November 7, 2022

MKRTCHYAN | Cornell’s Underground Jazz Culture

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“I am going to this ‘Jazz’ party, if you want to come” was my lucky yet very coincidental ticket into Cornell’s underground jazz culture one year ago. The idea of a jazz party was intriguing yet very intimidating; it was at someone’s house whom I didn’t know at the time, with people that I hadn’t met, on a topic that I couldn’t contribute much to, other than the fact that I like jazz. However, when you are a freshman you are eager to participate in anything and everything, if only to reduce your loneliness, find something to spend some time on and meet people. You know the drill. For that reason, I took a chance and went to that party. To my surprise, the party was like nothing I had ever previously experienced, in the best possible way. I discovered the amazing jazz culture at Cornell — one of the biggest among all the Ivy League!

Back to the party. Shortly after me and my friend (now boyfriend) arrived at the destination, made several rounds around the house and finally overcame our intimidation and entered the house, a bunch of passionate young people appeared with their fine musical instruments. Little did I know that those instruments would later light up the whole atmosphere of the party and create one of the most unforgettable jazz concerts/parties of my life. 

You know how they say “Love was in the air?” Passion for music and love for jazz was in the air when they were improvising on the flow, somehow intuitively understanding each other through the language of music and producing this jazz piece that is doomed to be the one in its way. When improvising, every music piece becomes a unique one-time experience. Through this wiley bunch of college students, I could hear the ruminations of the jazz greats that came before them. Shades of Herbie Hancock and Charles Mingus flowed, with intermittent excursions to Birdland as the musicians slid effortlessly down notes. I never understood why the term “chromatic scale” originates from the Greek word for “color” until I saw the fluorescent vignette they were painting right in front of my eyes.

That party was the first time I got introduced to Cornell’s Jazz+ club — a club for everyone interested in playing jazz. Since then I learned that this talented group of people not only hold jazz parties but also do weekly jazz jam sessions in Hans Bethe House, participate in the Big Red Icon and perform on Slope Day. Since then, I have participated in ample events where these talented students would play their instruments. Even when they weren’t playing, I’d hear them talk about Japanese jazz, what the most important jazz instrument is, world events and more. 

Since then, my knowledge on the topic that I previously had little to no knowledge has increased exponentially. I even jokingly say that I am the adopted child of this group, as every Saturday you can find me listening to their live music (and perhaps studying) at Bethe House, just as I am doing as I write this now. Since then, these people have become the most welcoming faces on campus that light up my mood whenever and wherever I identify them to wave a hi.

Not only is the Cornell jazz culture one of the biggest among all the Ivy League institutions, but we also have the biggest academic jazz program. That’s right, students take jazz to improve their skills, earn credits and have fun. They train with the best professors in the field as well as take master classes from famous guest musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Joe Henderson.

I hope this column inspired you to stop by the jazz jam sessions and listen to these up-and-coming jazz musicians. See you then!

Lili Mkrtchyan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Tea With Lily runs every other Monday this semester.