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Jazz and American Culture Series Sparks College, Community Interest  

By Mark J. Cadigan

     A large, framed poster of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane hangs on the wall beside Assistant Professor Bertram D. Ashe's desk in his Fenwick office. It's a strong visual symbol of the musical passion that compelled Ashe to create the Jazz and American Culture lecture/performance series. 

     "There's something in this music that has the ability to go into my body and massage my heart," he says. "And I don't know why. But I can hear it and it just keeps me coming back."      Ashe, who particularly loves blues-based and swing-style jazz, designed the Jazz and American Culture series to reach out to Holy Cross students and members of the community at large. 

     Acting director of the African-American Studies Program, which exists under the umbrella of the Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies, Ashe also teaches Early African-American Literature, 20th Century African-American Literature, and Contemporary African-American Literature and Culture. He thinks the Jazz and American Culture series, which began last Fall and concludes this Spring, can provide some cultural context for the works his students have been reading. "I think it's important to expose them to as much as we can," he explains. 

     He also feels the area's jazz climate is suitable for the series. "I've never lived in a place that had such an investment in jazz as Massachusetts does," he says. 

    "I saw jazz as a way for the African-American Studies Program here to begin to make a connection with Worcester because I could see that jazz was something that means something to this place," he continues. "And it means something to me personally and if I can help it mean something to the students here, then I will feel like I've done something." 

     Speakers in the well-attended series have included: a Brown University's Michael S. Harper, Harvard University's Salim Washington (who is also teaching a seminar at Holy Cross this semester entitled, "The Cultural Practices of African-American Music Makers"), University of Pennsylvania's Farah Jasmine Griffin, Vibe magazine and the Village Voice's Greg Tate, and Ashe himself. Helen Whall, director of the Holy Cross First Year Program, organized a musical and spoken-word tribute to Worcester jazzman Reggie Walley (see sidebar story), and Holy Cross Music Dept. Assistant Professor Geoffrey Burleson delivered a lecture/piano performance focusing on post-bop jazz. 

     The series also linked up with the Mass. Jazz Festival, which sponsored concerts by Gary Burton & Chick Corea, the Cyrus Chestnut Trio ("one of the most mind-blowing, fantastic jazz performances I've seen in years," Ashe declares), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. 

     That's helped a lot, because you need the performance side, particularly in terms of jazz," says Ashe, who began teaching at Holy Cross in the Fall of 1996. "Having some scholars come in and talk about jazz is nice, but having students being able to see jazz being performed is just a critical component." 

     Others who have contributed to the success of the series include: Professor Eugene McCarthy, director of the African-American Studies Program; Mary Boliver, C.I.S.S. administrative assistant; Worcester's public radio station, WICN (90.5 FM); the Hewlett-Mellon Fund; the Women's Studies program; and the Black Student Union. 

     "It grew from what I envisioned, but the way it grew was organic and natural," Ashe says. "I think probably the most satisfying thing is the way that the program has been embraced by the community that's interested and by the college at large. It has exceeded my wildest dreams." 

 

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