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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Fog/Mist
Music
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Protestors criticize UW School of Music's jazz policy
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Students can't play with the UW Jazz Orchestra to get performance credits necessary to graduate.
Students can't play with the UW Jazz Orchestra to get performance credits necessary to graduate.
Credit:Michael Foster Rothbart courtesy of UW-Madison University Communications

Does jazz count? Not if you're a college student who wants to graduate as a music major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A Facebook campaign is waging war. In its first day, Friday, the protest site Help Save UW Jazz gathered more than 100 supporters. It's now up to 173. One of the first was Joan Wildman, jazz musician and UW professor emeritus of music.

The protest page is administered by Alyssa Kroes, a graduating senior and member of the UW jazz orchestra.

"I think it's going well," she says of the protest. "Through this past year, especially, our director, James Doherty, has been trying to fight for the rights of jazz. It's been hard to watch."

Her page urges supporters to write to the university chancellor, the dean of students, and the dean of the College of Letters and Science.

At issue is whether or not instrumental performance majors can claim large-ensemble performance credits for jazz. Right now students can get the credits necessary to graduate only by taking orchestra or wind ensemble.

It's odd that the UW's commitment to jazz is even being questioned. In 1971 it gave Duke Ellington an honorary Doctorate of Music. In 1972 he returned for a week-long festival honoring his work. Ellington taught master classes and even penned "The UWIS Suite" in honor of the university.

However, "The fact is, we don't have a jazz degree on the books," says John Schaffer, director of the School of Music.

He's sympathetic. After all, Schaffer plays jazz bass. But it all comes down to money. If he had the budget, "I would have a huge jazz program! I would have a huge jazz program! Yes, yes, yes."

Schaffer says he's worked all year to get jazz added to the curriculum of at least the music education majors, whose degrees are awarded in partnership with the School of Education. He expects the fix to be in by next fall.

He has already been working to do what the protesters want, but quietly. He wants to create an endowed jazz position, and has already found a donor willing to give $1 million, half the amount necessary.

"As soon as the other half comes in, we're going to do a national search for a full-time jazz faculty member," says Schaffer, "at which point we will put some type of a jazz degree back on the books. When we do that, that ensemble will be the primary ensemble for students on that degree track."

Jazz will then count as a performance credit. In the interim, he worries that controversy could derail the delicate dance of fundraising.

"I'm concerned that this thing might get out to the ears of our anonymous donor," says Schaffer. "The donor was willing to work with me to leverage this gift. Dean [of Letters and Science] Sandefur was willing to put in another 1/2 to 3/4 of $1 million leverage to make this position actually happen."

This morning James Doherty, the UW jazz orchestra's director, sent a written apology to Sandefur, while backing up his students.

"While I did not specifically encourage this particular movement -- it is entirely a product of dissatisfied students -- I do support my students," he wrote.

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