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Ajay Heble talks Jazz

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Written by www.guelphjazzfest.com

The Guelph Jazz Festival is world renown for its dedication to be on the very edge of what’s new in jazz and improvised music and the man responsible for that is none other than U of G English Prof Ajay Heble. Heble is not only the festival’s artistic director, he was one of the festival’s founders. “When we started the festival in 1994 it had a $10,000 budget and it was a three day event mostly involving Toronto and area musicians,” says Heble of the early years. “Then fairly quickly over the next few years it took on an international scope, both in the types of artists we were bringing in, but also in the people who were attending the event.”

Over the school year, The Cannon hopes to spotlight the interesting things that U of G professors do when they’re not lecturing or answering our silly questions during office hours. During the summer, we highlighted the singer/physicist Diane Nalini, and with the beginning of GJF just a day away, we officially launch this series with Professor Heble.

“There’s a lot of research and listening involved usually I plan my program at least a year and a half in advanced because of grant deadlines and the availability of artists,” says Heble about planning the festival. “I actively seek out particular artists, often that’s linked to a theme that I have for a given year and that seeking out is done by going to other events, other festivals, listening to CDs, doing a lot of reading and then we get probably about 1000 unsolicited submissions in any given year from all around the world. I’d say about 90 per cent of what I program at the festival will be stuff that I’ve actively sought out. The challenge for me has always been to develop programming initiatives that are fresh, exciting and innovative, that will challenge our listeners to hear and see the world anew and the festival has built up a lot of expectations over the years both locally and internationally.”

This endorsements by national and international press outlets like the Globe and Mail, Macleans and Downbeat magazine as well as journals in Europe have helped raise the profile of the festival considerably after those first few years. “We also added the colloquium around year three, which has been called the gem of the festival. It has been building an audience for the music, which, in other contexts, might seem challenging, but the talks and panel discussion at the colloquium have helped to build an audience and create appreciation for this music. It’s been a really important audience building strategy for us.”

That strategy has gone steps further over the years to include a record label called Intrepid Ear as well as a jazz in the schools program that brings the new sound of improvised music to students from kindergarten to university. It’s all been part of a carefully defined strategy to make people realize that jazz is more than just Dixieland and Louise Armstrong. “In the early years audience members would come not knowing what they were going to get and maybe they walked out thinking: ‘That’s not what jazz is.’ And now they come knowing they have to be open that they are going to be challenged, that they’re not going to hear a mainstream jazz band.

“My definition of jazz is very broad, but my focus of the festival has not been about providing a something for everyone approach (which is perhaps the approach that many other festivals will take), but rather focus on innovative and cutting edge jazz and improvised music is what were focused on and showcase artists that aren’t at the other festivals, a lot of these artists are making North American debuts at our festival and that’s why people come from all over the world for this festival. Expectations are so high; ‘how do you top what you did last year?’ is a question I often get. So that question is in my mind when I program the festival.”

Heble’s cultivated ear for jazz not only comes from years of appreciation, but also from years of experience. “I’ve done lot of listening over the years and I’m a jazz player, I play piano and I’m certainly interested in improvised music and jazz from a scholarly point of view and a community-based point of view. I’ve always argued that there’s something about this music that reinvigorates our ideas of civic dialogue and public space.”

Heble approaches the music from an interdisciplinary perspective, not doing musicological analyses on the form, but rather trying to understand it in the broader social context. Heble has studied now aggrieved populations around world, to build community, have used improvised music and he writes about that music from a cultural studies perspective. “How has jazz and improvised music been used by aggrieved populations in their struggles for self representation or identity formation? How has dissidents used music against oppressive systems of knowledge production? So that’s my interest, it’s largely a cultural and a social one.”

But no matter how successful the festival has become, the challenge for festival organizers is to decide how best to take advantage of this growth and question how the festival might continue to grow considering that hotels are booked well in advanced, venues are sold out ahead of time and all the other benefits such a renowned event like GJF brings to Guelph. “The biggest challenge for us is how to manage growth and trying to determine what growth means for the festival and how best to grow in this community.”

Heble just recently returned from sabbatical, which actually involved very little in the way of rest by the sounds of it. Heble continued to program the festival by working on grants and deciding on artists though to about 2007 because 2006 had already been mapped out. He also worked on a new book about human rights and pedagogy, as well as working on a multi-year grant application for a research project on “improvisation community and social practice,” an application he’d only sent out days before.

“If successful that grant application would not only help the Jazz Festival colloquium, but it would also fund the journal that we launched a few years ago; it’s the first scholarly journal to focus on improvised music in North America called Critical Studies in Improvisation it’s an online, open access journal. So the grant would provide long term support for those two projects and it would also provide support to fund a summer institute for grad students at the University of Guelph, a research intensive web site based at McGill, at least five book projects, series of policy papers, significant grad student training and support of post-doctorial fellows… It’s a multiyear large scale project that involves over 30 researchers and I’m taking the lead as project director on this and there’s several different academic institutions involved as partners including the Canada Council for the Arts, the Canadian Centre for Architecture as well as others”

While the book and grant application took up the hugest chunk of time, Heble also squeezed in a chance to play piano as well by doing a couple of gigs in Montreal and a couple of benefit shows in the off season with Jesse Stewart, which was eventually released as a CD called Different Windows, which doubled as a fundraiser. In the near future, Heble will return to the stage with Stewart for a short set at the River Run Centre in October for International Music Day.

But inquiring minds want to know something in particular about Heble: what’s the deal with his trademark headgear. “I was born with it,” he says with a laugh. “I started wearing a beret around high school or in university when I was an undergrad. I was in Quebec City on a trip with a friend and I walked in a store bought a beret and it looked good.”

Thirteen years after in first began, it should be perfectly obvious to anyone who knows his passion about what it is that keeps Ajay Heble a proud part of the Royal City and the University of Guelph faculty. “The festival keeps me here. I love the festival and the community of colleagues with whom I get to work; of course the festival is about the music, but it’s also about the people, the community that surrounds the festival, the people that come there, the people that work there and the musicians. And at the University, I have the most amazing students and it’s just an honour and a pleasure to work with them; everyone from first year to Ph.D., I’ve just had incredible students over the years.”

For more info check out the festival's website

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