usually performances. To hear somebody speak was very eye-opening,” Brownlee said. “One of the major takeaways is that our path to music may not just be a straight shot; sometimes you might have to go to ‘option B’ or ‘option C’, but music can still be the end goal.”

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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