A scholar and jazz musician hits the high notes


Blaustein performing at the Writers House

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Chip is into suits. “I like wearing a suit. I feel so hip,” he said with real enthusiasm, despite a touch of self-mockery. “I’d wear a suit all the time if it didn’t mean I’d look like a Wharton student.”

Chip, or George Blaustein Jr. (C’00), as he is officially known, sat on a recent sunny afternoon in a coffeehouse dressed, alas, not in a suit but in khakis, black lace-up shoes and a purple shirt. A double major in English and honors American history, his idiosyncratic experiences at Penn have included jazz piano, computers, failed record deals, shady nightclubs and academic honors.

In May, Blaustein found out he was one of 20 college juniors nationwide to receive the prestigious Beinecke Brothers Memorial Scholarship. He described his reaction to his award as one of “muted surprise”; the two-page personal essay he submitted with his application was “a very self-deprecating self-promotion,” he said. “I like to think I got it because the selection committee was sifting through monomaniacal essays and came across mine, which is flimsy and all over the place.”

Awarded to college juniors to support two years of graduate study, the Beinecke scholarship gives recipients $2,000 upon college graduation and $15,000 for each of two years of graduate study. Not bad for a guy from Racine, Wis., who said he got to Penn feeling academically “very behind.”

“This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Blaustein said. “I got a personal letter from Judy Rodin, who actually addressed me as Chip.”

Kelly Writers House seems to be at the center of Blaustein’s academic and social life at Penn. “I work there, I play there, everything overlaps there,” said Blaustein, who has been in the jazz band since freshman year and also serves as the Writers House network administrator and computer technician.

View a video clip of Chip Blaustein discussing life at the Writers House

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As pianist for the Writers House jazz band (his father taught him to play boogie-woogie when he was in grade school), Blaustein had a weekly gig for a short period at the Blue Moon Jazz Club in Old City until it closed down when the owners went on the lam, running from debt collectors. The group even had a vague offer of a record deal from a mogul in L.A. -- there was loose talk of the former president of Motown and Stevie Wonder. “That all fell through at the last minute,” he said.

For his honors thesis, Blaustein, a Benjamin Franklin Scholar, wants to write a historical ethnography of the former Cafe Society, in Greenwich Village, which was one of the first racially integrated clubs. The club, which was open from the late ’30s to the late ’40s, he hopes, will give a window onto “a tense but open moment of race relations” and “culture politics spanning the New Deal left to the McCarthyist right.”

For his future studies, he said, “My academic interests include all of American history. I know that’s big. And American literature.”

But for his immediate future he says he wants to take a year off. He imagines maybe trying to make a go of it as a jazz musician in New York. “Have a down and out life,” he muses. “The seamy underside.”

As long as he can wear a suit.

“Man,” he said as a thought occurred to him. “Maybe I’ll use the $2,000 to buy a three-piece suit.”

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Originally published on October 14, 1999