A.D. White Professor-at-Large Wynton Marsalis performs with the Cornell Jazz Band and Wind Symphony in Bailey Hall in 2018

A.D. White Professor-at-Large Wynton Marsalis performs with the Cornell Jazz Band and Wind Symphony in Bailey Hall in 2018. (Photo by Cornell University)

Wynton Marsalis Returns to Campus, Continuing Cornell’s Decades-Long Jazz Tradition

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By Joe Wilensky

An upcoming concert in Bailey Hall by Wynton Marsalis, the Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter, bandleader, educator, and composer (originally scheduled for March 2020 and postponed due to the pandemic), continues Cornell’s decades-long tradition of hosting, promoting, and showcasing renowned jazz artists.

The concert—set for 7 p.m. Saturday, November 6, in Bailey Hall with the Cornell Wind Symphony—will be livestreamed via CornellCast (in-person tickets are sold out). Marsalis and his rhythm section will play a wide-ranging selection including ragtime, blues, and jazz with the symphony, conducted by assistant professor of music James Spinazzola. The event is the capstone to a week of activities as Marsalis returns to the Hill for his second visit as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large.

A tuneful tradition

The history of notable jazz performances on the Hill can be traced back to the 1940s, when English professor and medievalist Marshall Stearns—also a jazz fan and critic—co-founded the Cornell Rhythm Club, a group of faculty, students, and Ithaca locals. The club invited Dizzy Gillespie and his 18-piece orchestra to headline, in October 1947, what was then the first-ever purely jazz program at Bailey Hall. While other, popular big bands had previously played at Cornell, that show—held in a University concert hall that usually hosted classical music performances—signified Cornell’s place as a welcome venue for the genre.

That concert also was the first in the Cornell Rhythm Club’s series of performances and lectures that year that connected jazz from the past with its contemporary counterpart, of which Gillespie’s bebop style was the newest example.

Album cover, Dizzy Goes to College
A 1947 concert in Bailey Hall by Dizzy Gillespie and his 18-piece orchestra was released as a double album, Dizzy Goes to College. (Photo: Provided)

A visit to Bailey the following year by Duke Ellington’s band was equally significant, and both Gillespie’s and Ellington’s Cornell performances were recorded and released as albums now considered collector’s items: Gillespie’s double album Dizzy Goes to College, Vols. 1 & 2, and Ellington’s The Great Concerts: Ellington Plays Cornell 1948.

Stearns, who authored the still-in-print The Story of Jazz (1956), had connections to music industry insiders and, in subsequent years, helped book additional names like Ethel Waters, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and Charles Mingus.

Over the next decades, Cornell programs, concert series, festivals, groups, and departments continued to bring jazz greats to campus in venues large and small for memorable performances many alumni cherish. In more recent years, visits—like Marsalis’s as an A.D. White Professor—have also included musicians hosting master classes, giving talks, and jamming with Cornell and Ithaca-area music groups and students.

Marsalis, who also is artistic director and co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, last visited Ithaca in 2018, spending a week on campus and in the community, and performing a collaborative concert with the Cornell Jazz Band and Wind Symphony in Bailey Hall. He also played at a gala celebration that kicked off Cornell’s sesquicentennial festivities in New York City in 2014—memorably joined on stage by then-President David Skorton on his jazz flute—and, in 2010, performed in Ithaca with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Bailey Hall and at Ithaca High School.

Other memorable Cornell gigs by legendary performers from the golden, bebop, and improvisational ages of jazz include:

Benny Goodman, 1937, ’66

“Over 3,000 couples attended the Navy Day Ball in the Drill Hall last night and danced to the music of the Benny Goodman and Joe Haymes Orchestras,” reported the Daily Sun. “Goodman’s quartet proved to be the most popular feature of the evening.”

Ella Fitzgerald, 1938, ’67

The “First Lady of Song” was 21 when she first appeared on the Hill with the Chick Webb Orchestra—a long way from New York’s Savoy Room, where they were a house band. After Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald led the group under the name Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. She returned to Cornell in 1967 for a Barton Hall concert during Parents’ Weekend.

