CSUN’s Jazz Studies Program Captures the Spotlight at Home and Abroad
by Carmen Ramos Chandler
Music from the horn section of California State University, Northridge’s award-winning Jazz “A” Band filled the rehearsal hall in Cypress Hall before giving way to guitarist Miles McIntosh, then piano player Adam Hersh and bass player Daniel Massey.
Toes were tapping and heads were bopping as the band — which has toured Great Britain and performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival — began rehearsal.
Music professor Matt Harris, head of CSUN’s Jazz Studies Program, proudly acknowledged that the program, whose students regularly take top honors at the Monterey and Reno Jazz Festivals, “is one of the best in the country,” noting that CSUN’s Jazz “B” Band took first place at the Reno Jazz Festival in April 2016.
“We don’t have a master’s degree program like a lot of schools do,” Harris said. “The schools we usually compete against at festivals, most of their band members are master’s or even doctoral students. Our students are all undergraduates. I would put our bands up against pretty much anyone in the country.”
The evidence to support Harris’ claims sits a few dozen feet away in the Cypress Hall classroom that serves as home to the Jazz Studies Program. Tucked in a corner of the room filled with desks, a piano, music stands and other musical equipment sits a bookcase haphazardly crammed with the dozens of first-place trophies and plaques and other honors CSUN jazz bands and ensembles have won over the years. Among them is the title “Best Collegiate Large Ensemble,” an honor bestowed on the Jazz “A” Band by the premier jazz publication, Downbeat Magazine, in 2013.
The program’s reputation is such that its students were invited to accompany acclaimed jazz singer-pianist Anthony Strong when he heard they were in England last summer, and again when he performed at the 2016 Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. The Jazz “A” Band also made a special appearance when jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Orchestra performed in Oct. 2016 at the Valley Performing Arts Center (recently renamed the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts) on campus. In the spring, Harris said, the Jazz “A” Band will be touring New Zealand.
Music professor Gary Pratt ’80 (Music), a professional jazz musician and alumnus who has taught in CSUN’s Department of Music for more than 30 years, credited the program’s success to its core teaching philosophy, which is centered around community.
“It takes a community to raise a child,” Pratt said. “We found that’s also true here. Our more experienced students will work with and mentor students who are new, and the students who have more experience work very closely with the faculty. Faculty also work with students who are new. It’s a very circular and peer-driven environment. It’s very sophisticated, and I’m not sure that it exists anywhere else.”
Harris, a respected jazz musician in his own right, agreed. He noted that students in other arts programs often find themselves in competition with each other.
“Because of egos and the nature of the arts, there tends to be a competitive environment at places,” Harris said. “Our school is the exact opposite. Some competition is healthy, but here, the students try to help each other get better, and it’s just fantastic.”
He pointed out that when jazz musicians perform, they must work closely with each other — knowing when to step up and step back musically — to get the best out of the piece they are playing.
“We want our students to learn that from the start,” he said.
Bass player Massey called the jazz program’s environment “very mutually beneficial for everyone.”
“We are all pushing and pushing each other at the same time without it feeling hostile or unapproachable,” he said. “I am very lucky that I found it.”
At the same time, Massey said, the program also taught him “how to balance discipline with being kind to yourself and others.”
Alumni of the program have become acclaimed musicians — like composer, pianist, saxophonist and conductor Gordon Goodwin and trumpeter Ron Blake — and have studied as graduate students at some of the nation’s most prestigious music schools. Over the years, some of the top names in jazz have dropped by the program to share their musical knowledge with the students. Among them are the legendary trumpeter Freddie Hubbard; saxophonist Benny Golson; pianist and composer Horace Silver; saxophonist David Liebman; pianist Cyrus Chestnut; saxophonist, arranger and composer Tim Ries; pianist Taylor Eigsti and composer and arranger Fred Sturm. “We don’t try to be the best program around,” Pratt said. “We try to do what we think is best for our students. That is really important to us. As a result, our students really grow and develop. It is exciting for us as faculty to see a student come in at a certain skill level when they arrive, and then when they leave us, they are prepared to enter the professional world.”
Harris said there are no words to describe the feeling he gets “when the kids finally get it, when they make the notes, these little black dots on a piece of paper, come to life. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
CSUN Music Program Ranked Among Top 25 by The Hollywood Reporter
In December 2016, for the third year in a row, The Hollywood Reporter ranked CSUN among the world’s top 25 music schools. The nation’s leading entertainment-industry trade magazine pointed to alumni such as Andy Summers and Diane Warren — as well as CSUN renowned programs in media and film composition, jazz and classical performance, and music industry studies — in ranking what it called “elite institutions … [that] will help you hit the high notes in everything from film composition to live performance.”
“We are indeed proud to make this high-profile list again,” said Ric Alviso, chair of CSUN’s Department of Music. “This is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our committed faculty and talented students, all of whom invest hours and hours of practice on their craft to make outstanding music and produce work that makes our lives richer.”
Other schools listed included the Juilliard School, University of Southern California, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory, Yale School of Music and the Royal College of Music in London.
Music professor Ron Borczon, director of CSUN’s acclaimed Music Therapy Wellness Clinic, has worked at the university for more than three decades.
“I’ve always known how great the music department has been — no one area of the music program is weak,” he said. “To get acknowledgement from The Hollywood Reporter for the third year in a row convinces me of just how strong we are, not only compared to programs in the state, but across the country. It’s great to have that outside validation.”
CSUN’s music program is consistently rated among the top in the nation. Few institutions can boast such highly recognized music industry, music therapy, media/film composition, jazz and vocal and instrumental performance programs. Graduates of the music program find opportunities in Los Angeles’ bustling music industry and film business, university officials said.
It’s those achievements that earned the institution the Top-25 ranking, said assistant professor of music industry studies Andrew Surmani, who oversees the Master of Arts in Music Industry Administration program.
“We have such an amazing program, with world-class educators and musicians teaching dedicated students, that it’s an honor our strengths are being recognized,” Surmani said. “Regardless of the program — from performance, composition, musicianship and music history, to music therapy, music industry studies and music education — we are solid across all areas.” —C.R.C.