As the saying goes, music is a universal language. This spring break, the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program (LAJPP) had a chance to test that maxim out.
The LAJPP had its first experience abroad, sending Chris Washburne, associate professor of ethnomusicology, and four students to Amman, Jordan to perform at the opening ceremony of the new Columbia University Middle East Research Center (CUMERC). Aside from being an adventurous way to spend a week off, the tour served the additional purpose of developing cross-cultural collaboration with local musicians by allowing participants to discover firsthand the effects of those collaborations.
Saxophonist Gilad Edelman, CC ’09, bassist Doug Berns, CC ’10, pianist Michael Hardin, CC ’11, and drummer Jesse Chevan, CC ’12, were the four students selected to travel to Amman. The students and Washburne, a trombonist, also played with local musician and jazz pianist Omar Al Faqir in three performances—two at the CUMERC for alumni and for dignitaries and one at Canvas, a local club.
Both Washburne, director of the LAJPP, and Hardin see music as a valuable way to share features of different cultures. Hardin’s respect for Al Faqir was apparent as he explained how the Jordanian jazz pianist ties to create a jazz scene in the Middle East while exploring ways to combine jazz with traditional Middle Eastern music.
According to Hardin, music becomes a “cultural offering humanizing relationships between countries,” allowing non-Americans to positively experience American culture separately from their political opinions of the U.S.
Both Hardin and Chevan agreed that the group’s performance at Canvas, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, was one of their most meaningful experiences. The club was packed, Hardin said, and one of the songs they played, “Wain a Ramallah,” a local folk song, received an overwhelming response from the audience. The night ended with a standing ovation and calls for encores. “As a musician, I’ve never gotten that kind of reception from a crowd before,” Hardin said.
While Hardin and Chevan did note a few minor differences between Middle Eastern and American culture, neither said that they really experienced a culture shock. Instead, they began to get a feel for how cultures can connect. Appearing at Canvas, performing with and getting to know Al Faqir, and exploring Amman helped to solidify that understanding.
Chevan stated that the tour was “illuminating,” and he sees tours as an important component of the LAJPP not only because they stimulate musical growth for tour participants, but also because they attract prospective aspiring musicians to Columbia.
Washburne noted that Columbia’s undergraduate jazz program is the best in the Ivy League, and being able to take students on tours allows the University to further improve the quality of the program. Traveling is enriching because it gives young musicians the experience of “life on the road,” and students have to learn to play with jet lag or in unfamiliar venues.
The LAJPP has been invited to perform at the end of the semester in Beijing for the 60th anniversary celebration of Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Washburne hopes that the recent tour in Amman and the coming one in Beijing will be the first of many more to come.