Listening Back To My Last Year In LA


Schoenberg Hall, my home base at UCLA for four years

Yesterday, I returned to Peñaflor after a brief return trip to Southern California, in which I spent a week with Marina selling our car and finalizing various other aspects of our life together in Los Angeles. I’m happy to report that we have arrived safely—and it is a thrill to have her along for the rest of my time in Chile.

The week-long trip also offered me a chance to reflect on leaving Los Angeles, and although I am incredibly grateful to be moving on to Santiago, it’s always a little sad to say goodbye. What became especially evident during the week—and this is somewhat of a cliché but I’ll say it anyway—is that what I will miss most is being around the tremendously musical, thoughtful, and motivated friends that I made during the past four years. Y’all know who you are: the work you’re doing is an inspiration and I can’t wait to read more about it soon. Curious readers can familiarize themselves to the work of Albert AghaGanavya DoraiswamyDeonte Harris, AJ KluthScott Linford, Alyssa MathiasEric J. Schmidt, Darci Sprengel, and Dave Wilson—just a few of the UCLA scholars I am proud to call friends—at the links above. Catching up with so many of them in such a condensed period of time deepened my appreciation for how much they have taught me.

The other thing that became clear is that a lot happened in the last year and a half of my time in LA, and since I haven’t been documenting it at my blog, I thought it might be a useful exercise to summarize it here, as I have done in previous posts after long episodes away from the blog.

chilenos en nyc

Melissa Aldana, Nicolás Vera, Sebastián Jordán and their biggest gringo jazz fan

So, here goes! We begin on May 16, 2014, when the Omni-Musicality Group—the UCLA ensemble that I co-founded in January as the Intercultural Improvisation Ensemble, affectionately known as the OMG—performed our first public concert. This marked the beginning of a string of musical performances over the following 18 months—both with OMG and other groups—that I will never forget. I later wrote about the experience for the Shambhala Times.

The following month, I flew to New York for the International Society for Improvised Music conference at The New School, where I caught up with improviser-scholar colleagues and presented some preliminary observations about the OMG. The trip also happened to coincide with the first New York visit by two Chilean friends (Nicolás Vera and Sebastián Jordán, pictured), which offered something of a “preview of coming attractions” for my current fieldwork project. By the way, if you haven’t heard their first record as La Restistencia yet, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina, Francesco Martinelli, and their biggest gringo jazz fan

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina, Francesco Martinelli, and an admiring American jazz fan

In September, I made it further eastward—my first-ever trip to Europe—for the Rhythm Changes conference in Amsterdam, where I gave a paper that focused on La Resistencia’s remarkable transnational collaboration. I was incredibly fortunate that the man who first hipped me to the group, Fernando Ortiz de Urbina, was there to hear it! I also met two other European jazz aficionados, Francesco Martinelli and Cyril Moshkow, who I had only known previously through their excellent writing. Keynote talks by Steven Feld and John Gennari capped off an invigorating jazz weekend.

My circle of jazz friends widened, I returned to Los Angeles for my final year of coursework and doctoral exam preparation. Together with an excellent editorial team, we published Volume 19 of Ethnomusicology Review at the Society for Ethnomusicology meeting in November. Serving at the helm of the journal for the year taught me a lot about the importance and urgency of the open access academic publication movement, and I shared my experience as part of a roundtable panel on open access in ethnomusicology at SEM alongside James Cowdery, Wendy F. Hsu, Darren Mueller, Justin Schell, and Guthrie Ramsey.

That same week, NPR Music published my profile of the Thelonious Monk Institute’s move to Los Angeles. I especially enjoyed reporting for that piece, which involved interviewing everyone from the semifinalist up-and-comers like Benny Benack III and Marquis Hill to octogenarian legends Kenny Burrell and Wayne Shorter.  I’ve certainly been incredibly fortunate to get to watch the Institute Fellows program grow into its new home over the past three years, and especially appreciate the hard work that Daniel Seeff puts into its everyday operations.

