Q&A with Rudresh Mahanthappa: A Jazz Festival Grows in Princeton

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who for the past three years has served as the Director of Jazz Studies at Princeton University, knows his institution’s inaugural jazz festival isn’t the first to take place on an Ivy League campus. But he’s confident it will be among the most ambitious.

Set for April 13 in the university’s namesake New Jersey town, the Princeton University Jazz Festival will offer half a dozen concerts in a free, outdoor setting, featuring guest artists performing alongside Princeton’s exceptional jazz students. The idea for the festival has been brewing in Mahanthappa’s head almost since he assumed his post at the head of the jazz department in 2016. That it will soon come to fruition is a testament to both his efficacy as a director and to the Princeton University jazz department’s growing prestige. 

The Princeton University Creative Large Ensemble will perform alongside guest artists like Joel Frahm and Tia Fuller at the university’s inaugural jazz festival on April 13. (Photo: Courtesy Jazz at Princeton)

Consider the caliber of musicians who will headline the festival’s inaugural run. Featured artists include the saxophonists Joel Frahm and Tia Fuller, the trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, the vocalist Charenée Wade, the percussionist Pedrito Martinez and the saxophonist-cum-indie rock marvel Donny McCaslin — all of whom are united by a commitment to jazz’s evolution. The festival will culminate with a performance by bass legend and NEA Jazz Master Dave Holland, who will appear with Princeton’s premiere jazz ensemble, Small Group I. (This concert will be the festival’s only ticketed event, with general admission tickets beginning at $15 and student tickets available for $5).

Dave Holland has been named the headliner of the inaugural Princeton Jazz Festival. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The fest is the latest feather in the cap for Princeton’s jazz department, which in recent months has garnered much acclaim in the jazz education world. The success of the program comes in no small part from the wealth of talented professors Mahanthappa has brought on as instructors, including bandleader-composer Darcy James Argue and pianist Kris Davis. But another major factor is Mahanthappa himself. As the leader of such pathbreaking ensembles as the Indo-Pak Coalition (with guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss) and his own genre-morphing quintet, he has proven himself a musical thought-leader worthy of guiding others through a scholarly pursuit of jazz at the highest level.

The program taking shape under his leadership will prepare students for careers within and parallel to the music industry. As of the moment, Princeton offers a major in music with a certificate in jazz studies (students don’t have to be a music major to earn the certificate), and the department houses numerous large ensembles, small groups and jazz vocal collectives. The department also encourages an interdisciplinary approach, working with faculty in other departments to explore jazz from various angles.

Mahanthappa’s holistic understanding of jazz will serve as a guiding force during the Princeton University Jazz Festival’s initial run. In advance of the fest, JAZZIZ spoke with the Doris Duke Award-winning saxophonist by phone to discuss his role as curator and his impact on the university’s jazz department three years in. Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

It’s not every day that an Ivy League university launches its own jazz festival. Where did the idea come from?

The idea has been bubbling for at least a couple of years, in one way or another. I’m one of these people who, when I want to do something, I just start talking about it, and then in talking about it I get stuck in that place where I have to do it. And I probably started talking about starting a festival at Princeton in the fall of 2017.

What makes this festival different from other festivals in the area?

I would say the student involvement, definitely. Just the way we try to incorporate all the student ensembles into the fest. I had already started to develop a guest artist program at Princeton, where we would have folks come in to play with students for about a week, trying to interact with as many students as possible. When we had Archie Shepp come in, he actually did a lot of stuff with the American Studies and African-American Studies departments, just discussing the history of the music as a tool for social action. I feel like these sort of experiences are missing from a lot of schools that are not in major metropolitan areas, and so I see the festival as an extension of that. You can call it the guest artist program on overdrive. I just wanted to include as many groups as possible, not just the very top group playing with the guests. In our case, all three small instrumental groups will be involved.

And guest artists will perform with their own ensembles as well, correct?

Yes, and that came from a place of wanting to bring groups to Princeton and to central New Jersey who may otherwise not play here. That was something I ran up against in my very first year. For example, I wanted my students to hear Steve Lehman’s hip-hop project. Do you know it? It features a Senegalese rapper.


Right, Sélébéyone. That was just a group that I wanted more people to hear — and not just in the music department. I wanted everyone in Princeton to hear this group! And they were never going to hear them live unless I brought them here.

