The future of musicology: Monson's vision

by Victoria Aschheim

Ingrid Monson is the erudite and original-thinking philosopher of jazz, as well as a jazz and klezmer performer: the perfect combination of what Joseph Kerman, 1997 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, called the essential "doer"and "talker" combination. She is, indeed, a role model for me, as I am both a percussionist and student of musicology, and for fellow Harvard music students. Although I did not study with Monson during my Harvard/New England Conservatory dual degree years, I have benefited from her scholarship and have used her wisdom (with full attribution to her!) in my own work as a teaching assistant in the music history class of Rebecca Cypess at NEC, as well as in my study of drum set at NEC. Monson's view of the importance of jazz to American society and cultural life should be required reading in every government course in colleges everywhere. She has "said something" that resounds. The "ensemble as a whole" is a metaphor for American life. To honor 40 Years of Jazz at Harvard, Monson will be in conversation with Tom Everett 4 p.m. Friday April 8 at the Barker Center. Below, she reflects on jazz at Harvard in theory and in practice.

You have recently commented on the importance of Tom Everett’s role in keeping jazz at a high profile at Harvard. How have his contributions helped lay the groundwork for jazz scholarship at the University?

Having people actively listening and playing the music is what brings people to an interest in jazz history and the study of improvisation. Having major artists come to Harvard every year inspired not only the people in the bands but the people who listened to them and wanted to learn more.

What is the importance of the subject of jazz in historical musicology studies in the Department of Music?

Jazz brings the study of improvisation -- sophisticated improvisation based on a complex understanding of chromatic harmony -- front and center, and consequently requires the development of new ways of thinking about the study of musical process, performance and composition. It also brings the relationship of music, society and culture to the center of attention by showing how America's racial history shaped the possibilities and challenges facing African Americans in music and beyond. Their journey of music from marginalization and disrespect to being recognized as perhaps America's greatest original musical language is instructive in deep ways not limited to music.

If you had all the necessary resources at your disposal, what would be your vision of a jazz program at Harvard?

I would hire jazz artists and composers to teach beginning through advanced courses in improvisation, harmony and composition, and develop new kinds of courses featuring conversations between performers and scholars about the relationship among jazz, hip hop, classical music, world music, experimental music, popular music and technology. I'd encourage everything from performance to remix to internet collaborations.

[Caption: Ingrid Monson]