Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music Ingrid Monson did not begin her life expecting to have such a prodigious title, or indeed with any expectations about a life in academia. Monson loved music and was playing the trumpet by age ten, though her youthful training did not always teach the most hopeful lessons. She reflects ruefully, “I was pretty good, but when you play the trumpet, you quickly learn that the masterworks of Western music are not for the trumpet.”
Monson soon found that her instrument had a wider range in other forms of music. Hearing Charlie Parker play his ‘Funky Blues’ was a transformative moment. She recalls, “I was captivated with it. I was intrigued by improvisation, yet nothing in my classical training had given me any idea whether I could do that.”
Monson pursued jazz trumpet at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied in a unique program, Third Stream, which emphasized learning music by ear. Two particular courses influenced her deeply: one on North Indian classical music with sitarist Peter Row, and another on African music and ethnomusicology. Outside the classroom, Monson was introduced to other genres of music, and played everything from Klezmer to salsa.
After a few years, Monson returned to school, this time to study ethnomusicology. She began to examine the improvisational process through the lens of social history. In discussing what moved her to write critically about music and politics, she says, “I didn’t want the tense issues of race in music to be left under the table. They seemed so central to what the jazz ethos was all about, how the musical language came about.” As an American woman of European descent, a musician, and an academic, she has a unique position to highlight numerous tensions in the study of jazz.
Monson first came to Harvard in 1999 as a visiting professor, and then returned to a permanent position in 2001 as chair of the music department. In her critical writing and in her classes, she emphasizes the connection between music and social movements, specifically connecting jazz and civil rights. “In the 1930s and 1940s, jazz was viewed as entertainment, less than ‘art music,’” she says. “ People like Charlie Parker were part of a legitimization process going on in musical terms. They challenged the idea that African-American music was less.”
Along with this revolution in the language of music, Monson also points out that economic issues were another profoundly important part of jazz’s dialogue with politics. She reasons, “The 1960s were a battle of ownership and control. African-Americans got a raw deal in the music industry. An African-American artist would come up with a song, a major label would decide that this was a happening song, but that they wanted Pat Boone to do it instead!”
As a practitioner and a professor of music, Monson embodies a certain working philosophy: study music in all its implications and glory, in as ethical a manner as possible from her given social position. Or, as Monson puts it, her goal is “to teach how music links to larger social issues—and why all these crazy people have been so passionate about jazz.”