Campus & Community

Swinging into the University

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First Quincy Jones Chair stresses jazz’s collaboration

Ingrid Monson: ‘Often jazz is portrayed in terms of competition and cutting sessions, but that’s really not the case. There’s a camaraderie that’s one of the keys of jazz improvisation.’ (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

Like many other jazz lovers, Ingrid Monson welcomed the recent Ken Burns documentary on the history of the music. But she found that Burns gave insufficient attention to one vital aspect of this unique art form, its collaborative and socially expressive qualities.

“Burns buys into the jazz musician as genius or hero. That’s nice for the dignity of the musicians, but what it erases is the complicated dialogue between the individual and the community.”

Monson has spent her scholarly career trying to understand and elucidate that dialogue. Now, as the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Chair of African American Music, a joint appointment of the Music Department and the Department of Afro-American Studies, she is bringing her insights to Harvard.

Monson’s first book, “Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction” (University of Chicago Press, 1996), explored jazz as a form of musical conversation, based on in-depth interviews with professional musicians. Her current project, “Freedom Sounds: Jazz, Civil Rights, and Africa, 1950-1967” (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), investigates the impact of the civil rights movement and African independence on the history of jazz.

Monson approaches these subjects not solely as a scholar. Before entering graduate school in musicology, she studied jazz trumpet at the New England Conservatory of Music. During the 1980s she worked as a professional musician, playing with various jazz, salsa, and klezmer ensembles, and was a founding member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which made frequent appearances on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Monson’s colleagues are pleased that Harvard’s first full-time, tenured jazz scholar is a person of such rich experience and varied expertise.

“She’s outstanding,” said Music Department Chair Kay Shelemay. “She’s a jazz performer of great skill and experience and a scholar of great musical depth and intellectual sophistication. She also has an enormously nuanced knowledge of African-American music as well as a deep knowledge of African-American history and literature. That combination is extremely powerful.”

Thomas Everett, director of the Harvard Band and Harvard Jazz Band, said, “I’m delighted to see this American art form of improvised music represented by such a respected scholar and performer as Ingrid.”

Monson decided to make a transition from performing to scholarship in 1985 when she entered the graduate program at New York University (she earned her M.A. in 1989 and her Ph.D. in 1991). Her performing career would continue for several more years, however, and even now, while she no longer plays professionally, she still participates in jam sessions and often brings her trumpet to class to provide live musical examples to illustrate her lectures.

“I proved I could make a living at music when I was in my 20s,” she said, “but it’s rough out there. I got tired of playing gigs and going on the road.”

But what was music’s loss has turned out to be scholarship’s gain, although it may be that Monson’s career transition, insofar as it has resulted in listeners hearing jazz more perceptively and knowledgeably, is ultimately the music’s gain as well.

One of her major contributions has been to focus on the jazz rhythm section (bass, drums, piano) as an interactive ensemble of voices, not simply as a background for the soloist. As research for her Ph.D. dissertation (which eventually became the book, “Saying Something”), she interviewed jazz musicians, concentrating especially on rhythm players. These included bassists Richard Davis and Cecil McBee, drummers Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins, and pianists Jaki Byard, Sir Roland Hanna, and Joanne Brackeen.

Monson used the tools of linguistic anthropology to analyze the musical conversation that takes place when jazz musicians play improvised music. She speaks of the “emergent shape” arising from these interactions.

“The one thing to remember about improvisation is that it’s never just the relationship between notes, but between the people playing them,” she said.

This idea is reflected in the book’s title.

“When jazz musicians want to say that someone’s really playing well, they might say, ‘Yeah, he’s really saying something.’”

Monson’s explorations into the heart of improvised music have challenged some of the clichés that have grown up around the culture of jazz. For example, she found that drummers, often seen as the most macho members of a jazz combo, more often see themselves as playing a nurturing role. Many of them told Monson that their job is to make the other players sound good. Drummer Billy Higgins even went so far as to say that if the soloists are having a bad night, he feels it is his fault.

“Often jazz is portrayed in terms of competition and cutting sessions, but that’s really not the case. There’s a camaraderie that’s one of the keys of jazz improvisation.”

In addition to examining the interaction of personalities as reflected in jazz improvisation, Monson is interested in the larger social context of the music and the ways in which performance embodies social issues.

“It’s important to remember that jazz was formed under Jim Crow segregation and that for African Americans to claim the status of artists was itself a political stance. There have always been social symbolics around the music.”

In her writing and teaching, Monson tries to raise awareness of the larger issues that surround jazz, rather than treat the music as a kind of aesthetic refuge, divorced from its social context. She also believes that jazz should not be artificially divided from other African-American musical forms like blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel.

Monson feels that her dual associations with the Afro-American and Music departments will help her to initiate the kind of dialogue that will embrace these issues.

“There’s a critical mass here in African-American studies, which makes for a very stimulating place,” she said. “I believe that one of my roles here is to start a good conversation, to get students to discuss some of the more challenging issues like politics and music, interracial tensions, affirmative action. There’s been a tendency to treat jazz as a world unto itself, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

Before coming to Harvard, Monson taught at the University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis. In 1999, she taught at Harvard as the Quincy Jones Visiting Assistant Professor.