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A man with a horn: Ron McCurdy.

A man with a horn: Ron McCurdy, former University faculty member and now chair and professor of Jazz Studies at UCLA's Thornton School of Music.

Mixing it up at Northrop


by Matthew Sumera

From M, winter 2004

Few statements cut to the core of jazz better than Charlie Parker's, for jazz is a "lived" music, a language with origins in the African American experience that details the heights and depths of hope, defiance, love, pain, and redemption. Jazz is honesty incarnate--"If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." Some speak of jazz as America's classical music; others see it as our only indigenous music. The U.S. government has weighed in with the House Concurrent Resolution 57 designating jazz as "a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support, and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood, and promulgated." And while this attention has undoubtedly raised awareness of the art form--as have documentaries like Ken Burns's 10-part PBS series--it is the live performance that keeps jazz alive. Celebrating its 10th year at the University of Minnesota, the Northrop Jazz Season is committed to ensuring that live jazz continues and it has made the Twin Cities a major destination for international jazz artists. Originally funded through a Lyla Wallace Readers Digest grant, the season presents a rare mixture of traditionalism and the avant-garde. Traditionalist jazz, with followers like Burns and critic Stanley Crouch, focuses primarily on music prior to the advent of Ornette Coleman, the boundary-breaking musician and composer whose 1960 album, Free Jazz, shook up the music world. Post-Coleman jazz means absolute freedom to some and complete chaos to others. Either way, it's a significant jazz movement, dating from the mid-1950s, and often ignored. Not so, at the University of Minnesota.

"Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."
-- Charlie Parker

The Northrop Jazz Season wholeheartedly embraces the full spectrum of jazz (including a healthy dose of Latin-based music), from the cummerbund neo-classicism of Wynton Marsalis to the bruiser enthusiastic style of pianist Cecil Taylor. The result is a season of vivid juxtaposition. "It's a very delicate balance," says Dale Schatzlein, curator for the jazz season. "I want to present the audience with names they know and are comfortable with, and then give them a few names they aren't familiar with." Schatzlein's commitment to mixing it up is admirable, but not always easy to achieve. Because jazz is often considered a cultural second-class citizen to European classical traditions, there is a significant disparity in funding and compensation between classical and jazz artists and performers, making it difficult to book jazz artists, especially big bands. For example, it took more than five years to book Carla Bley's Big Band, the opening group of Northrop's season. Bley simply could not afford to take the entire band on tour. When Bley's band finally performed, the concert was one of only two performances in the United States, a situation not unusual for some of the best contemporary jazz big bands. The variety of styles and the commitment to work with and book artists of the highest caliber defines the Northrop Jazz Season. For 10 years, it has been presenting the best of the best, the most vivid storytellers who give us--to riff on Charlie Parker, as just about every jazz musician after him has done--the music of life as played through a horn. For more information on the 2003-04 Northrop Jazz Season, call 612-624-2345 or see

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