Photo by Paul Watkins. The performers in the photo are (L to R): Anindo Chatterjee, Jesse Stewart, Hamid Drake and Dong-Won Kim.

How can jazz improvisation build stronger communities?

Three years ago, a video featuring street musicians scattered around the world jamming to Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me” went viral receiving more than 2,000,000 views on YouTube.

The video’s emotional wallop comes not from the mere technological novelty of mixing so many diverse performers, but from how each musician listens, reacts and adapts to the others. Despite different geography, culture and time, the players are communicating with each other.

Bridging and building cultures through musical collaboration is not new, but research by University of Guelph faculty member Ajay Heble shows how improvised music in particular transforms people and builds communities.

Much of his research and outreach happens in aggrieved communities, with at-risk youth, and with people with conditions such as autism or Down’s Syndrome that hinder verbal expression.

“The hypothesis we set out to test is that musical improvisation can be a meaningful tool for community building,” says Heble. “Our instincts were accurate.”

That hypothesis burgeoned into an international network of researchers, community organizations, students and musicians with an ambitious agenda that bridges academic research, creative practice, and community engagement. It has resulted in a huge body of work, including books, peer-reviewed articles, a research intensive website, conferences, a summer institute, a student training program, and policy papers.

Why improvised music? Partly, it’s the complete freedom to express one’s self in the moment. Heble’s research involves completely unscripted improvisation. He has a recording of Katy, a 16-year-old girl whose autism makes it nearly impossible for her to speak. Through improvised jazz, she finds dramatic new expressive power.

“There’s something about not putting pressure on kids for the verbal. She gets to express herself and be understood without words,” says Katy’s mother. “The sense of community we felt … I’m a verbal person but for me that was one of those moments that was beyond words.”

Even more striking, though, is how hard Katy listens to other players. Improvisation also involves listening, reacting and multi-directional communication, which helps explain how it both empowers individuals, and fosters solidarity among larger groups.

Heble says the effect goes far beyond music making itself.

“Kids who are usually shy and withdrawn and who don’t want to take on leadership roles, suddenly get on stage and conduct the entire group. Parents say, ‘I’ve never seen my kid do anything like that.’”

**Major funders for this research include the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives program) and several university and community partners.

Ajay Heble

Ajay Heble

University of Guelph

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