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Today's jazz scene is a scattered mess. No longer the focal point of American pop culture (or even the soundtrack for Kerouac-inspired rebellion), jazz has branched off in so many different directions that there is no longer any "jazz scene." The task of actually being a fan is difficult--one must often search the butt-end of the FM radio dial or small dive bars to hear this American music. Jazz has gone underground and become a subculture whose numbers are dwindling with each passing year.

As Penn has not been the staging ground for anything "fringe" since Noam Chomsky left the school in 1955, it is slightly odd that the University has put together the Jazz Legacy Series. The Series, which began last semester, features smaller acts drawn mostly from the talent pool in Philadelphia. Oddly enough, this series, which is free to the public, features avant-garde jazz, a strain of jazz once nurtured right here in Philadelphia that is an offshoot of bop, fusion and free jazz and that is hailed by many as the last bastion of the genre's innovative spirit. But with its use of non-traditional forms, experiments with free meter and combining of jazz traditions with those of other musical genres, avant-garde jazz often includes only vague sonic resemblance to the more listener-friendly sounds of Duke Ellington, early Miles Davis and today's Wynton Marsalis.

Andrew Zitcer, program coordinator for Penn's Office of Student Life, stresses jazz's role as one of the purest forms of American artistic expression, and is quick to note that the innovative spirit of jazz is not an abstract idea in Philadelphia--in fact, West Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania were very influential in providing space for avant-garde experiments during the '60s, '70s and '80s, and today, through the Jazz Legacy Series.

"The history of jazz in Philadelphia is often ignored, and we feel that this concert series is a chance to get the musical history of Philly out," says Zitcer, noting that Philadelphia and its jazz scene were egregiously absent from the recent Ken Burns documentary on jazz.

The question: why should Penn students put down their Finance 203 books or skip a frat party to hear jazz?

"I think Penn students are very capable of enjoying this complicated music," Zitcer suggests. "We have found that a lot of students want to get away from the 'Work hard, play hard' Penn mentality and that there is a very big demand on campus from people who want to enrich themselves outside of class.... Most people who come once end up coming back to almost all of the shows."

Gonzalo Solis, a College junior who is helping to organize and produce the Series, aims for an even broader appeal. "We're hoping that students who are into jazz will come out and show their support for talented musicians who are right in their backyard and perhaps bring along some friends who might not have a inclination to check it out on their own."

The Jazz Legacy Series' intent is to provide a space for those performers who believe music can be so much more than a lucrative commercial exploit or a slot on TRL. And who knows--if students do respond positively to the Series, Penn might just have its own niche in the great American art form that is jazz.

The Jazz Legacy Series continues on Monday, November 12, 8 p.m., with the Bobby Zankel Trio. All performances are held in Houston Hall.

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