Rudresh Mahanthappa, director of the Program in Jazz Studies
Jimmy Katz
New head of jazz studies seeks to blend contemporary with tradition

The new director of Princeton’s jazz studies program says that while jazz is often dismissed by the public as the music of an older generation, he has made it his mission to change that presumption. 

Rudresh Mahanthappa, an accomplished alto saxophonist and composer (NPR Music’s Jazz Critics Poll named his album Bird Calls the best of 2015), succeeded Anthony Branker ’80 as director of the jazz program at the start of the academic year. Branker, who founded the program, said in an email to PAW that “the Department of Music wanted to move in a different direction with the jazz program ... it was time for me to retire after 27 years of service to Princeton.” 

Mahanthappa last fall appointed Grammy-nominated pianist and composer Darcy James Argue as director of the program’s big-band-style group, the Creative Large Ensemble. Mahanthappa scaled back the number of concerts for each performance group to one per semester, allowing students more time in rehearsal to learn about the history of the music and to consider how it fits into today’s world. He is also selecting music from different time periods, ranging from 1940s-era tunes by artists such as Thelonious Monk to pieces by contemporary artists. “It’s important to see how the tradition relates to the contemporary,” Mahanthappa said.

He said he plans to make collaboration between jazz musicians and other artists a hallmark of the program, and hopes to create opportunities for his students to work with classical and electronic musicians, the dance and theater programs, and others. 

“Jazz isn’t just playing in clubs and making records and playing jazz festivals,” Mahanthappa said. “The climate for jazz is pretty rough — budgets have been slashed, there are fewer places to play, and there are more musicians fighting for fewer performing situations. But I think there is a lot of space in collaboration: If people can think outside of their immediate box, there’s a lot of meaningful work that can be done.” 

This year, there are three instrumental jazz groups on campus: the Creative Large Ensemble, a seven-student small group, and a four-student small group. Mahanthappa has commissioned Grammy-winning jazz pianist Billy Childs to write a 20-minute piece for the Creative Large Ensemble, which will perform it May 13 in Richardson Auditorium. Mahanthappa has also invited tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III to perform with the seven-person group, which will be playing Smith’s music, March 5.

“I’ve never looked forward to a concert as much as I did for the [Creative Large Ensemble] concert” in December, said Alex Laurenzi ’20. “In my experience, you don’t usually play many songs in big-band concerts, but I think we had 12 or 14 tunes that we performed. And we had the full spectrum of big-band music — Duke Ellington to very contemporary stuff, and everything in between. It was a really good kickoff for what our band will evolve into.”

Mahanthappa said he hopes to include more people in the program. Some students who auditioned for the ensembles at the beginning of the year didn’t make the cut, and he wants to include everyone interested in jazz, regardless of experience level. “There should be a place for people to get better,” he said.

Branker said many of the goals he had set for the program had been realized during his years at the University. “It was an honor and a true pleasure to have had the opportunity to come back to Princeton and develop a jazz program in 1989, [which] was actually a dream I had while an undergraduate,” he said.