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Which top music schools in America offer degrees in Jazz Studies?

Here’s a brief overview of 10 of the best schools in the U.S. where you can study Jazz. All of the schools and colleges on the list are worthy of consideration if you want to earn your degree in either Jazz Studies, Performance, or Jazz Composition, and study popular music styles. The schools listed are not in any particular order. At the end, I’ll also mention several others worthy of consideration.

Our picks for the 10 best schools where you can study jazz are:

  • New England Conservatory of Music
  • Manhattan School of Music
  • Berklee College of Music
  • The Juilliard School
  • The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music
  • Oberlin Conservatory
  • Eastman School of Music
  • University of Southern California – Thornton School of Music
  • University of North Texas, College of Music
  • Western Michigan University School of Music

Jazz Studies Programs

Since Jazz was first offered as a legitimate course of music studies in the 1940s, there has been a steady acceptance of the worthiness of this musical genre as a subject for serious academic study. More recently, since the 1960s, there has been a proliferation of course offerings, and a flowering of Jazz Studies degrees offered by traditional music conservatories, plus colleges and universities at every level.

From the perspective of the conservatory, Jazz is a form of Classical Music and a direct outgrowth of the music of the late Romantic period of Classical Music. Jazz is more than 100 years old, so it’s not surprising that the conservatories have embraced teaching Jazz.

All the schools included in my 10 best list have well-established programs with a track record of producing successful alumni. In deciding where to earn your degree, begin by considering a number of schools, and then do extensive research into each one. I recommend that you visit each school you are seriously considering, and speak directly with the faculty and students. They can best give you a realistic perspective on what daily life might look like, should you decide to attend.

Think about what is important to you in a program. Are you looking for lots of playing opportunities, plus outside opportunities to earn money by performing locally? If so, you might want to be in one of the big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami.

Many students choose a school based on the faculty teaching there, or the notable successes of their alumni. Location and cost are almost always a factor in choosing a school, as are scholarship awards. As you do your research, take careful notes to help you compare the different programs’ plusses and minuses.

Ultimately, choosing the right program for you shouldn’t depend on any specific top 10 list. There are many good programs at state schools and community colleges. The important thing is the training you receive should prepare you to work in the field. Most schools have summer programs designed for younger musicians, and that is also a great way to get exposed to how they teach Jazz and what it would be like to study at the school long term.

Take advantage of opportunities to network with other future industry professionals while researching or attending school. Keep track of who you speak with at each school, in case questions come up later on and you want to consult with them. Listen to the opinions of Teachers and other professionals, but in the end, you should make the decision based on what feels right for you.

10 of the Top Schools for Jazz Studies

Organizing a “Top 10” list for anything is an incredibly difficult and complex undertaking. It’s really hard to decide which schools to include or leave out. For my list, I considered different factors, such as size of the program, reputation, location, facilities, faculty, costs, alumni success, length of operation, affiliations, degrees offered, and so on.

I wanted to provide a sampling of excellent programs as a starting point for students to help with their initial research. Over time, programs can change, so I tried to make the information as up to date as possible for our current academic year. At the end, I have also included some additional schools not included in the list, but also worthy of consideration. The link to each school is also provided. Schools aren’t listed in any particular order.

New England Conservatory of Music

Located in Boston Massachusetts. Boston Symphony Hall, home of the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra, is right next door. Known locally as NEC, the Jazz Studies program benefits from the large number of students in Boston studying Jazz, for example at neighboring schools like Berklee College of Music, Northeastern University, Boston University, Harvard, and MIT, all of which have vibrant contemporary music programs. There’s no shortage of audiences or places to play around Boston and New England.

Among NEC’s alumni and faculty are many influential jazz artists including MacArthur Genius grant recipients and Grammy® Award winners. There is a strong focus on private studio and ensemble instruction, and students take courses in tangential subjects like musicology, improvisation, and world music.

There are honors ensembles, and students get a strong foundation in music theory and music history as well. Jazz Times Magazine cited NEC’s Jazz Studies Department as “among the most acclaimed and successful in the world.”

Manhattan School of Music

In New York City, Manhattan School of Music (MSM) has a long-standing joint program with Barnard College of Columbia University allowing qualified students to cross-register for courses at each institution. Students have the opportunity to network with some of the world’s most famous jazz musicians.

In the Jazz Arts programs, students can earn a Bachelor of Music (B.M.), Master of Music (M.M.) or a Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) in Jazz Advancement. U.S. News and World Report has ranked the school as among the best private arts institutions.

Students enrolled at MSM prepare for careers as Jazz Performers, Composers, Arrangers, and Educators. MSM was one of the first conservatories in the U.S. to recognize Jazz as an art form of importance. Students declare a principal instrument and can write for or perform in a variety of professional-level ensembles which often feature special guests from the world of Jazz.

Notable alumni include Ron Carter, Donald Byrd, Miguel Zenon, Herbie Hancock, Max Roach, Chris Potter, Harry Connick Jr., and Jane Monheit.

