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Open Letter to Dushanbe

As many of you know, I have been invited to be Artist-in-Residence for a three week period in Tajikistan in April-May 2010. This is a joint collaboration between the Bactria Cultural Centre and the US Embassy in Dushanbe. The program’s goal is to create an opportunity for interaction among musicians from different cultures, as well as to offer a chance for cultural exchange between Tajikistan and the USA. My residency will include collaboration with local musicians, being the featured artist at the 2nd Central Asia Jazz Festival in Dushanbe, a planned trip to mountain villages in the Pamirs region for further artistic collaboration and community outreach, and several talks and presentations at educational institutions.

American Jazz has become a symbol of freedom and democracy for these artists. They want to learn about it and understand it; they also want to share what they are about. This is the beauty of artistic dialogue: we will all emerge from the experienced changed–we will have a deeper understanding of each other and of our unique cultures. The real treasure has always been in learning how open the people of these countries are, even though their governments are so oppressive. It’s a beautiful and powerful spirit that never fails to move me. My hope is to bring recognition of these artists in the West so that others here may learn of the richness of their culture.

For the Festival, I was asked to create a new work that blended traditional Tajik music with Jazz. I am to work with the famous Tajik ensemble Mizrob, and basically write something that mixes my music with theirs.

There is always a fear that writing something that eclectically combines musics from different traditions will come across as, well, trite. You and I hear it all of the time, and I have unfortunately participated in projects that did this very poorly and were created for the sole purpose to have ‘multicultural’ impact and create publicity and spin. Many times, this is the standard rather than the exception.

I had thought long and hard over this, and decided to actually go with my first inclination, which is I believe the purist in spirit. As far as multiculturalism goes, nobody exemplifies it his life and career as much as Charles Mingus. Mingus was always striving to find his ‘identity’; coming from a multi-racial background–and I mean multi-racial: white, black, and Chinese, and growing up in Hispanic Arizona –he was always in-search of his background, but mostly identifying himself as being black, and was a powerful artistic voice in the Civil Rights Movement.

He was (is!) also one of my greatest influences.

Mingus wrote a number of ‘tribute’ works to great jazz composers. One of the most wonderful is a musical suite entitled Open Letter to Duke (on the album Mingus Ah Um), which is a tribute to his greatest influence, Duke Ellington (Ellington is also one of my strongest early influences; in fact, I created a composition/history class that I taught at New England Conservatory that focused on Ellington and Mingus). The suite combines multiple styles: hard swing, free jazz, Latin, ballad, all in one piece, switching styles progressively, as well as overlapping them.

Seeing the potential parallel, I’ve decided to write a piece called Open Letter to Dushanbe (the capitol of Tajikistan). I plan to base the piece structurally on the Mingus suite, imply the melodic structure of Ellington, and harmonically base the rhythms and chordal structures on Tajik/Persian scales…and, for fun, superimpose Brazilianesque rhythms over the Persian.

I need to write this within the next week…should be quite a challenge, but fun.

The interesting part will be how the traditional musicians read and understand what I want them to do; I know that they read at least a little Western musical notation, but I am unsure their familiarity with jazz concepts and free improvisation–and there will be a great deal of free improvisation, as well as the more Tajik/Persian melodic evolutionary improvisation. Good thing that

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I have studied and played Persian-based music so I understand at least the basic concepts of their forms of improvisation.

But…we’ll see what happens. Of course, that’s half the fun of it.

For me, the title also invokes the beginning of a conversation, a dialogue, which is what all this is about.

I’ll be writing more about this evolving project very soon. Most especially, I’ll be discussing methods in which artists (well, me) can and have fundraised for these types of projects, what the possibilities of support are now in the economically-shattered world, and how one can help projects they believe in while getting something in return.

Until soon,