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  • Writer's pictureHenry Astor

No Wrong Notes

Coffeehaus jazz night draws a crowd.

By Henry Astor

Illustration by Jorja Garcia

Over clouds of cigarette smoke and rumbling chatter, a voice beckons for any musicians in the crowd. It emerges from Malaika Friedman, pianist and self-proclaimed “evil mastermind” of five-piece jazz ensemble Threat Midler, during Coffeehaus Jam Club. A primarily jazz-focused concert and improv series, Coffeehaus is held every other Thursday in the tavern-esque living room of the Alpha Delta Phi house. The brainchild of ADP member Oscar Lloyd, CC ’25, it began last fall with just four Columbia students and now is a notable, recurring campus event that attracts young players from other colleges in the city. Malaika treks up to ADP from the New School, while Threat Midler’s trumpet player and budding composer Caleb Davis hails from the Manhattan School of Music.

It’s a convivial and open atmosphere, seemingly absent of the Whiplash-ian melodrama one might associate with the jazz scene. I learn that Caleb and Malaika have known each other since high school jazz camp, while Nadav Beary, the drummer, is a classmate of Malaika’s. Grace Kaste, CC ’26, and Stephen Park, CC ’24, the band’s bassist and guitarist, respectively, are Columbia students who met Malaika through Coffeehaus sessions. A few days before the show, Kaste told me about how Coffeehaus has grown into a source for musicians at Columbia and beyond to expand their networks: she’s already secured gigs through Coffeehaus as a first-year student. Nonetheless, she has had to overcome some trepidation—a big stage with many talented musicians and even more eyes can be intimidating.

On a campus where most students spend weeknights deep in their books, Coffeehaus acts as a beacon of fresh energy drawing those who seek a different type of Thursday evening. The tradition has grown largely due to word of mouth and the desire for an unpretentious environment. “There’s a big issue with academic jazz, where it feels very exclusive and high-minded, where you have to know all the standards and the [chord] changes to even get into those circles,” Lloyd explains. Intentioned to create a space for fresh exposure, experimentation, and engagement for those new to the genre and seasoned jazz players alike, he especially enjoys witnessing students’ first introductions to jazz. It reminds him of his own relationship to the music, as he has no formal jazz training himself. Corroborating this mission, Kenny Schultz, CC ’24, a saxophonist who regularly jams at ADP, shares that audiences at ADP don’t care what notes or keys you play in, as long as you play loud.

As Schultz alludes, the popularity of Coffeehaus sometimes comes at the expense of the music. One night after the mass of bodies became so thick that it was impossible to see the performers, Friedman asked the crowd to lower their volume so that all instruments, particularly Kaste’s upright bass, could be audible. “Jazz is a bit of an aesthetic at ADP,” Kaste admits, alleging that some listeners are more interested with posting a cool-looking Instagram story than the immersive experience. Drummer and regular Coffeehaus player Taylor Briggs, CC ’24, has a less cynical take: “It’s difficult when people are rowdy, but I would rather perform to a rowdy crowd than no one at all.”

As two of few women in the Louis Armstrong Jazz Program at Columbia, Kaste and Briggs navigate a male-dominated and sometimes misogynistic environment. “I always have to fend for myself,” Kaste remarks, lamenting that she sometimes feels as if she’s “the last man standing” after witnessing women quit jazz at Columbia altogether. Briggs compares her experiences in jazz environments to being a major in the physics department where most of her professors are men. She explains the difficulty in navigating male-dominated spaces when there aren’t other women around for guidance or representation.

Kaste has also been subject to overt misogyny. Once a male bass player at ADP “didn’t put it together that [she] was a bassist,” despite her name’s appearance on the billing of the event, then proceeded to explain to her the use of a bass—an instrument she’s played since the 6th grade. She also recalled being asked if she was upset for not smiling while playing, despite male players doing the same without question.

There’s much to be improved, but the optimism I encountered from both musicians was palpable. Kaste and Briggs insist that Coffeehaus remains an indispensable outlet and source of joy for musicians. Briggs wishes to see Coffeehaus’s ability to promote off- and cross-campus collaboration continue to flourish. Kaste hopes to see the school recruit more female players into the jazz program, employ more Black instructors that better reflect the origins of jazz, and anticipates making more friends and improving her playing at Coffeehaus. For his part, Lloyd is prioritizing improving inclusivity at Coffeehaus—a show featuring an all-female ensemble is in the works. “At the level of academic jazz, it tends to be very white and very male, which is just a terrible [representation] of the actual roots of jazz,” he expresses. “We need to reflect that the roots of jazz are in Black musicians, and that includes Black female musicians as well.”


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