…Swinging All The Way
by Tom Dwyer
Walk through the halls of the jazz music department at New Jersey City University, and you can’t help but be struck by the lush and professional sounds of music students practicing: horn players getting down with a Miles Davis tune, jazz ensembles playing intricate arrangements of sophisticated big band charts, and vocalists warming up to a hip, smooth song. The NJCU Jazz Studies Program (part of the Music, Dance & Theatre Department) has become one of the best programs in the country to train serious young jazz musicians. Students from all corners of the country are finding that NJCU’s Jazz Program offers world-class jazz teachers, personal one-on-one study, and the chance to sit in with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world.
Ed Joffe, the director of NJCU’s Jazz Studies Program, is the driving force behind the rise of the program to national prominence. First hired 18 years ago to take over the woodwind department, he became the director of the jazz program two years later. At that time there were only six students registered in the jazz department, none of whom wanted to be there. “The number of students at NJCU jazz program had dwindled down to almost nothing,” Joffe recalls. He began to re-build the program step-by-step, ultimately creating a top-tier jazz educational environment that includes two big bands, a jazz vocal ensemble, and numerous combos that can play every style of jazz from Be-bop to bossa nova.
But it is Dr. Joffe’s (he has a doctorate in music) sheer determination and perfectionist personality that make NJCU’s Jazz Program so extraordinary. One unique requirement is that all undergraduate jazz students must study classical music. Joffe, a well-known saxophone and clarinet player, who performs with the New Jersey Symphony as well as chamber orchestras and jazz groups, believes that the discipline of classical music is essential for his young jazz musicians. “I want them to play in a concert band or a chamber ensemble. What is lacking in many jazz bands is the true excellent ensemble balances. So for two years they are actually getting double lessons in both jazz and classical…which doesn’t cost them anymore. It’s really a bonus, and I know of no other school that offers that,” Joffe said.
New student, Jeremy Fratti, a saxophone player, came from Florida to Jersey City to attend the jazz program at NJCU. Fratti had considered four other highly respected jazz programs before deciding on NJCU. “A friend of mine told me about the school. I had never heard of it. But after checking it out and seeing the great faculty, its close location to New York City and the jazz clubs, and the price of tuition, I had to come here.” Living off campus in Bayonne, Jeremy loves the program because of the personal attention he receives from his professors, plus he plays in four ensembles where he gets plenty of opportunities to fine tune his musical chops.
Many of the students come from out-of-state, Joffe explains. “We are close to New York City and that is a big attraction for students who are not from this part of the country. They see the faculty here and they recognize their names as current hot players on the jazz scene that has been well recorded. Plus, the tuition, even out-of-state tuition, with tuition, room and board is going to come to less than one-third as compared to the conservatories and other top jazz programs. Plus we are a small program, so each student gets a lot of play and individual study with the faculty.”
One of the most innovative programs that Joffe has created at NJCU is inviting jazz legends to teach and perform with the students, passing down their priceless jazz wisdom. The first jazz greats that Joffe brought to campus were saxophonist Jimmy Heath, and trombonist, Slide Hampton. Since 1992, dozens of the greats of jazz have visited the NJCU Jazz Program, including Joe Lovano, Charles McPherson, Eddie Daniels, Barry Harris, the Brecker Brothers and many more. “I wanted our students to be surrounded by people who had been in the jazz business for a very long time. Jazz musicians who had been in the business for 35 or 40 years, and know how to relate to students and know how to do clinic and concert work,” Joffe said.
In addition to performances on campus that are open to the public, the NJCU Jazz Ensemble will be playing at the revered Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City on April 26th. And the honors continue for NJCU students and faculty. Roseanna Vitro, a professor who heads up NJCU’s jazz vocal program, has been selected by Jazz at Lincoln Center and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs to tour with her quartet as Goodwill Ambassadors with The Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad. In 2006, a NJCU Jazz combo opened up the world-famous JVC Jazz Festival in New York City.
Ed Joffe dreams of one day having the funding to take his student jazz bands on tour across the country. They’re just too cool for school. “The word is out on how good this jazz program really is,” Joffe remarked.
Phil Woods, the legendary Bebop saxophone player will be visiting the campus on March 30th at 7pm. The recital/master class is open to the public and is free.
For more information about New Jersey City University Jazz Studies Program