The Eastman Jazz Ensemble has been recognized as one of the world’s premier collegiate jazz performing organizations for three decades. Years before Eastman alumnus Chuck Mangione became the ensemble’s first faculty director, the band was established and governed by Eastman student musicians. In 1970, former Radio City Music Hall musical director Rayburn Wright was hired to develop the Eastman jazz studies and contemporary media program and in 1972 he succeeded Mangione as director of the Jazz Ensemble. Bill Dobbins, who led the group from 1989 to 1994, returned to the position in 2002 after an eight-year tenure as principal director of the WDR Radio Big Band in Cologne, Germany. Fred Sturm served as director from 1995 to 2002. Christine Jensen took over direction in 2022 after Dobbins retirement.
The Eastman Jazz Ensemble has frequently received the award for “Best Big Band” in the Annual Down Beat Magazine Student Music Awards, most recently in 2000. It has frequently been featured at the Annual Conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators, most recently in New York City in 2001. The group has performed at the International Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland and in renowned concert halls throughout the world. In January 2015, the ensemble performed at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at New York’s Lincoln Center, presenting a Billy Strayhorn tribute during the Strayhorn centennial year. Guest performers and conductors with the group have included such highly acclaimed jazz artists as Bill Holman, Clare Fischer, Bob Brookmeyer, Benny Carter, Benny Golson, Joe Henderson, Dave Holland, Joe Lovano, Bobby McFerrin, Maria Schneider, Toots Thielemans, Kenny Wheeler, Phil Woods, Danilo Pérez, and Jim McNeely.