Berklee College of Music

Located in Boston, Massachusetts, Berklee was one of the first schools to offer a Degree in contemporary music. Originally founded in 1945 by Lawrence Berk as the Schillinger Institute, the core curriculum was based in the popular music of the day, which was Jazz. Students at Berklee choose from over a dozen majors including Jazz Composition, Performance, Songwriting, Music Business, and Music Therapy.

Many Jazz luminaries attended or graduated from Berklee over the years, such as Gary Burton, Pat Metheney, Joe Lovano, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Esperanza Spalding. Some of these famous alumni have returned to teach there. To date, 125 Berklee alumni have received 295 GRAMMY® Awards, popular music’s highest honor.

Berklee is home to the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI), a performance program led by Pianist and Composer Danilo Pérez. The program seeks to bring high-skilled talented student performers together in a collective to record and perform Jazz while contributing to social cohesion and the betterment of their communities.

Students accepted to the BGJI may pursue a bachelor’s degree, a diploma in performance, a two-year artist’s diploma, or a Master of Music in Contemporary Performance with a Global Jazz Concentration.

The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music

In the heart of New York City, this Jazz program emphasizes its faculty of professional musicians that focus on artist-mentorship and professional performance. The school encourages cross-disciplinary arts collaboration, and students can take classes at the Mannes School of Music, Parsons School of Design, and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts.

There are several dual degree programs offered, such as a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Jazz and Contemporary Music combined with a Liberal Arts Bachelor of Art (BA), or a dual BFA and Master of Art (MA) in Arts Management and Entrepreneurship. Both programs take 5 years and have a separate application process.

The New School prides itself on being an early entrant in Jazz Studies, since 1986, and also on their project-based interdisciplinary courses, which explore sound-image relationships in early 20th-century multimedia art, offered by the Parsons and Jazz schools jointly. Students also take courses in Jazz History and Music Theory and can pursue a minor.

Their gig office helps students launch their performing careers in New York City, and their ensembles often perform at legendary Jazz venues, parks, and theaters around the city.

Oberlin Conservatory

Located in Oberlin, Ohio. The Oberlin Conservatory of Music is one of the oldest music schools in the nation. It opened in 1865 and has offered Jazz Studies in its curriculum since 1973, and as a major since 1989. Oberlin is ranked highly as a liberal arts college by major publications such as U.S. News and World Report, and music students take liberal arts courses in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Students in Jazz Studies major in either Jazz Performance or Jazz Composition. Required courses include aural skills, sight-singing, and piano proficiency, plus students choose courses in composing techniques, arranging, improvisation, Jazz theory, and Jazz history.

Students at Oberlin study privately with master Jazz Musicians who also mentor and coach them, plus interact with legendary visiting artists at workshops, performances and masterclasses. The facility includes world-class rehearsal and performance spaces, plus a professional recording studio. Students have access to the James and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection featuring at least 100,000 recordings plus numerous Jazz related items, one of the largest privately-held collections in America.

The Julliard School

One of the most famous music schools in the world, located in New York City, Juilliard also has one of the best Jazz Studies programs in the country, led by world-famous Jazz Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Students participate in performance opportunities with Juilliard’s Jazz orchestra and ensembles, and perform locally at high profile venues like Lincoln Center and the Blue Note. They also go on the road with touring ensembles, performing at Jazz festivals around the U.S. and abroad.

A Bachelor of Arts in Jazz Studies and a graduate Artist Diploma are offered, focused on performance and composition.

A Bachelor of Arts in Vocal Arts for Singers is also offered. In this program, besides vocal performance, musical studies, dramatic studies, and liberal arts classes, vocalists take acting for Singers and movement classes to learn the basics of expressing emotion through their stage performances.

Juilliard’s Jazz program is one of the most competitive in the country, with a low acceptance rate of about 7% of applicants offered admission to the school each year.

Juilliard has a famous pre-college program that accepts students as young as eight. Acceptance to this program requires an audition. Students accepted to the program work with Music Teachers to improve their skills prior to college enrollment.

Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

Located in Western New York State, Eastman has a well-regarded Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media (JCM) program offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees, including a doctorate. There are separate tracks for Performance (leading to the BM, MM, and DMA), Writing Skills (BM, MM) plus a Masters in Contemporary Media & Film Composition. The Eastman School of Music’s Jazz Writing Skills program was established in the early 1970s and is internationally recognized.

While they do offer Classical Voice and Opera, Eastman does not have any vocal Jazz program, unlike most programs.

According to their website, Eastman is committed to “preparing today’s most talented jazz students for their future roles in public performance, media, and education,” providing a Jazz curriculum covering the past traditions and current practices, guiding students to finding their unique artistic voice as performer, writer, and teacher, while serving the greater community with world-class music in performances and contemporary media.

The Eastman Jazz Radio Show airs weekly on Public Radio and can be found on Soundcloud.

Writing Skills and Performance students must present recitals and pass juries to progress through the program. There are large and small ensembles, and students are expected to extend themselves academically through rigorous classroom and one-on-one training. The program is small, with about 50 students enrolled. Admission is extremely competitive, with only about 10% of applicants accepted.

