BYU-Idaho disinvites music prof from speaking at jazz fest after he aired his disbelief in LDS Church

Colleagues rally to the side of noted trumpet teacher, emphasizing “Ryan just wanted to talk about jazz.”

(Courtesy of Ryan Nielsen) Ryan Nielsen, who teaches music at Utah Valley University, wears the shirt that was made to support him after BYU-Idaho disinvited him to speak and perform on the Rexburg campus where he used to work.

Ryan Nielsen, a nationally recognized professor of music at Utah Valley University, was pleased and proud when Brigham Young University-Idaho invited him to teach trumpet workshops and perform as a guest artist at a jazz festival on the Rexburg campus.

It felt so good to be invited back to the school where he had taught for more than a decade.

Last week, though, on the eve of the festival, Nielsen got an unexpected call from a faculty friend, saying that the invitation had been rescinded and that he was permanently banned from performing or teaching as a “speaker” at BYU-Idaho.

“It was really shocking,” Nielsen said in an interview. “I was shaking. It was just so sad to me.”

The reason for this last-minute rejection? The faculty member told Nielsen it was because he had “been public about his faith transition.”

The trumpet teacher had given a lengthy online interview in 2020 about losing his belief and participation in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU-Idaho.

BYU-Idaho spokesperson Brett Crandall declined to comment on Nielsen’s banning or who decided to do it.

It’s hard to believe that the school didn’t know about his “Mormon Stories” interview, Nielsen said, when organizers asked him to be on the program.

Many in the Idaho community knew of his disbelief, he said, and still he had performed on the Rexburg campus several times after he left in 2018 and after the 2020 interview to take a job at Orem’s UVU.

In the recent case, Nielsen was told that when administrators submitted his name as a guest artist in November at the invitation, they “ran it up the chain and they all signed off on it.”

That’s why, he said, this shunning was so surprising.

Show of support

(Courtesy of Ryan Nielsen) This logo was made to support Ryan Nielsen, who teaches music at Utah Valley University, after BYU-Idaho disinvited him to speak on the campus where he used to work.

Nielsen said he believes that this directive was not initiated by the music department. Indeed, several faculty members received an email from a BYU-Idaho vice president, declaring it was his alone.

His colleagues were “so appalled” about the unilateral step, Nielsen wrote on Facebook, “that they ... demanded a face-to-face meeting with the new president there, Alvin Meredith.”

At the meeting, many attendees spoke of Nielsen’s character and were “unified in condemning the action,” according to a source who declined to speak for fear of retribution.

The president, though reportedly sympathetic, endorsed the decision to disinvite him.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Alvin F. Meredith III speaks to students in the Brigham Young University–Idaho Center in 2023.

At the festival, which went forward as planned Friday and Saturday, a BYU-Idaho alum distributed more than a dozen black T-shirts with the words “RYAN just wanted to talk about jazz.”

Nielsen was not invited to give a devotional on Mormonism but to teach about the music he loves.

“That’s it,” said Shaun Scrivner, who has known the trumpet teacher for 30 years and organized the shirt campaign. “Are Mormon institutions really so fragile that they can be blown over with a high school level discourse on jazz improvisation?”

The shirt was “a playful way to capture both the absurdity and gravity of the situation,” said Scrivner, who has been teaching contemporary music at the Idaho Fine Arts Academy for about 10 years. “What should have been a nonissue blew up into an essay on the complex dynamics of fear and power baked into Mormon institutions.”

Nielsen is “a bridge builder,” his former student said. “He doesn’t see the Mormon/ex-Mormon divide; he sees the human in people first. The BYU-I music faculty and all of his students understand this. Which is why the entire music faculty put their professional and possibly spiritual reputation on the line to support him.”

Ramifications for the school

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU-Idaho campus in Rexburg is shown in 2018.

He has “really, really good relationships with all the music teachers in the region,” Nielsen said. “Many have reached out to me to say how sad they are about this decision and how sad they are that their students will not get to work with me.” He said a number of BYU-Idaho faculty have sent him notes that said, in essence, “I wish I could be more public about my support, but you know how it is. They’re watching us.”

Beyond Utah and Idaho, others are watching this play out, too.

“I am extremely disappointed,” Jason Bergman, a Latter-day Saint and trumpet professor at Indiana University, wrote in a letter to BYU-Idaho administrators. “It appears weak, fearful, and intellectually vacant. … I imagine that you were afraid that bringing him to campus would be seen as somehow condoning his story — that he left the church, publicly criticized the university, or that he might say something that would weaken the testimony of your students. I can understand why you would think that, but we all know that none of that would have happened.”

The banning of Nielsen “prevented your students from being exposed to the beautiful, deep, wise and gifted experience that Dr. Nielsen brings,” added Bergman, who taught at BYU’s flagship Provo campus until 2022. “He is a celebrated pedagogue in our field. He’s a gifted teacher. He has a beautiful soul and is a jazz educator that lifts and supports his students.”

The Indiana educator served until recently as president of the International Trumpet Guild, the largest academic organization in the field.

“I know so many young LDS trumpet students because I occupy a very visible position in our field,” Bergman wrote. “... They need to understand that studying at BYU-Idaho carries a severe risk if they ever encounter the problematic nature of the truth claims of the church, if they are or have family members that are LGBTQ+, they are a minority or woman, or even struggle with an issue contained within the [school’s] Honor Code. These issues are problematic for the church at large, at BYU-Provo and other church schools, but they are especially pronounced in Rexburg.”

The move, Bergman said in an interview, was “petty, personal and dumb.”

Showing up

Nielsen and a friend jumped in a car Saturday and drove to the Idaho campus for the final day of the workshop/festival. He was greeted warmly by so many friends, who offered kind words about his work and his life.

Still, it was heartbreaking.

“It was just …. really sad for me,” he said. “It was a real final goodbye to a place I grew up in (my dad taught in the music department there for decades), where I had so many meaningful experiences. Those halls are full of ghosts for me.”

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