Lecture Hopping: Improvise your life

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In the middle of so many heads of state on campus, it is easy to look over an apparently modest conversation that included a composer, arts professor, Pulitzer prize winning poet and law professor discussing the role that jazz and improvisation play in everyday life. Justin Vlasits reports.

fgdDuring the Columbia Harlem Festival of Global Jazz, it seems important to discuss the central aspect of jazz that defines its every subgenre, from bebop to latin to funk: improvisation.   George Lewis, Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia, introduced the topic with several minutes of thank you’s, first on behalf of PrezBo (who could not attend because he was still recovering from his Monday afternoon boxing match).

His short speech was followed by opening remarks from NYU Professor and poet Yusef Komunyakaa, who spoke with the same soft elegance when lecturing as when reading his poetry.   “Dolphy’s Aviary,” from his 1994 book of poems, set the tone for the entire conversation as his recitation of fluid, stream-of-consciousness metaphors silenced the Low Rotunda.

Running a conversation along the lines of Komunyakaa’s poems proved less successful: the speakers failed to clearly convey intricate concepts without losing the meaning in the metaphor.   Instead of a scholarly discussion on the meaning and practice of improvisation, the talk degenerated into a series of disconnected points that Lewis continued to try to relate back to jazz, while others were more concerned with improvisation as its own independent genre, what Professor Margo Jefferson called a “conversation across disciplines.”

A few ideas emerged over the this verbal tug of war.  Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist and composer, emphasized the importance of using previously acquired knowledge in new situations when improvising. “For me, today is yesterday, and it’s also tomorrow,” he said. And Patricia Williams (famous from her Nation column “Diaries of a Mad Law Professor”) stressed her how her understanding and appreciation of jazz roused her to break legal traditions by parodying brief writing (writing a page with only three lines of main text and the rest footnotes).    

I didn’t leave with many answers, but the questions raised stuck with me.  “How do you create your own response to a culture being created for you?” Jefferson asked. Live more improvisationally, whatever that means.


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