Delgado A-Z: Jazz

by: Andrew Lopez
On July 9, 1922, one year after the Delgado Trades School first opened, jazz and Delgado were both featured on the front page of The New Orleans Item newspaper. Big progress, the newspaper said, had been made at Delgado in its first year, with 1,300 pupils taking courses. Jazz, on the other hand, was disparagingly pronounced “dead” in an article that paradoxically also championed its being outlawed as a dance style in order to prohibit its influence on “objectional movements” of the body. The contrast was stark for two articles found side by side in the paper. The denigrating tone of the jazz article was standard fare for a time of harsh racial oppression against African-Americans, who would nonetheless later be credited as the chief innovators of one of the most original and influential cultural creations of 20th century America. Despite its predominant association with New Orleans since the early 1900s, however, it has taken roughly nine decades for jazz to flourish at Delgado.

The New Orleans Item, July 1922

There may have been some jazz in the music department under Claus Sadlier as far back as the 1960s. Former Delgado President Marvin Thames’ son, Marvin Thames Jr., who taught music appreciation at Delgado in the 1970s, is said to have had an interest in jazz. It was in the early 1990s, when the music department was under the leadership of Barbara Rose, that Peter Cho was asked to get a jazz program on its feet. Having just prepared a two-year plan to do precisely that as part of his graduate studies at Loyola University, Peter Cho, who had already been lecturing one day per week on the history of jazz in New Orleans for a group of Japanese exchange students at Delgado, set to work implementing what would soon become the Associate of Arts in Music with a jazz concentration, debuting in the 1996-97 academic year, as can be seen from a survey of college catalogs from the period.

The first mention of jazz in the Delgado Catalog, 1996-1997
It was at that time in the mid-1990s that Delgado cemented its ties to jazz history in New Orleans by helping to erect a memorial and hold a jazz funeral for the neglected New Orleans jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who is buried in an unmarked grave in Holt Cemetery next door to the College (see part II of D. Shedrick’s blog on Funeral Services). If it seemed like this public event marked an historic change in attitude toward the city’s jazz heritage, The Times-Picayune reported on September 6, 1996, a day when multiple news articles were published on this topic, including one on the front page, it was primarily because an institution like Delgado “felt a special obligation to honor the musician.” It was a commemoration that helped get Bolden -- now a standard reference in jazz literature -- the recognition he deserved as an early jazz innovator in the first decade of the 1900s. Peter Cho succeeded Ms. Rose in the music department before also becoming the lead department Chair of the Arts and Humanities Division, where he has continued to cultivate what he calls the “wonderful symbiotic relationship” between the jazz program at Delgado and the jazz scene proper in the greater New Orleans area.

Delgado salutes jazz legend, corrects big oversight, The Times-Picayune, September 6, 1996
Whereas most college music programs focus exclusively on academic advancement, the jazz concentration at Delgado trains musicians to play music and make a living from their craft, just like culinary arts or welding. It is education that works. This includes a Technical Competency Area (TCA) in Music Business, with something on Music Production in the works for the future, not to mention a state of the art recording studio for audio engineering that is kept up to date with Professor Cho’s active grant writing efforts. What makes Delgado different is that it is open to all musicians whenever they’re ready to continue their education. Peter Cho is very clear about the importance of this: “Musicians have erratic lives. Delgado is here for them. We’re very happy about that. [And] we would love to have them [here].” Anywhere from 150 to 300 students may be enrolled at a given time, while hundreds upon hundreds more benefit from the music and jazz appreciation courses on offer each semester.

The jazz ensemble at Delgado, which practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week on the third floor of building one, is a unique mixture of students and community members. It gives everyone a chance. Students benefit from the mentorship of area professionals, while community members embrace the opportunity to further jazz culture in New Orleans directly via the educational and exploratory context on offer at Delgado. The more community participation, Cho says, the better. “We have educational and community priorities,” he said.  The atypically large ensemble, which would normally only have about 10 to 15 people, includes some 40 members at Delgado. It is an ideal setting for learning and mentorship, Cho said. They play at official College functions such as commencement, and they are usually included in the city’s Jazz and Heritage Festival.

The Delgado jazz ensemble at practice (left and center), music practice rooms in use (right)
It is all about developing human capital. As funding and support for the arts in area schools has continued to diminish since the 1990s, Cho and his colleagues have had to work increasingly hard to get new students up to speed. Music has to age, mature, and develop through time. There are no short cuts. Cho sees music and the arts as an essential expression of culture through a community. It is not something extra that can simply be taken away. Cho seems brilliant and precise when he explains that music education involves a synthesis of everything else one knows and is learning.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this wonderful history of Jazz at Delgado! It's exciting to see old catalogs, news clippings, and other library resources used to present this history. I look forward to seeing more.