The Jazz Program at Harvard was initiated in 1971 by Director of Bands Tom Everett and has been developed with the support of the Office for the Arts (OFA) since 1976. Mark Olson serves as Assistant Director. The goal is threefold: to provide an opportunity for undergraduates to work directly with classic repertoire and masters of the art form; to honor artists who have made a significant contribution to American music (often including the commission of new work); and increase public awareness of the artist's music. "There is no substitution for intense involvement in an artist's creation and the insights provided directly by the artist," says Everett. Guest musicians, who are often isolated from the liberal arts environment, and students both benefit from this educational exchange.
A remarkable array of significant artists has played with the Harvard Jazz Band over the years, including Hank Jones, Jim Hall, Benny Carter, Illinois Jacquet, Max Roach, Randy Weston, and Lester Bowie. New works have been commissioned from artists such as Steve Lacy, Andrew Hill, Steve Swallow, Benny Carter, and Anthony Braxton. Boston arranger/composer Jeff Friedman has also contributed ongoingly to the retrospective concerts.
In April 2000, the Boston Globe wrote, "Harvard University director of bands Tom Everett has been staging annual repertory events with guests artists for nearly three decades that often put the pros to shame in terms of conceptual ingenuity". The artistic path of many visiting artists has been influenced by their Harvard experience. For example:
*In 2003, trombonist Roswell Rudd met trumpeter Dave Douglas at Harvard. They are now touring together exploring the compositions of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols.
*Trombonist/composer J. J. Johnson's last works for brass were commissioned by and premiered at Harvard in 1996.
* Soon after a 1990 Harvard residency brought attention to trumpeter/arranger Buck Clayton, he received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award.
* Carla Bley, who now arranges primarily for big bands, had her first commission in 1986 for that format at Harvard.
* In 1980, Bill Evans, with John Lewis, performed one of Evans' last concerts for the premiere of Lewis' "The Gates of Harvard." A later recording received two Grammy nominations.
Over the years, the Jazz Band has focused on the literature of Duke Ellington and complete retrospective concerts of the music of Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Benny Carter, Buck Clayton, Clark Terry, J. J. Johnson, and Julius Hemphill. Other literature has ranged from the classic arrangements of Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson to the modern jazz of Gil Evans and Charles Mingus, the contemporary ensemble improvisations of Barry Guy and Lester Bowie, and the jazz-rock of Michael Gibbs and Russ Gershon Harvard ‘81.
Harvard Jazz Band alumni/ae have remained active in jazz either by an occupation in music, through their children becoming involved, or by simply remaining jazz fans and supporters. According to Tom Everett, "Thirty-five years ago there wasn't a course on jazz at Harvard or structured playing opportunities; today the Afro-American Studies department has the Quincy Jones Visiting Professor of African-American Music, a core course on jazz, a student-initiated Jazz Society and the Jazz Bands. Jazz is now quite visible on campus and is considered a significant artistic form."
The Office for the Arts maintains a non-circulating video and audio recording archive of visiting artists in jazz, which is available to students and scholars through the Morse Music and Media Collection, Lamont Library.
In April, 2009, in the 29th year the Office for the Arts has collaborated with the Harvard Jazz Bands to honor distinguished artists in jazz, Harvard University honored drummer Roy Haynes as 2009 Jazz master in Residence. Haynes made a preliminary visit to Harvard in February to rehearse with undergraduates in the Monday Jazz Bands. On Friday, April 17, he participated in a Learning From Performers conversation about his career moderated by Bob Blumenthal, author and Creative Consultant to the Marsalis Music record label. On Saturday, April 18, Haynes was honored at a concert featuring the Harvard Sunday and Monday Jazz Bands with guest artist Roy Hargrove, trumpet.