Princeton University’s Nassau Hall (Photo: Geraldine Scull)

Now, there are obviously people presenting great music in central New Jersey, but there’s some more adventurous stuff that nobody would be exposed to unless it’s brought there by organizations like Princeton, which have the resources to do it. Take Donny McCaslin, for example. I’ve known him since high school, pretty much. And I’ve always thought that he was super amazing. And I think that there is a sector of the music-loving audience that knows his work, but then there’s an entire sector that doesn’t, even after his work with David Bowie. So to get a chance to bring him to Princeton and have all these people get to hear him live is going to be great.

Are you the sole curator for this festival?

Pretty much. Danny Melnick has been helping me out a bit — he’s my manager. He was one of the producers of the Newport Jazz Festival for many years and is, in my opinion, one of the finest jazz producers in the country. He’s been really helpful in terms of how to shape the thing and give it the right sort of life and an appeal that will reach the widest cross-section of audiences.

Have you ever curated a festival before? Or is this your first go-around?

You know, I guess this would be my first time. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, and a long time ago someone approached me about trying to set up a series of jazz festivals in Asia, but it didn’t go anywhere. But ever since that came up, it’s been something that I’ve been interested in doing.

Tell me about the decision to bring Dave Holland in as headliner.

I was looking for folks who don’t typically do the high school and college circuit, because I wanted to see if I could convince them to do it to some degree (laughs). With most people I approached, the reaction was, “Do you think your students can hang with my music?” 

So I was just thinking about artists who would not be put off by playing challenging material with these students, or might actually embrace that situation. And Dave was totally into that. His music is really dynamic. He’s lived the history of this music but he’s also on its cutting edge, so I think he’s really the perfect headliner. The students are thrilled to have him here.

I want to shift the conversation to your role as Director of Jazz Studies. What was the state of the jazz program when you arrived three years ago?

Well, my predecessor had been running the program for about 20 years before I got there. And coming in, I felt the best approach would be to not actually think about what my predecessor did, but instead focus on what I wanted to accomplish. So the first thing I did was try to figure out who to bring in for various scenarios. For example, I could have directed the big band. It’s something I’ve done before. But if Darcy James Argue is available, then why not get him? He knows the history of the large ensemble but is also completely aware of what is going on now, and is obviously a really substantial contributor to what is going on now. So it’s been amazing to have him around.

Darcy James Argue (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Having people who are really part of the current state of this art form is essential. There are a lot of amazing teachers out there, but at the same time, these teachers aren’t necessarily active participants on the performance scene. It was important to me to bring that lived experience to the students, or else you’re kind of teaching in a void.

Were there other genres or styles that you wanted to introduce into the jazz program, as opposed to, say, swing and bebop?

Well, it’s always been important to me to present the traditional and the contemporary in the same context. There’s no reason a Charlie Parker tune and a Wayne Shorter tune and a Mike Formanek tune can’t all be on the same program. That’s why I never thought that doing a “Night of Basie” concert would be that helpful. It’s like, we should be doing a “Night of Basie and Maria Schneider and John Zorn.” That would be a cool program, especially seeing how these things connect and inform each other.

But it all has to be grounded, too. Because we have to know where this music is coming from. So we will look at Art Blakey repertoire. We do play Bird tunes. We play lots of Monk. We need to make sure we’re well aware of all that.

Are most of your students music majors?

I’d say very few of my students are music majors. They’re mostly studying something else. But that actually gives us a lot of latitude in terms of experimentation. There isn’t the onus of I need to give them all the skills necessary to make a living in music.

Like, I would love it if my students could play “Giant Steps” in all 12 keys, but more importantly, they can talk about the historical context of the tune, and how the music fits into the overall fabric of American culture. It’s more of a macroscopic view.  

What’s next for the Princeton Jazz Department?

Well, in addition to the festival, we’ve also got our regular 2019 Princeton Jazz Fall Season going on. After the fest, we’ll have student ensembles playing through April, and then Terri Lyne Carrington is coming to play in May, so we definitely have a lot going on.

And what’s new with you?

Rudresh Mahanthappa (Photo: Courtesy the artist)

I have a new trio that’s kind of slow to get out there. It’s with Dave King and Eric Revis, and we’re going to start doing some domestic touring in June. The idea for the group is kind of a 21st-century re-imagining of Sonny Rollins’ Night at the Village Vanguard. I always think of that recording being the ultimate template for the saxophone trio, and this project is kind of an exploration of the state of the sax trio today.

And then in 2020, Terri Lyne Carrington and I are co-leading a project for the Charlie Parker centenary year.  And we’re really excited about that. It’s been fun trying to think of a really captivating way to celebrate Bird at 100. Because, again, it’s about embracing the traditional and the modern, and thinking about what Charlie Parker’s impact means now.

For more information on the Princeton University Jazz Festival, visit the department’s website

To learn more about Rudresh Mahanthappa, visit him online


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