In this article, we profile the 10 best university jazz programs of 2022.
The best jazz programs prepare and educate students for careers in jazz music as performance artists. Rigorous conservatory training combined with ensemble experience and networking opportunities are often a major part of the top jazz programs in the country. It is in these prestigious programs that students receive mentorship from renowned musicians, take classes from visiting master artists, and gain performance experience in both small and large ensembles. Attending the right school and program can make all the difference in a viable career as a jazz artist and musician.
10 Best University Jazz Programs Methodology
We looked at 77 accredited colleges and universities listed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) College Navigator that offered both beginner and advanced level programs (bachelor’s, master’s, or diploma/certificate) in jazz, jazz studies, jazz performance, or a closely related discipline. In an effort to find the top programs, we selected schools with the lowest acceptance rate and rankings with U.S. News and World Report. We then listed the schools based on their selectivity (acceptance rate) as published by NCES College Navigator. The most selective institution earned a #1 position on our list.
The resulting selections for our top 10 best university jazz programs are listed below.
#10 – Oberlin College
Acceptance Rate: 35%
Undergraduate Tuition: $58,554
Oberlin College’s jazz studies program is recognized as one of the most respected programs of its kind in the country. The conservatory, in operation since 1973, has offered jazz courses and studies since 1989. In fact, 1989 is when the jazz studies major became available. Upon admission Oberlin’s highly selective program, students start a sequence of courses in private composition. Masterclass opportunities are also available, allowing students to work with some of the most renowned musicians in the world. While the school is not the least expensive on our list, it does offer top rankings from reputable sources like U.S. News and World Report. In fact, Oberlin ranks #37 in best national liberal arts colleges and #83 in best value schools based on the average level of need-based financial aid received by admitted students.
#9 – University of Miami
Coral Gables, Florida
Acceptance Rate: 33%
Undergraduate Tuition: $53,682
The University of Miami’s Frost School of Music offers programs designed to serve as preparation for the study of instrumental and vocal jazz performance. A variety of degree levels are available, such as the bachelor’s in studio music and jazz instrumental and studio music and jazz vocal. Graduate degrees are at the Frost School are offered in instrumental jazz performance, studio jazz writing, and vocal jazz performance, among others. The school is one of the few offering doctoral degrees in jazz composition, jazz instrumental performance, and jazz vocal performance, making it a top choice for those seeking advanced study. In addition to offering accredited jazz programs, University of Miami ranks with U.S. News and World Report. Recent rankings include #55 in best national universities and #123 in best value schools.
#8 – The University of Texas
Acceptance Rate: 32%
Undergraduate Tuition: $11,448
The University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music offers a jazz studies program for the serious student of jazz. Distinguished faculty and a creative learning environment offer a collective and artistic approach to the study of jazz. Performance opportunities are abundant at UT, as jazz majors receive opportunities to play in a variety of large and small jazz ensembles. The role of faculty is to guide music majors to become respected musicians. In addition to being fully accredited and recognized for its renowned music school, UT Austin ranks with major publications like U.S. News and World Report. The most recent rankings include #38 in best national universities, #10 in top public schools, and #23 in best fine arts programs.
#7 – California Institute of the Arts
Acceptance Rate: 27%
Undergraduate Tuition: $53,466
With a 27% acceptance rate and specialized jazz programs, California Institute of the Arts earns a top spot on our list of best university jazz programs. The Herb Alpert School of Music was founded by jazz giant Charlie Haden as a creative alternative to academic jazz studies. Jazz students benefit from small ensemble performance and improvisation, close working relationships with mentors, and an apprenticeship model rich with rehearsals and recitals. Each year, students have the opportunity to record original work at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood with the world’s most remarkable recording engineers. In addition to all California Institute of the Arts offers for jazz students, the school is fully accredited and recognized by U.S. News and World Report.
#6 – University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Acceptance Rate: 26%
Undergraduate Tuition: $15,948
Students at the University of Michigan’s Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation receive rigorous training in mainstream jazz, among other forms of improvisation. The school is selective with a 26% acceptance rate. In addition to several bachelor’s in fine arts degrees available at Michigan, the school offers readiness for its master’s degree programs. In fact, a master of music in improvisation and doctoral in jazz and contemporary improvisation are among the available graduate programs. University of Michigan’s reputation draws a large pool of applicants, and the music programs are highly competitive. Michigan is also fully accredited and ranked with U.S. News and World Report as the 23rd best national university in the country.
