Art Works Blog

Keeping Jazz Alive in Mississippi

Known as the birthplace of the Delta blues, and adjacent to the jazz traditions of New Orleans, Mississippi is fertile ground for music history. And yet, Dr. David Miller, a professor of music at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, said younger generations have become disconnected with the region’s rich musical heritage. It’s a lament borne out by statistics. According to NEA research, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee together as a region had the lowest jazz attendance rates of anywhere in the country, and were the least likely to listen to a jazz recording or performance via Internet, TV, or radio.

To counteract this trend, Miller has been running the Alcorn State University Jazz Festival for the past 30 years (the festival itself is in its 36th year). With NEA support, the free festival will take place this Saturday, April 16th, at the Vicksburg Convention Center, and will feature performances by high school and college bands, Mississippi music teachers, and a special workshop and performance by NEA Jazz Master Branford Marsalis.

Through the years, Miller said the festival has had a quiet but sustained impact. He said many of the high school bands that perform learn jazz pieces specifically for the festival rather than have a year-round jazz program. “If we didn't have this, I think there'd be almost no jazz going on in the curriculum around the state,” he said. The festival has also proven fruitful for networking. When Miller was a doctoral student in Mississippi, “We never knew what the other bands were doing, or what kind of talent they had, or what they were listening to or playing,” he said. “But now they do. They get to hear each other every year.” For students too, he said, the ability to meet each other and jam with one another has sparked long-term connections, making “the whole jazz community much more vibrant than it would otherwise be.”

The festival’s longevity also lends itself to Miller’s theory that jazz is best appreciated over time. He likened listening to jazz as similar to learning a new language. “When you first hear someone speaking Mandarin, you don't understand a word of what they're saying,” he said. “Then if you listen to it for a while, you start picking out some words here and there. After a while things start to make sense to you, and you start to make out sentences and paragraphs. It comes to life. I think that same discovery happens with jazz.” Because of the music’s richness and complexity, “The more you learn, the more interesting it is, and the more it sucks you in.”

Between the networking, the curriculum, the repeat opportunities to fall in love with jazz, Alcorn State University Jazz Festival is part of what Miller sees as the larger mission. “[Jazz] is part of our culture,” he said, “and we've got to keep it alive.”

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