Music from the horn section of California State University, Northridge’s award-winning Jazz “A” Band filled the rehearsal hall in CSUN’s 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 spent the summer touring Great Britain and performing at the Playboy Jazz Festival — began its first official rehearsal of the fall semester.
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.
“We don’t have a master’s degree 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 early this summer, and again when he performed at this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. The Jazz “A” Band also will make a special appearance next month when jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Orchestra perform Oct. 8 at the Valley Performing Arts Center.
Music professor Gary Pratt, 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. “It’s a very [growth-oriented] environment. 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.”