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Bloomsday at Harvard


By Abigail M. Mcganney

SOON-TO-BE Jazz Great Jane Ira Bloom looked at home on the other side of the music stands last Wednesday night, walking about the Harvard Jazz Band's practice room, giving direction and criticism to some of the College's top musicians. Nonetheless, it hasn't been many years since she was on the receiving end of workshops in basement rehearsal rooms, as a Yale undergrad.

Since then, Bloom has played the major Jazz Festivals and recorded several albums, including one with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell which won a five-star rating from Downbeat. Critic Nat Hentoff places her in Duke Ellington's "beyond category" category.

The open rehearsal--billed as an improvisation workshop--came at the end of Bloom's talk-till-you-drop day in Cambridge, courtesy of the Learning From Performers Program. She spoke about jazz with the Niemann Journalism Fellows over lunch, and Jazz Band members over dinner, as well as with WHRB and me. She proved herself an able advocate of the powerful pleasures of improvisation.

BORN and raised in nearby Newton, Massachusetts, Bloom studied music at Yale and founded the Jazz Band there. After graduating in the late '70s, she pursued her musical goals in New York City.

She said it was, and remains, a "tough road to go." But her efforts now seem to be paying off: her record company gave her "formidable support" (read megabucks) for Modern Drama, her latest album, and she is preparing for her first major national tour.

The future doesn't look too bleak, but Bloom says she'll always have to deal with "that radical concept"--being a female instrumentalist in the male bastion of jazz. She responds to what must be the umpteenth question on the subject first with mock agony ("I feel like a man trapped in a woman's body") but then goes on to discuss the obstacles she has faced with insight--and without self-pity.

Bloom is at her most enthusiastic when discussing her work. She calls Modern Drama her "most ambitious project to date" in terms of orchestration and harmony and says she gives her best live performances at the Village Vanguard, her favorite New York City club.

Currently, Bloom's musical experimentation focuses on combining improvisation with live electronics and dancers. Her recent work deals specifically with the ways sound sources can be considered and altered.

Which means that Bloom used a recent National Endowment for the Arts grant to create a satellite system of twirling microphones above a Symphony Space stage in New York and then pushed the sounds through speakers. It's not really surprising that Bloom is the first musical artist to have become involved in the NASA art program.

THE HARVARD rehearsal centered around two of Bloom's pieces--"Two-Five-One" and "an abstract ballad" called "Desert". And Bloom took the session as seriously as her charges. She knew exactly how loud the triple forte should be, exactly how to dovetail each section with the next.

She concerned herself with everything, from the low volume of the trombones to the interplay between the sections and between the players. But scores, she made clear, were "not written in stone." "We'll dictate now what's going on," she said.

The visit was just one of several recent signs that jazz is thriving at Harvard. Last May, the Jazz Band's 15th Anniversary Concert was an inspired and polished success, with jazz greats like Illinois Jacquet and Lester Bowie leading the Band in front of a sell-out crowd. It's refreshing to see that the Jazz Band has not lost its momentum, its swing or its quest for improvement.

Furthermore, Jazz Band alumni Fred Houn '79, who leads the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble and the Asian American Art Ensemble, has been working with a group of students this week in a Workshop Series entitled "Jazz Improvisation, (Third) World Culture and So-Called Performance Art." Tonight is the culminating concert. And in November, Ellis and Wynton Marsalis are coming for a two-day deluge of workshops, master classes, and discussions. In the absence of advanced Jazz courses from the Music Department, workshops like Jane Ira Bloom's and the Marsalises have to work wonders. They seem to.

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