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What Is This Thing Called Soul

Conversations on Black Culture and Jazz Education


Damani Phillips

How does academic jazz education impact the Black cultural value of soulfulness and esthetic standards in contemporary jazz music? Through candid conversations with nine of the country’s most highly respected jazz practitioners and teachers, What Is This Thing Called Soul explores the potential consequences of forcing the Black musical style of jazz into an academic pedagogical system that is specifically designed to facilitate the practice and pedagogy of European classical music. This work tests the belief that the cultural, emotional and esthetic elements at the very core of jazz’s unique identity, along with the music’s overt connection to Black culture, are effectively being "lost in translation" in traversing the divide between academic and non-academic jazz spheres.

Each interviewee commands significant respect worldwide in the fields of jazz performance and jazz pedagogy. Noteworthy subjects include: Rufus Reid, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton and Wycliffe Gordon—along with the late jazz masters Marcus Belgrave and Phil Woods. Interviews are supplemented by original analysis of the nature and validity of these issues contributed by the author.

What Is This Thing Called Soul offers a candid and objective look into pressing issues of race, culture and ethnic value in relation to both jazz music and jazz education. Sensitivity, marginalization and even a fear of offending others has limited open discussion of how the soul of jazz music can be lost in technical boundaries. What Is This Thing Called Soul is the first attempt to directly address such culturally urgent issues in jazz music.

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Chapter 3. Melting Pot Experience: Ellen Rowe Interview (1958–)



Melting Pot Experience

Ellen Rowe Interview (1958–)

Pianist Ellen Rowe was born in Ridgefield, Connecticut to musician parents, Ms. Rowe began playing the piano by ear when she was 4. She has earned Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the Eastman School of Music. Rowe currently serves as professor and chair of the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation Department at the University of Michigan, where she directs the U of M jazz Ensemble and teaches courses in jazz composition and improvisation among others. Prior to her appointment at Michigan, Rowe served as director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut.

Rowe has gathered significant acclaim as both an educator and composer. Rowe’s compositions and arrangements have been performed and recorded by jazz ensembles and orchestras around the world, including the Village Vanguard Orchestra, BBC Jazz Orchestra, U.S. Navy Commodores, Berlin and NDR Radio Jazz Orchestras, London Symphony, DIVA, and the Westchester Jazz Orchestra. She has recently been a composer-in-residence at the Eastman School of Music, University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Grieg Academy in Bergen, Norway. Active as a clinician, she has given workshops and master classes at the Melbourne Conservatory, Hochshule fur Musik in Cologne, and The Royal Academy of Music in London. She has also made many appearances as a guest artist at festivals and Universities around the world.←43 | 44→

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