Album cover, Cornell University, Duke Ellington
(Photo: Provided)

Duke Ellington, 1939, ’47, ’48, ’55, ’68

In 1939, the Duke and his orchestra serenaded dancers at Cornell’s junior prom; the 1948 performance prompted Whitney Balliett ’49, BA ’51 (who later became a jazz critic at the New Yorker for a half century), to write in the Sun that Ellington’s music “was little short of impeccable,” and that “20 years of leadership in the field of jazz has not jaded the Duke.”

Glenn Miller, 1939, ’47, ’56

In 1939, Miller and his orchestra appeared in Barton. Their vocalist, Marion Hutton—then just 17—went on to appear in movies with Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers. Miller was good-natured about being swamped for autographs; as he told the Sun, “When no one wants your autograph you feel badly, so that when someone asks for the honor of having your autograph you should be pleased and give it willingly.”

Count Basie Orchestra, 1941, ’55, ’58

The 1955 concert, with the Modern Jazz Quartert, was intended to highlight a contrast in styles. “[Basie’s] music arrangements are read right off the paper,” said the Sun, “[while] the smaller modern group … depends largely on individual impressions the musicians give to the music.” In other words, the quartet—hailed as part of jazz’s new cool, intellectual, progressive movement—improvised a lot.

Ethel Waters & Mary Lou Williams, 1946

Best known for the hits “Stormy Monday” and “Dinah,” Waters was a singer and actress who performed jazz, big band, and pop. (She was also the second African American woman nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for the 1949 drama Pinky.) Williams, a well-known jazz pianist, accompanied Waters on piano for their “Concert in Blue.” The Daily Sun opined that “Miss Waters has a relatively thin voice, inclined to shake on the low notes and to break on the high ones. Nevertheless, her great personality and intimacy with the audience created many happy moments for the packed house.”

Album cover: Concert at Cornell University, Stan Kenton's Orchestra
(Photo: Provided)

Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, 1951, ’53

The pianist, composer, arranger, and band leader played Bailey Hall at least twice in the 1950s; publicity for the 1951 concert, “Innovation in Modern Music,” described Kenton as “a controversial figure in the music world because of his music in the modern theme.” His orchestra included trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, alto saxophonist Art Pepper, drummer Shelly Manne, and trombonist Milt Bernhart, and singer June Christy was featured.

Louis Armstrong, 1953, ’63

The artist nicknamed “Satchmo” brought his golden horn and gravelly voice to Bailey for a 1953 show with his “All Stars.” “Some of these bop band leaders come to the universities and talk about modulation this and cappeggio that, and nobody’s with ’em,” he told the Sun during a backstage interview. “When I come, I just play, and they’re with me all the way.” In 1963, Satchmo returned to Bailey for an event benefitting the annual Campus Chest charity drive.

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Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1956, ’62, ’97

Following the 1956 show in Bailey, Brubeck said that Cornell was a highlight of their tour and praised the venue. “It’s a big hall, but intimate,” he told the Sun. “The audience was right with us all night, a swell bunch of kids. The acoustics and lighting were great. And that piano. I loved it!”

Carmen McRae, 1958, ’62

McRae made two appearances at Cornell, first with Coleman Hawkins’s band in 1958 and four years later with her own trio. Although critics considered her one of the top jazz vocalists of the day, the Sun felt the ’62 show was flat. “Jazz suddenly finds itself popular, and charges money to perform on formal stages and in concert halls,” the review said. “But not all jazz is capable of the transformation. It puts on a dress that looks somehow wrong, teeters onto the stage in high heels, and then gesticulates in a style not of the stage, but closer to the smoky dives of New Orleans.”

Nina Simone, 1963, ’65

Simone cast her moody spells in two Bailey concerts, delivering her signature mix of folk, blues, and jazz. In 1963, she shared the bill with Herbie Mann, a flautist whose compositions tapped Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms. Her 1965 appearance with her own trio “reaffirmed her greatness as a folk and jazz interpreter” according to the Sun. “Miss Simone is an unparalleled master of vocal dynamics. With her repertoire of essentially Afro-American folk blues she taunts, teases, begs, and commands the listener to grasp her music.”

