Sewanee Jazz Society reunion offers glimpse of Sewanee's music history

Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet, courtesy David Gahr estate

A landmark concert in the history of American music gets long overdue recognition in February. In April 1961, eight years after Duke Ellington’s last pop hit and eight years before Woodstock, the Modern Jazz Quartet was heard for the first time in the South, performing at the University of the South. The progressive MJQ had landed in Sewanee entirely thanks to the efforts of the student Jazz Society.

The University, lacking a real concert hall, offered up its gymnasium one Sunday afternoon for a superb concert in the round by the MJQ. Hundreds of listeners attended one of the first integrated events to occur on campus—or anywhere in the region.

Surviving members of the Sewanee Jazz Society will celebrate a reunion on Feb. 8 and 9, in conjunction with an MJQ symposium and a concert by the Aaron Diehl Quartet.

A special attraction of the symposium will be a viewing of Music Inn, hosted by George Schuller, who co-produced the film. This documentary conveys the remarkable story of the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts, and the superb performers who for three decades graced the stage of its “Music Barn,” including Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, and Pete Seeger. All these artists—among many others—also played on the Sewanee campus in the 1960s and ’70s, sponsored by the student Jazz Society. (Among the first of these was the celebrated 1961 MJQ concert.) The Jazz Society also brought to campus performances by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.

These performances were especially notable for occurring in what was a still largely segregated South. The Highlander Folk School—well known as a training site for nonviolent protest where champions of the civil rights era assembled—was just a few miles up the road, and some of the same individuals were active in both the Sewanee Jazz Society and at Highlander.