#5 – University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California
Acceptance Rate: 16%
Undergraduate Tuition: $60,275
USC Thornton School of Music is recognized as one of the best music schools offering the first free-standing jazz studies department in the nation. As a pioneer for jazz programs, Thornton boasts world-renowned faculty, a strong alumni network, and academics dedicated to the one true American musical art form. The school also offers bachelor’s degrees in music and voice, a master’s degree in music, and graduate certificates in performance. A Doctor of Musical Arts – Jazz Studies Performance is also offered for those seeking an advanced degree. USC is highly selective. The acceptance rate is 16% and the school ranks consistently with major publications like U.S. News and World Report. In fact, USC ranks 27th in best national universities and 60th in best value schools.
#4 – University of California
Los Angeles, California
Acceptance Rate: 14%
Undergraduate Tuition: $13,249
The Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA offers bachelor’s degrees in global jazz studies designed for students seeking careers as jazz performers, jazz scholars, producers, and teachers. The school’s 14% acceptance rate means competition for admission is fierce. But once accepted, students take courses that explore topics like the history and culture of jazz, improvisation, musical structure and instrumentation, and studio instruction. The program also offers a range of opportunities for students to engage with visiting artists and faculty and participate in masterclasses with jazz greats like Billy Childs, Danilo Perez, and Vijay Iyer. UCLA ranks with U.S. News and World Report as the 20th best national university and 29th most innovative school in the country.
#3 – Northwestern University
Acceptance Rate: 9%
Undergraduate Tuition: $58,701
Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music offers a bachelor’s of music with jazz studies emphasis. This highly selective program is designed to prepare students to enter graduate jazz programs or work as professional musicians. Students gain insight into the performance world through rigorous coursework offered in and out of the music program. Chicago’s thriving jazz scene gives way to many opportunities. Admission to Northwestern is highly selective. Admission to the jazz program requires completion of an application, academic and music teacher recommendations, standardized test scores, and a music audition and/or portfolio material, depending on the program. Northwestern ranks with all major publications. In fact, recent rankings with U.S. News and World Report include #9 in best national universities.
#2 – The Juilliard School
New York, New York
Acceptance Rate: 8%
Undergraduate Tuition: $49,260
The Juilliard name is synonymous with the best performing arts schools in the country. With an 8% acceptance rate, Juilliard is highly selective, so it should come as no surprise that the school offers one of the best university jazz programs. The innovative jazz studies program is led by Juilliard alumnus trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. The program combines the history and traditions of jazz with many professional performance opportunities. As a Juilliard jazz student, you will have opportunities to play with small ensembles, the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, and prominent venues in New York. Juilliard is fully accredited and recognized with major publications like U.S. News and World Report as a top art school.
#1 – Columbia University
New York, New York
Acceptance Rate: 7%
Undergraduate Tuition: $61,671
The #1 university jazz program on our list is offered at the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. This highly selective program has been offering jazz studies through its renowned Louis Armstrong Performance Program since 1999. At the core of the program is an interdisciplinary jazz studies degree that offers performance opportunities for aspiring musicians. Students gain access to visiting master artists alongside rigorous study. Ensemble opportunities are also offered, which include big band, free jazz, jazz combos, and jazz vocal ensemble performances. In addition to offering strong academics, Columbia ranks with U.S. News and World Report. Recent rankings include #2 in best national universities and #7 in best value schools.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I do when I first graduate from a university jazz program?
The first thing to do when you graduate from a university jazz program, especially if you don’t have a job lined up, is to network. One way to network is to find the people doing the job you want to do and offer your services. Do anything you can to connect with these people. Networking opportunities are often found through your school’s jazz program, offered by faculty, or your school’s alumni. But before graduating, find your tribe. Connect with fellow students and stay connected after graduation.
Get out there. A short mantra that stretches beyond networking is to be visible. According to saxophonist Greg Johnson of USC Thornton School of Music, “Go to shows, jam sessions, take lessons, make the hang.” If people don’t know who you are, they will never make a connection. It is important to interact with people and show off your sound.