Album cover: Cornell 1964, Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy
(Photo: Provided)

Charles Mingus, 1964

Mingus was a big hit, both as performer and lecturer, and a recording of the March 1964 live performance was discovered decades later and released as an album, Cornell 1964, featuring Eric Dolphy. The Sun described Mingus’s compositions as “the epitome of jazz,” and his workshop so intense that the session was extended by an hour. Mingus stayed on campus to give a talk titled “Jazz, an Expression of What?” According to the Sun, when Mingus finished speaking, “hardly anyone went home. Instead, they all climbed onto the Statler Hall stage and crowded around the small table where Mingus was sitting”; some students asked him questions about music, about race relations, and “about love and hate.”

Thelonious Monk Quartet & Gerry Mulligan, 1964

The inaugural concert of the Cornell Jazz Festival in Barton brought together two masters—Monk, the eccentric pianist-composer, and Mulligan, then considered a monster on the sax. Of the former, the Sun wrote: “His sound, his technique, his music is so uninfluenced [by other composers] and so much a part of the man, that it never sounds like anything but Monk.”

Miles Davis, 1973

The famed innovator of cool jazz was in his “electric” period—not his most popular sound. His experiments during this phase polarized fans, driving many away. Advance sales for the Bailey concert were poor, and a twin bill was cut to one early evening show. Two years later, Davis dropped out of the music scene, kicked a cocaine habit, and re-emerged in the ’80s to reclaim his title as a jazz legend.

Chick Corea, 1974, ’79, ’85

For his shows in the ’70s, the renowned pianist and composer shared the bill with fellow jazzmen—first Gary Burton, then Larry Coryell. Despite a poor turnout for the 1985 show with his Elektric Band in Bailey on a Sunday night, the Sun said that Corea “poured energy into a performance well worth the ticket price.” A highlight was when Corea gave the audience a brief music lesson and led “a powerful sing-along.”

Branford Marsalis, 1986, ’90, ’96

The Cornell Concert Commission has brought Wynton’s saxophonist brother to Bailey several times; for the 1996 show, he shared the bill with their father, jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. Most recently, he performed on the Hill during the 2005–06 Concert Series and in 2008 with members of the Philarmonia Brasileira.

The Max Roach Quartet, 1988

The quartet played at Barnes Hall as part of the New York State New Music Network Tour, which brought avant-garde classical and jazz performers to venues across the state. Also performing as part of that series were the keyboard duo Double Edge, Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass (performing solo acoustic piano works), Henry Threadgill Sextett, and Women of the Calabash.

Dizzy Gillespie performs with the Cornell Jazz Ensemble in Bailey Hall in 1991
Dizzy Gillespie performs with the Cornell Jazz Ensemble in Bailey Hall in 1991. (Photo: Cornell University)

Dizzy Gillespie, 1991

Gillespie had returned to Cornell several times over the years, including in 1948, 1957, and 1961. Less than two years before his death, he traveled to the Hill one last time, to perform with the Cornell Jazz Ensemble in Bailey Hall. Recalls Rebecca Harris-Warrick, emeritus professor of music: “I vividly remember the upturned bell on his trumpet and how thrilled the students were to be sharing the stage with him, even if he was past his prime.”

Top image: A.D. White Professor-at-Large Wynton Marsalis performs with the Cornell Jazz Band and Wind Symphony in Bailey Hall in 2018. (Photo: Cornell University)

Published: November 1, 2021


  1. Matt Braun

    This is an extraordinary part of Cornell’s history that I had not known before! Oh how wonderful it would have been to be able to attend all of these magnificent performances right here in my own “back yard.” When Cornell engineers invent the ability to travel through time, I will go see them all!

  2. Ada Kerachsky Albright, Class of 1962

    Are any of these on CornellCast?

  3. Matt Kane, Class of 1990

    I was in that Cornell Jazz Ensemble that got to play with Dizzy. We also got to play with James Moody. Awesome!

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