University of Southern California Thornton School of Music

USC Thornton is in Los Angeles, so students in Jazz Studies get to study and perform with many top-notch professionals who live and work in the region. USC is one of the oldest and most recognized jazz departments in the country. Famous alumni include Bassist Ron Carter, Trombonist Bill Watrous, Drummer Peter Erskine, Trumpeter, Bandleader and record company executive Herb Alpert, and Film and Television Composer Jerry Goldsmith.

The Thornton School offers a Bachelor of Arts (BA) for voice, a BM, MM, and a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in performance, and also has a Jazz Studies minor. Students can take popular music, music technology, film and television music, and music industry courses as well, and write and perform for college ensembles.

The school is a collegiate partner with outstanding local arts and cultural organizations, and graduates find work in major orchestras, recording studios, ensembles, and stages in the area and around the world.

University of North Texas College of Music

Formerly called North Texas State, UNT at Denton, Texas is known as a top southern college for Jazz Studies, and as one of the biggest and most diverse music colleges in America. UNT offers a BM and MM in Jazz Studies, a DMA in Performance with a Jazz Concentration, and a Graduate Artist Certificate in Music Performance, which takes two years to complete.

University of North Texas was officially the first university in the nation to offer a degree program in Jazz in 1947. They have an international reputation for quality in music education and music industry. The program houses the One O’Clock Lab Band, which has been nominated for six GRAMMY® Awards and tours internationally. Of approximately 400 students currently majoring in Jazz vocal and instrumental performance, composition, and arranging, about 75 have received endowed jazz scholarships.

Western Michigan University School of Music

Located in Kalamazoo, MI, WMU has been consistently cited by DownBeat Magazine as one of the most innovative colleges for Jazz in the US. Offering a BM and MM in Jazz Performance, students have the opportunity to perform at local jazz club The Union Cabaret and Grille, which has a partnership with the Jazz Studies program. They also have access to a state-of-the-art recording studio on campus.

Recent guest artists have included Kenny Garrett, Wynton Marsalis, Fred Hersch, Bobby McFerrin, and Esperanza Spalding.

Also Worthy of Mention

The following schools are also notable and well worth a look.

Columbia University

Located in New York City, the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program (LAJPP) at Columbia University was founded in 2001. Students perform in ensembles, take private lessons, and get access to visiting master musicians. Jazz is a part of the core curriculum for all students at Columbia, and the Jazz program is unique in that it accepts students from a variety of disciplines, not just music.

Students in the LAJPP explore the historical roots of jazz and study the music’s relevance in today’s society.

The interdisciplinary Liberal Arts undergraduate degree with a Special Concentration in Jazz is designed to educate and prepare students to be proficient improvisers in a changing world.

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

In Bloomington, IN. Founded in the 1970s by legendary jazz symphonic Composer and Educator David Baker, who was a prolific book Author and the Conductor and Musical/Artistic Director for the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra from 1991 to 2012.

Famous alumni include Randy Brecker, Chis Botti, Jeff Hamilton, and Peter Erskine. It is one of the most prestigious and selective jazz programs in the U.S. and offers a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies, Master of Music in Jazz Studies, Bachelor of Science in Music and an Outside Field, plus undergraduate and graduate minors in Jazz Studies. Students all take one-hour private lessons and study Jazz improvisation, history, composition/arranging, and pedagogy.

John Hopkins Peabody Institute

Located in Baltimore, Maryland. Two bachelor’s degrees are offered: a BM in Music Education/Jazz and a BM in Recording Arts/Jazz. There is also a Master’s degree and a Graduate Performance Diploma. The school is consistently ranked in the top 10 best universities in the country by major publications like U.S. News and World Report. The Jazz program was founded in 2001.

Currently, jazz and classical Trumpeter Sean Jones is the Chair of the department. Sean was previously the Chair of the Brass Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Northwestern University

In Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music offers a Bachelor of Music and a Master of Music degree in Jazz Studies. Close to Chicago, one of America’s centers for Jazz, the programs prepare students to work as professional musicians. Students benefit from performing in large and small ensembles and complete rigorous coursework in the setting and with the resources of a large research university.

Director Victor L. Goines is a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and was previously the Artistic Director of the Juilliard School’s Jazz Studies program in NYC.

Frost School of Music at University of Miami

In Coral Gables, near Miami, FL. Frost offers Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral degrees in Studio Music and Jazz. Renowned for popular music performance, the school has graduated many musicians who went on to become household names in contemporary music.

In Conclusion

In researching and organizing this list, I was astounded by the number of excellent programs all around the country. The Downbeat Jazz Schools Guide is a helpful resource if you are looking for a more comprehensive list, organized by region.

Remember that there are many outstanding schools that are not on my 10 Best list. Do your own research and then plan to visit the schools you are most interested in.

You should also speak with professionals in the field to see what they advise. Talk to a graduate of any program you are considering, and ask them how they feel about the training they received. For gifted musicians, earning a degree in Jazz Studies should be an investment worth making in terms of learning, and to prepare for a career as a professional Jazz performer, Composer, and Educator.

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