Jazz Pianism Takes Hold at Harvard

Pianists Herbie Hancock (l.) and Vijay Iyer

If you’re walking around the campus of Harvard University in the coming months, you might bump into Herbie Hancock, a pianist whose harmonic and stylistic innovations are essential to any full understanding of modern jazz. Or you might pass by Vijay Iyer, who is among the bright and bold generations of pianists to absorb Hancock’s legacy along with those of other pianists—in Iyer’s case, prominently including Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill—before crafting individualized pianistic languages rooted in yet not defined by jazz.
You might well find Hancock and Iyer together.
Their paths will intersect at the university as each exerts a powerful influence on how music is made, heard and considered there, as well as how culture in general is construed, beginning this Spring semester.
Hancock has been named the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor Of Poetry at Harvard. Iyer will serve as the university’s inaugural Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. In Hancock’s role, the pianist will give his six Norton Lectures, “The Ethics Of Jazz,” in February and March. As a university press release described, “The Ethics Of Jazz” will examine topics including “The Wisdom Of Miles Davis,” “Breaking The Rules,” “Cultural Diplomacy And The Voice Of Freedom,” and “Innovation And New Technologies.”
Established in 1925, the Norton Professorship of Poetry has been awarded to important figures from across the arts. Past Norton Professors have included composers Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage and Luciano Berio.
Hancock’s Norton Lectures will take place at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University on Monday, February 3; Wednesday, February 12; Thursday, February 27; Monday, March 10; Monday, March 24; and Monday, March 31. Lectures begin at 4 p.m. and are open to the public. More information can be found here.
Iyer’s new position a tenured spot, will begin later this month with a half-semester course titled “Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio.” Here’s how the Harvard website describes the course, which will accept up to 20 students based upon submissions:

“…an intensive, research-oriented workshop environment for advanced improviser-composers. Through critical listening, readings, term papers, and collaborative musical projects, students will engage with a range of contemporary musical perspectives and practices.”

That sounds a good deal like the way in which Iyer has shaped a career that, to date, has earned him widespread critical acclaim for his recordings and performances in many contexts, a strong academic readership for his scholarly papers and essays, and, last year, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
Hancock’s position is short-term and he is likely to speak in broad strokes and metaphoric terms. Iyer’s seems bent on establishing a lasting beachhead within the university, and working in direct and practical ways with musicians, other artists and scholars of all types (he also holds degrees in math and physics, and designed his own interdisciplinary course of PhD. study in the cognitive science of music while at the University of California, Berkeley).
Yet the two will likely stress some important themes in common.
Here’s what musicians told me about Hancock for this Wall Street Journal piece:

“Herbie told me that the question isn’t, ‘What are you going to play?'” said guitarist Lionel Loueke, who first met Mr. Hancock while studying at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. “It’s ‘Why are you going to play it?’ To what end?”
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard recalls that, while on tour with Mr. Hancock in 2009, “Herbie talked about how a recording can be more than just music. He asked, ‘What can this project send into the world? What type of offering will it be?'”

And here’s what Iyer told Harvard Gazette writer Peter Reuell for a story about the pianist’s appointment:

“I especially look forward to connecting all of what we do to the world beyond the University, because a life in the arts means a life of service to those around us…. I’m a living, working artist who is interested in asking broad, interdisciplinary questions — about what music is, how we make it, and how we listen — in order to reimagine what music can do in the world, and then to put those ideas into practice.”

(l-r) Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for Wonder Productions, Inc/ Courtesy Vijay Iyer Facebook

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