You can also join professional organizations that bolster your professional goals. Organizations like the College Music Society, NAMM, and SESAC all offer memberships to jazz students and professionals. These organizations offer networking opportunities and access to ongoing education. Some even offer reduced membership rates for students affiliated with certain schools. Do your research on organizations that best fit your needs and career goals.
How much money can I make after earning a degree from a university jazz program?
The earnings potential varies by occupation, especially for those working as jazz musicians. But once you’ve graduated from a university jazz program, gained performance experience, and are ready to embark on a career as a musician, you will want to know what to expect in terms of pay.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), musicians and singers earn a median hourly wage of $31.40. While the lowest earn less than half the median hourly wage, the highest 10% earn more than $87.47 per hour. The average hourly wage of musicians is over $10 per hour the average hourly wage for all other occupations. In fact, BLS reports the average for all occupations as $20.17 per hour.
To help leverage your earnings potential, it is important to pay attention to certain industries that offer higher than average earnings. According to BLS, the highest paying industries for musicians, including jazz musicians, are performing arts, spectator sport, and related industries. In these industries, musicians earn median hourly wages of $40.36. Religious, grantmaking, civic, professional, and similar organizations offer $25.24 in hourly median wages, making these industries the second highest for pay among musicians. The third highest paying industry for jazz musicians is educational services. Instructors of jazz earn an average of $25.07 per hour.
What is the job outlook for musicians graduating from top university jazz programs?
The average employment growth for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is 8%. But the outlook for musicians is three percent higher. In fact, BLS reports a projected growth of 11% through 2030. The projected growth equates to 20,800 job openings for musicians each year, on average, for the next nine years.
So, what’s causing the employment growth? According to BLS, many of these job openings will result from the need to replace musicians exiting the workforce through retirement. Also, the immediate growth will result in the industry’s recovery from recession due to COVID-19.
But as the industry recovers, musicians will be in demand. Now is a favorable time to pursue music school and graduate from a top university jazz program. Demand is pushing the hiring of session musicians and backup artists for recordings and tours. Also, digital downloads and streaming platforms that make it easy for audiences and fans to listen to recordings and view performances will increase demand for musicians and singers. There may also be a push for musicians to license their music for use in advertisements or commercials, creating revenue opportunities and multiple streams of income. The push for licensing should also drive demand.
What qualities are important for applicants of university jazz programs?
Top university jazz programs are highly competitive. They accept the best of the best. Three of the ten jazz programs on our list boast single digit acceptance rates. So, how do you get accepted to the nation’s top jazz schools?
Beyond talent, it helps to be disciplined. Talent is not enough for most musicians to find employment after school. The best musicians constantly practice, rehearse, and work on their craft. They constantly rehearse, perform, and improve their style, performance, and technique. Since auditioning for jazz programs and jobs can be a frustrating process, being dedicated and disciplined helps.
Jazz programs look for students with strong interpersonal skills. Since students collaborate on projects and performances, it is important to be able to work well with others. Strong interpersonal skills carry over into the workplace, as musicians work closely with agents, conductors, music producers, and other musicians. Having good people skills helps build strong working relationships.
In addition to showcasing superior musical abilities, applicants of the best university jazz programs should possess physical stamina. Music programs require students practice a certain number of hours and adhere to a strict performance schedule. Improving stamina prepares students for frequent travel and irregular performing schedules.
Strong candidates for top jazz programs are also critical thinkers, advocates for the arts, and well-versed in music theory.
What courses will I take in a university jazz program?
Qualified students admitted to the best university jazz programs who wish to gain professional training will typically take four years of classes to earn a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies. Students begin their academic career taking pre-core courses in ear training, history of music or survey or music, and theory. Pre-core courses serve as the foundation for additional history and music theory classes.
In addition to core classes, jazz students must complete upper-level music theory and history electives. Common topics include essential skills in jazz improvisation, jazz arranging, jazz history and analysis, and jazz laboratory. Introductory composition and private instruction courses may also be taken to satisfy elective requirements.
In addition to the above coursework, jazz students must fulfill ensemble requirements. Ensemble requirements may include at least one or two performances each semester or quarter. Performances may be through the School of Music or outside the institution.
Most jazz programs require proficiency in piano. While jazz students may focus their studies and performance on another instrument, such as a trumpet or saxophone, they will be required to show piano proficiency. If your jazz program requires piano proficiency, you may need to pass an equivalency exam or class, such as MUS 235.
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