Jazz Studies Explores Cultural Exchange with University of Trinidad Tobago

Documentary in the works that chronicles international trip.

A warm weather trip in the midst of a challenging winter provided inspiration in more ways than one for jazz students and faculty at the Michigan State University College of Music.

From January 26 to February 2, a delegation of nearly four dozen students and jazz faculty traveled on the invitation of the University of Trinidad Tobago to share and learn with musicians, educators, and residents of the Caribbean island. Two local filmmakers funded in part by Spartan Innovations also traveled with the group. See part one of the documentary series below.

“They are in the middle of building a jazz program and invited us to come down,” says Rodney Whitaker, director of the MSU Jazz Studies Program and MSU University Distinguished Professor of Jazz Bass. “We were there to help provide an example to their students and the community of what a college jazz band could be.”

Exchanging cultures

The trip set the stage for a potential musical studies and exchange program in both jazz and classical studies between MSU and the UTT, and was arranged through connections built by jazz trumpeter and MSU Assistant Professor of Jazz Trumpet Etienne Charles. A native of Trinidad, Charles regularly visits family on the island and is a frequent guest artist at annual carnivals, festivals, and performances.

“Because of Etienne, we had an opportunity to rehearse with and hear top musicians, and to experience the music and culture of outlying areas,” says Whitaker as he mentions Trinidad artists like Andy Narell, the Amoco Renegades and Phase II Pan Groove. “It inspired our students to see how other folks and cultures learn music, and gave them the chance to recommit to their own, too.”

Whitaker says that most of the performances, rehearsals, and workshops took place at UTT. MSU students and faculty also played at schools, orphanages, and in the community, including a joint concert with UTT at the National Academy for the Performing Arts.

While the island’s music scene is a strong and vital part of everyday life, Whitaker observes that the jazz scene and formalized music programs are not.

“A lot of people don’t play instruments except for the pan,” say Whitaker. “I was told that those who do play other instruments often grew up in orphanages where they were given instruments and taught how to play.”

Setting the scene

Whitaker’s students and the two local filmmakers shared similar observations and enthusiasm about the trip and the potential for future exchanges.

“I’m excited to show people the high level of musicianship of these programs,” says Troy Anderson, an MSU alumnus from Infyer—a start-up multi-media content company located in The Hatch. “We filmed concerts the programs did at orphanages, youth homes, and at music schools. A lot of the students were inspired by that.” See part one of the documentary series below.Anderson’s documentary with business partner Steven Stark intends to promote the growing profile and impact of MSU’s jazz studies program. In addition to filming performances, Anderson and Stark interviewed student musicians and professors, and documented culture and music on the island.

“The thought behind it was that I attended MSU for four years, and it took three years before I knew we had one of the best jazz studies programs in the country,” says Anderson. “This is my way of helping to get the word out and supporting the program in any way we can.”

Anderson says the film will be produced in a series of segments of five to 10 minute each for viewing over the Web. He plans to edit all the segments into a 45-minute feature at some point down the road.

Like student musicians on the trip, Anderson had the benefit of experiencing another country first-hand and seeing how music can shape culture.

“For some students, this was the first time they have played with students outside of MSU, let alone in another country,” says Whitaker. “It gave them a great appreciation for the power that music has to change lives.”

Jazz studies student and trumpeter Walter A. Cano echoed Whitaker’s sentiment.

“It was very inspiring to see how musicians there were trying to learn from us as much as we were trying to learn from them,” says Cano. “Everywhere you went you were immersed in music. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing a steel band.”

Cano says he developed lasting relationships with the student musicians he performed with while in Trinidad, and says that his future playing will be influenced by Caribbean rhythms and grooves.

“I’m keeping in contact with all the trumpet players I met,” says Cano. “We even practice over Skype from time-to-time.”

MSU faculty from the College of Music Jazz Studies program who accompanied the MSU Jazz Orchestra I, Jazz Octet I, and Jazz Octet II on the trip included Director and University Distinguished Professor of Jazz Bass Rodney Whitaker; Assistant Professor of Jazz Trumpet Etienne Charles; Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies, Saxophone and Improvisation Diego Rivera; and Professor of Jazz Piano Reginald Thomas. To learn more about the Jazz Studies program at MSU click here.

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