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Courtesy of the Cornell Syncopators

May 6, 2019

LING | The Cornell Syncopators and the College Jazz Band

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p class=”p1″>On the first warm Saturday of April, the Cornell Syncopators gathered in St. Paul’s United Methodist Church to record a 21-track record cataloguing the early jazz played at college campuses across the country in the 1920s and 1930s. The 13-piece jazz band has grown in number and in prominence since it was first founded in 2016, taking on projects like recreating the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and performing at engagements across the country such as the San Diego Jazz Festival and the Philadelphia Tri-State Jazz Society. As a student music organization, the Syncopators use their music as a means for the preservation of history and the revitalization of an era.

Jazz as a genre evokes a wide range of images ranging from Wynton Marsalis on the trumpet to the futuristic costumes and synthesizers of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Many do not think of traditional jazz, however, with its wax cylinders and ragtime pomp. The Syncopators hope to change that, working with Bryan Wright’s Rivermont Records to record a project entitled Collegiate Syncopations, which delves into the impact of college jazz bands from the beginning of the genre’s history during the 19-teens and the swing era. In this project, the Syncopators focus on storytelling, highlighting the legacy of Cornell’s own jazz history with the Cornell Collegians, who were the first American jazz band to make national headlines with the records they released with Victor.

Traditional jazz is an esoteric sub-genre, limited in part by a dearth of accessible digitized content and by a shortage of knowledgeable musicians. As a college band, the Cornell Syncopators have been welcomed by a tight-knit community of jazz aficionados who see bands such as the Syncopators as a future for traditional jazz.

For Bill Hoffman, an early supporter of the band and concert booker for the Philadelphia Tri-State Jazz Society, the Syncopators represent a new era:“It warms my heart to see young people doing this because then I know that this music is going to outlive me … now I’m seeing young people in their 20s really doing well with this music. They’re not just playing it the way it was originally written, they’re interpreting it in their own way while honoring the spirit of music, the intent.”

Bryan Wright, who founded Rivermont Records in a dorm room when he was a college student, created Rivermont as an outlet for traditional jazz because he couldn’t find high quality recordings of the music he wanted to listen to: “I wanted to focus on that music because I thought it was underrepresented commercially, and it’s not necessarily a commercially viable music these days … but like the members of the Cornell Syncopators, I still do it because I love this music, I think it’s timeless and I think it still holds up today. Even if it is music of a different time.”

The Collegiate Syncopations project is a celebration of legacy, one that is particularly personal to Colin Hancock, the leader of the Syncopators, “We’re like the bands we are looking at, we’re students, we’re not all professional musicians, we are going to class and in our free time practicing music, playing music, playing around because we love it. That’s the exact same thing these kids were doing back in the day, you can’t really recreate that unless you’re here and unless you’re here now. So this is kind of a special project because a bunch of us are graduating and we wanted to do something that these guys were doing and honoring what these guys were doing in the best way that we could, which is living what they did before we graduated.”

As college students, we are not in the business of legacy-making. There is a sense of impermanence that underpins every decision and experience, a universal understanding of endings that for me, makes thinking in the long term difficult and the idea of creating lasting change in college even more implausible. As the seemingly inevitable end draws nearer, as I attend thesis presentations, last basement concerts and last farmer’s markets, I have seen not the making of legacies but rather the making of meaning from my time spent in Ithaca. Perhaps, for us, the meanings will become memories or maybe a century later the meanings we made will be celebrated for what they were as college students stand in the same place we once did, always on the cusp of endings.

Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at igl3@cornell.edu. This is the final installment of her column Linguistics.