Jazz Forum’s Evolution Marks Important Tradition


John Jiang

Jazz Forum takes place on Fridays at the Cat in the Cream.

In his recent piece (“Jazz Forum Has Become too Performance Focused,” The Oberlin Review, April 7, 2023), second-year double-degree jazz pianist Lyric Anderson argues that Jazz Forum has strayed too far from its original purpose: a space for jazz small ensembles to receive feedback on their sets from an audience of their peers. However, this argument overlooks the organic way in which Forum has developed into something truly special.

According to Anderson, small ensemble groups should “approach Forum like a masterclass” — they should bring in unpolished material that needs work and feedback rather than treating their Forum like a presentation of a finished, performance-ready set. The latter approach, if it even leaves time for audience feedback, often generates comments that are less helpful and makes groups less open to receiving constructive criticism.

Anderson calls for a few changes. First, performing groups should treat Forum like a forum. They should bring in short sets of works in progress, be open to feedback, and engage with the feedback. Second, audience members should be thoughtful about their comments. Commenting shouldn’t “feel more like an obligation than an opportunity.” Third, the concerts should be in spaces other than the Cat in the Cream, which would make them more distinct and better attended. Groups should treat the concert as the event to be attended. They should perform well-rehearsed sets and advertise.

Anderson treats the high attendance at Forum by non-Jazz students as a bad thing, since it causes Forum to lose its original or intended function. I disagree. The vibrant energy in the Cat in the Cream, which Anderson describes so eloquently in the opening paragraph of his piece, is something we should cherish.

The atmosphere at Forum is special. It developed organically in spite of the Forum’s original function as a masterclass for members of the Jazz Studies division. But now that it exists in its current form — well attended by College and Conservatory students alike — we should cultivate it and let it evolve, rather than shackle it in tradition. Anderson asks, “What is Jazz Forum — or, more importantly, what is it supposed to be?” But what if we asked ourselves “What can Jazz Forum become?” We are incredibly lucky to have a performance space that groups care enough about to practice hard for and showcase material they care about. We shouldn’t squander it.

Forum might have been designed as a Jazz division masterclass, but it turns out that College students also want to hear music at 12:15 p.m. on Fridays, week after week. I can see why. Some of my favorite moments at Oberlin have been hearing my friends play at Jazz Forum. Some of my most cherished musical experiences ever have occurred at 12:15 on a Friday afternoon. I’ve shouted, danced, and even cried from the seats of the Cat. Just a few weeks ago, I heard my friend sing for the first time on stage, a memory I will hold with me forever. There are many factors behind this magic, among them how well-attended the event is, how invested the audience is in the music, and how the groups treat it as a performance.

How do we cultivate this wonderful space? The most effective way would be to end the comments and give that time back to the performers. The comments after Forum — as Anderson says, and I agree — feel out of place. They take us out of the concert environment. A negative comment can ruin the performance for others. The audience might have enjoyed the performance, only to “find out” that there was not enough dynamic contrast, or the lockup between the drums and bass was not solid, or the pianist clearly did not know the lyrics to the vocal number. One of my non-musician friends even told me that they were quite offended when an audience member commented that the Forum group should think about the audience they are playing for, and that their music was “too complicated” for the non-musician audience. Why take us out of such a powerful performance space with these comments? This change would also allow more time for the performances and encourage groups to come earlier and prepare, both of which would ensure that the Cat staff and Conservatory’s Audio Services don’t work overtime.

I agree with Anderson that it is valuable to have a space to receive feedback from our teachers and peers. We are students, after all, and are lucky to be around each other. Right now, Forum and the Crimson Collective’s annual roundtable discussion are functionally the only spaces we have to gather intentionally as an academic division and hear from each other. We have seen how valuable those spaces are, so we need to make more room for them.

In place of Forum comments, we should have a weekly, hour-long Jazz division meeting. The meeting could allocate time for comments about the most recent Forum, with adequate time for discussion. Then, we could talk about anything else that members of the Jazz division feel is important to talk about as a division. This space, like Forum, wouldn’t be mandatory, and could be open to people outside the Jazz division who are also interested in attending and participating in discussion.

Rabbi Mordecai Menahem Kaplan wrote, “We cannot afford to treat our tradition as fixed and final. It is always in the making.” Let us take responsibility for our tradition, at Jazz Forum and everywhere.