Ninety-two years ago in Ithaca, Cornell University hosted the annual Maytime celebration that’s now called Slope Day. In 1927, they called it Spring Day. The Crusades were the theme that year, and entertainment was provided by one of the nation’s leading popular dance bands: the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, featuring trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, a legendary figure in jazz history. Also in this hot band was local boy Newell “Spiegle” Willcox, hailing from Cortland. Willcox had previously played trombone in the group that opened for Goldkette that day, the Cornell Collegians, under the direction of drummer Bob Causer. Causer doubled as manager of the Ithaca Hotel at State and Aurora streets, which his father owned.
This story marks just one of many musical legacies to which The Original Cornell Syncopators will pay tribute in their spring concert on Friday, May 3, starting at 8 p.m. in Barnes Hall, when the 13-piece ensemble will present their fascinating project on collegiate bands from the early years of jazz.
The group has just finished recording an album of this collegiate repertoire for Rivermont Records at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ithaca. The Syncopators have released two previous records on Electric Buffalo Records, a local student-run label.
The Syncopators are a student band that began as a quintet in 2016. Their new material consists of selections adapted or transcribed from records made in the 1920s and 1930s by college bands and associated artists. Some of these ditties will strike 21st century ears as quaint relics, but others are tight big-band arrangements of familiar tunes. At the Barnes Hall concert, trombonist Rishi Verma will play the trombone lead on “I Cried For You,” as Spiegle Willcox memorably did on the Collegians’ recording in 1923.
Bandleader Colin Hancock’s obsession with jazz history and early recording techniques were the catalyst for the formation of The Syncopators. While in high school near Austin, Texas, he led a similar kind of musical project, a performance-slash-research hybrid investigating the sound of Buddy Bolden, reputedly the first man ever to play in the style that evolved into jazz. (The Hollywood movie “Bolden” opens nationally on May 3, the same night as the concert.)
As Hancock and his colleagues discovered, almost all the Ivy League schools had student-run jazz bands back in the day. But unfortunately, college administrators at most HBCUs before World War II treated jazz as they had previously treated the music’s syncopated predecessor, ragtime—that is, with disdain and official disapproval. Howard University banned the playing of jazz on campus at one point, according to Hancock. But student groups formed nonetheless in and around schools such as Fisk University in Nashville and Wilberforce College in Ohio. The Cornell Syncopators’ arrangement of “Memphis Rag” is based on the 1927 recording by the Chickasaw Syncopators, an outfit originated at a Memphis high school by Jimmie Lunceford, who was teaching there at the time. Lunceford eventually grew the group into one of the country’s finest big bands.
The college-based orchestras played a significant role in spreading popular awareness of the new jazz style throughout the population. This was especially true before 1925, when the technologies of gramophone records and wireless radio were still had limited reach.
“We’re dealing with a pre-mass media world when it comes to music,” says Bryan Wright, the founder of Rivermont Records and producer of the upcoming Syncopators album. “There were still a lot of regional styles that were very distinguishable, and even given the same tune, you’re going to hear different musical styles coming out of these different parts of the country.”
The album includes tracks based on student groups from Indiana (Hitch’s Happy Harmonists, with pianist Hoagy Carmichael), North Carolina, Kentucky, and Texas—regions sometimes assumed to have played little or no role in the development of jazz. This geographic diversity reflects the sophistication with which Hancock and the band approached their scholarship.
“The man has done considerable original research,” according to Wright. “Real boots-on-the-ground research, looking through newspaper archives and getting in touch with collectors who have scraps of ephemera, pamphlets and booklets and letters and things from these musicians in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and really piecing together a complete story, or a more complete story than we’ve ever had of these bands.”
“This is an important narrative in the story of jazz,” Hancock said. “You see mention of, ‘Oh, those college bands were great, you know, the collegiate scene, the collegiate drive,’ all that kind of stuff, but there’s not one serious project that has looked at them and said, ‘Why were they so important?’ And this is the one.”