Mount Royal University says goodbye to jazz program

Calgary has lost something important. A year ago Mount Royal University (MRU) announced it was cutting its jazz program in light of provincial budget cuts. Since April 2013 students already in the program have graduated prospective students have been turned away and in a few weeks the jazz program will die.

So what have we lost? For one a program that started three decades ago the brainchild of far-sighted Calgary musicians. “Musicians and educators in Calgary felt that there was a need for jazz education. Some of the earliest entities for jazz education already existed successfully in the states places like North Texas and other major universities across Canada had music programs and also some jazz programs” says Mark DeJong a sessional jazz instructor at MRU. “Individuals here were really interested in seeing something like that happen in Calgary.”

Those individuals Eric Friedenberg and Dave Diver both headed the program at its inception with Gary De Boeck and John Hyde teaching alongside them. The names should sound familiar. These and others who helped establish the program have long been key members of Calgary’s music community.

Three decades of building and nurturing the jazz program have yielded impressive results and the program has always attracted high-calibre instructors. Consider the current faculty: one full-time member — faculty head and saxophonist Jim Brenan and sessional instructors Rubim de Toledo (bass) Tyler Hornby (drums) Ralf Buschmeyer (guitar) Sheldon Zandboer (piano) Jon Day (trumpet) Carsten Rubeling (trombone) and Mark DeJong (saxophone).

Due to the reputation of the program and the instructors the city has benefited from visits by top-flight talent from across North America. In the last three years alone we have enjoyed performances and workshops from the likes of Juno Award-winner David Braid Sean Jones who plays lead trumpet for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra New York guitarist Peter Bernstein and more.

Each visit has amped the level of talent in Calgary supported musicians and clubs and allowed fans to see top-ranked talent. The impact on young jazz musicians has also been significant.

“Various venues in town became regular places where almost the entire Mount Royal jazz student body would go to jam sessions” DeJong explains. “They were part of our audience base for not just local musicians — when musicians came to town we were always encouraging them to go and hear these great musicians because that was an important part of their education. I also think the program acted as a bit of a role model for high school students’ programs.”

Over the last year some have argued that losing MRU’s program simply means students will go elsewhere. On the surface this seems plausible but says DeJong the loss of the program has far-reaching implications. “It’s important for students of music to have the option of staying in their home town while going to school. It minimizes their student debt load which is an important consideration for music students since they aren’t necessarily graduating into a high-paying career. It can make a huge difference in their future success as musicians if they don’t have massive student loans to pay off.”

Since last April’s announcement students who have been turned away have tried to seek placement in jazz programs elsewhere in Canada including Humber College McGill University the University of Manitoba Grant MacEwan and Capilano University.

MRU’s jazz faculty is throwing a farewell concert an opportunity for friends faculty and fans to say goodbye. “I just feel that even if it is something that we can’t change I feel like… the greater Calgary community just needs to know what they are losing” DeJong says. “I am not saying that this concert will do that for everybody in Calgary but at least it is another opportunity for them to just come to an understanding of what’s being lost.”

MRU Jazz Diploma’s Final Farewell Concert takes place on March 19 at MRU’s Nickle Theatre. Tickets are free. Expect to see