Cougars turn into jazz cats

Adam Lee leads the new jazz band at Chatham University


Jazz band members practice in the Welker Room. Photo Credit: Sara Parker

Sara Parker

Chatham University recently incorporated a jazz ensemble into its music program. It’s one of two new class offerings for fall 2022 instructed by Adam Lee, Chatham’s new band director. 

Currently, Lee directs the concert band ensemble, which meets on Monday evenings in the Campbell Memorial Chapel, and the jazz band ensemble, which meets on Thursday evenings in James Laughlin Music Hall.

The jazz band came to fruition after talks between University President Dr. David Finegold and Dr. James Johnson of the Afro-American Music Institute in Homewood, where Lee was a woodwind and brass instructor at the time.  

This will not be Lee’s first time starting from scratch. His talents for making something out of nothing have spanned the globe; bands of his creation live on from Beijing to Los Angeles.

Lee has an extensive musical background and is no stranger to higher education. He received his master’s degree in music education from New York University, where he focused his thesis on Chinese-American jazz legends and community building through music. 

Currently, Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is writing his dissertation on modern swing music and dance, as well as the social complexity of nostalgia for the swing era.   

Lee did not start his collegiate career as a music major. Instead, he studied history. 

He seeks to preserve Chatham’s own history, particularly the tradition of diversity and inclusion. 

“Music should be fun, but also should teach us about self and society,” Lee said. “It includes topics of race, it includes topics of gender.”

Lee hopes to create a band that is reflective of Chatham’s student body and shines as an example for the next generation of musicians. 

“As a Chinese-American, that was something I never had,” Lee said.

Lee shapes his curriculum around the chronology of jazz, starting with the beginnings of the Jazz Age in the 1920s. Since it is the beginning of a “Jazz Age” here at Chatham, Lee explained, it’s only fitting that his curriculum develops as the ensemble develops.

Ethan Derstine, left, with director Adam Lee. Photo Credit: Sara Parker

Lee’s goal for the group is to build a professional repertoire that goes beyond the homogenous jazz canon. He immerses his students in the language of jazz in a way that students believe is enriching and accessible. 

“Lee is very patient and encouraging,” said trumpet player Rachel Koshy ‘26.

“People won’t join because they say they suck or have never played,” said Ethan Derstine ‘25, an immersive media major, trumpet and bass player. 

To accommodate students learning and exploring this subject for the first time, students are graded solely on participation, rather than accuracy or skill. 

“I’m looking for students with heart,” Lee said. “This is not a conservatory.”

This is a tangible feeling; throughout the Welker Room laughs, walking bass lines and trumpet scales liven up the space. Students seem enthusiastic; there is a peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher sense of camaraderie.

“It’s a refreshing break from the overwhelming STEM culture,” said Koshy, a cell and molecular biology major, who is now hoping to declare a minor in music.

Lee’s jazz band marks a new chapter for the Chatham music program. He is opening doors for student musicians while honoring Chatham’s past and molding its present and future.