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Ingrid T. Monson is the Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music and an eminent jazz scholar. She has been an integral force in the Office of the Arts at Harvard’s “40 Years of Jazz at Harvard” celebration this year, welcoming jazz men Benny Golson, Roy Haynes, Brian Lynch, and Wynton Marsalis—among others—to perform and speak with students. Monson recently spoke to Harvard about how she fell in love with the groove of jazz—and made it her lifelong work.
The Harvard Crimson: What was your first experience with jazz?
Ingrid T. Monson: I became interested in jazz because I was a trumpet player. I was 12, 13, 14, 15 [years old] and I started to realize that the trumpet got to do a lot more in jazz than it did in classical music. I noticed that in classical music you were often sitting there in the orchestra counting bars. Meanwhile, if you listen to records by Miles Davis or Lee Morgan, the trumpet was doing all of these spectacular things. I think between hearing Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, I was really taken by the sound [of jazz], and I wanted to learn how people did it.
THC: You collaborate with artists in Africa, specifically with Malian balafonist Neba Solo. How did you come about him?
ITM: My training is as an ethnomusicologist, and I was always interested in not only popular music and jazz but also [in] the international connections. If you like jazz or you like African-American music, it is not hard to like music from Mali. I started to take some lessons on the balafon with Neba Solo. I had such a fabulous experience with him that the next time I was on sabbatical, I wrote a grant to go back to Mali. You start to realize that there are dozens and dozens of amazing musicians in the world who never get heard at an international level. I like to say that Neba Solo is the best musician you’ve never heard of.
THC: What is it like being a white female working with “black” music?
ITM: I consider it a privilege and an honor to have been selected to do this job, and with it comes a responsibility. One lifelong area of inquiry for me is what would an ethical white relationship to black music looks like. Where the history is so full of missteps, of economic exploitation, of people being patronizing, you want to have a dialogue with yourself and with the people around you. What does it mean when the music spreads beyond its community of origin? I feel a strong responsibility to try to get people to engage in [these] difficult questions, and that includes asking myself those same questions.
THC: Could you explain your idea of “perceptual agency?”
ITM: It comes from my experiences as a musician and the idea that from sound itself, you learn things that are not words but have to do with a kind of embodied knowledge. With perceptual agency, for example, in my classes, I’ll put on a jazz piece and I’ll say, “Let’s just listen to the bass line right now.” And I’ll have them really focus in on just the bass line. I might play the same piece again and say, “Now we’re going to listen to the ride cymbal, and listen very carefully to what Philly Joe Jones is doing with his touch.” When you focus on that one particular stream of the music, that becomes the foreground, and the rest becomes the background. You can get different perceptual experiences of the same music. Part of the fun of learning to hear the intricacies in the music is shifting your attention around.
THC: What is your best experience with your work?
ITM: I always enjoy interacting with musicians themselves and hearing their point of view. I think it is really important that we bring as many artists to the Harvard campus as possible. [This way,] students can interact with people who are out there working in the real world music or art business, see how they think and how thoughtfully they approach each of the projects they do, and get a chance to see really professional-level performance. I also just enjoy talking with our students. I feel that with Harvard students, everyone has something incredibly special about them. I always like to have part of my class open up to discussion because I find what students have to say in response to the materials infinitely interesting and very often something that leads me in a new direction.
THC: If you could be a part of any jazz band, which would it be and what would play besides the trumpet?
ITM: I would like to play bass for Aretha Franklin. Or backup singing for her. There is nothing finer than Aretha Franklin. I think that her music is amazing. Or to be able to play James Jamerson-like bass lines with the Temptations. If I could play the trumpet, I’d like to try my hand at playing an Art Blakey’s band from 1958 that had Bobby Timmons in it and Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, playing all these classic and incredibly swingy numbers.
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