November at UCLA

November at UCLA

Upon returning to LA, The Broad Stage in Santa Monica invited me to give a pair of pre-concert lectures for their double-bill concert featuring Allen Toussaint and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Drawing on my colleague Ben Doleac’s current research on the wide circulation of New Orleans rhythms, I spoke to the crowd about how—from Kid Ory to the present day—the idea of “New Orleans sound” has been forged in close resonance with Southern California and its culture industry. I also had the chance to interview Toussaint—sporting a resplendent purple sequins suit—in front of the audience; he was gracious and insightful in his responses. Having just learned of Toussaint’s passing last week, I’m especially grateful for the chance to have heard him perform live.

Duke Ellington, patron saint of Schoenberg Hall

Duke Ellington, patron saint of Schoenberg Hall

As I geared up for my qualifying exams, I also took a couple of the projects related to my dissertation to two other academic conferences. At the Hearing Landscape Critically conference at Harvard, my presentation focused on Joon Lee’s LA jazz club Bluewhale, and the ways in which simply keeping a jazz club open in the 21st century requires significant improvisational chops. At the SEM regional conference in February, I grappled with some of the literature from urban geography and practice theory that informed my exam reading list, framing my investigation of global jazz through three related concepts: “jazz space,” “jazz listening,” and “jazz practice.”

This spring also afforded the opportunity to make music—both with OMG, the UCLA Jazz Orchestra, and elsewhere. One particularly memorable series of performances was organized by my colleague Marc Bolin: a complete reconstruction of Don Ellis’s “Strawberry Soup.” I had the pleasure of playing Ellis’s original superbone on the concert—a unique challenge, to say the least!

The qualifying exam process finally arrived in late April, and I spent two weeks poring over reading lists and grappling with the questions posed to me by my committee members. The four exams included 1) a sample syllabus and course proposal for a course on intercultural improvisation, supervised by Steven Loza; 2) a summary of my collaboration with David MacFadyen on laying the groundwork for digital ethnography (more on that soon!); 3) An essay on “auto-ethnomusicology”—that is, my own academic investigation through both music and writing—which draws from the work of Mantle Hood and Ornette Coleman in 1950s LA, supervised by James Newton; 4) An attempt to answer the question of how scenes, fields, and worlds that manifest transnationally reproduce similarities in the face of local cultural differences, posed by Tim Taylor; and 5) a dissertation proposal. No big deal. Three weeks later, I defended the proposal and enjoyed a lively and fruitful discussion with my committee members. I passed, thank goodness—and began making preparations for the big move in September.

In June, I had the great pleasure to lead two ensembles at Bluewhale—having spent many, many hours as a listener there, it was a special thrill to take the stage and experience it from the perspective of the performer. The first set included interpretations of the music of Ornette Coleman in various instrumental configurations, interspersed with “Instigation Quartets” penned by Jeff Albert. The second set featured the spring quarter incarnation of OMG, performing an eclectic array of original pieces and covers. This is one of those places where words really don’t do the experience justice, but the only ones that come to mind as I recall the experience is the unforgettable felt sense of joy and love.

From left to right: Dave Wilson, Otto Stuparitz,

Sharing the stage with (from left to right): Dave Wilson, Mehrenegar Rostami, Dave Robaire, Otto Stuparitz, Elisabeth Le Guin, Dan Schnelle, Josh Johnson, Pablo Infante. Photo by Nicole Andrews.

And I can’t imagine a better place to leave off. Earlier this year, bell hooks wrote an essay that touched my heart, entitled “Towards a Worldwide Culture of Love.” This might be what has been driving my own research all this time: that what I first experienced in the Club de Jazz de Santiago ten years ago, and again more recently at Bluewhale, are glimpses of true possibility. It might have taken four years, but I am grateful to Los Angeles, and all of the wonderful friends I’ve met along the way, for affording me the chance to connect with this sense of possibility again.

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
This entry was posted in Education, Ethnomusicology, Jazz Journalism, Links. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Listening Back To My Last Year In LA

  1. Josh Jackson says:

    Not a bad way to spend time. Glad you talked to Toussaint. Good luck on the next chapter.

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