How Georgia State’s jazz program has kept the genre alive

Gordon Vernick is a professor at Georgia State and has helped jazz stay alive in the Atlanta area. Photo Submitted by Gordon Vernick

Jazz music has been a staple of American society since its emergence and popularization in the early 1900s and has influenced most of the music we know today. Most people don’t credit jazz for its influence, but it’s ingrained in many aspects of American society and culture.

“The history of jazz and what it reflects in terms of mutual cooperation between people is woven into the fabric of American society,” Gordon Vernick, a professor of jazz studies who is also known as “Doc,” said. “The fabric is something you can pull apart, and you find all the components of jazz and jazz derivatives music are part of that cultural fabric.”

Jazz and jazz clubs were once more prominent in America’s major cities, including Atlanta. In fact, one of the most popular jazz clubs was located on Georgia State’s campus. 

“Back in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, Atlanta was a major stop on the T.O.B.A. [Theatre Owners Booking Association], which was for African American performers. There was a lot of playing opportunities here in Atlanta,” Vernick said. “Even here on Decatur Street was one of the most opulent of the clubs. It was called 81 Decatur Street, which is where Library South is currently located. It was one of the biggest venues for black artists to perform at.”

However, jazz music has slowly been fading out of the spotlight as other musical genres have taken its place. Over the past decades, jazz has been marginalized, though it has been kept alive in small areas of the city and has even made a small resurgence. 

“Atlanta is majority African American, and jazz music really comes from the African American community, and you would think there would be more awareness and more respect for the art form,” Vernick said. “I find that it’s really been marginalized, and there are pockets where it’s growing, but it’s not where you would really think it should be.”

Georgia State has been doing a good job of maintaining jazz culture alive in Atlanta. Its central location in the city makes it an influential force, especially in the arts. Georgia State’s jazz program specifically has been a solid foundation in keeping jazz alive in the city.

“[Georgia State] has had a long-standing relationship with the education of jazz in Atlanta. The Rialto Theatre began by hosting individuals such as Johnny Mercer, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and a load of other jazz legends,” Hani’el Mastriani-Levi, a jazz student at Georgia State, said. “Additionally, the director of jazz studies, Dr. Gordon Vernick, has been instrumental in maintaining the tradition of jazz in education for decades now.”

Georgia State’s jazz program has pushed out talented jazz musicians and solidified itself as one of the best jazz schools in the country, further bringing a love and appreciation for the art form. Dr. Vernick takes the initiative to bring more awareness to the music by starting multiple programs, one of these being to teach middle school kids to play jazz.

“The focus of the middle school program is not to create another generation of musicians; that’s a byproduct,” Vernick said. “It’s about awareness of jazz music of being a product of African musical and rhythmic sensibility mixed with European music and other cultures. It’s our music, it’s nowhere else that this music is indigenous to, it’s from North America.”

Jazz itself is a delicate art form that is a product of decades of experimentation and improvisation. Though it has slowly fallen out of the mainstream, its influence deserves recognition and takes time to understand.

“Everything of quality, whether it’s food or literature or whatever it is, takes time to nurture your understanding of it,” Vernick said “Music takes time to cultivate an appreciation for it. Anything of quality is not going to be parted into instant gratification. Music is such a powerful art form, and people haven’t taken the time to learn to appreciate how fine this music is.”