Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology Fredara Hadley led a group of Oberlin students on a 10-day tour of New York City over winter term in January. Intent on learning about the history—and future—of jazz in the Big Apple, they took in performances at the 13th annual Winter Jazzfest, explored communities that were pivotal to the development of jazz, and probed the lives of jazz musicians in New York City today.
Hadley herself is an ideal tour guide: She divides her time between teaching at Oberlin and living in New York, where she operates a tour company dedicated to sharing the city’s rich history of African American music.
“They say the city never sleeps, and during this winter term, we probably won't either!” Hadley told us before embarking on the trip. That’s why we caught up with her beforehand, to discuss what she loves—and even hates—about music, how Michael Jackson ignited her passion, how nightclubs are the world’s great cultural equalizer, and how she turned frustrations into opportunities.
How did you arrive at the musical path you chose?
There were two things that happened to me that have both affected my pedagogy and what I do now. One is that I was burned out on music performance by the time I graduated high school. I don’t know if K-12 music education has changed, but it was just a constant cycle of contests and recitals because it’s preparing you to come to a conservatory. But I personally was just burned out, maybe because I was doing two instruments [classical piano and viola]. It wasn’t fun for me anymore. I was kind of over it and didn’t really have the discipline to think about coming to a place like this.
Also, I was really interested in jazz in high school. I really wanted to play jazz piano. And I don’t think it was intentional, but there was definitely gender discouragement from doing it. The male students who wanted to play jazz were nurtured, encouraged, and taught. For me, it was like You stick with Chopin, or maybe the edgiest things I could do back then was like Rachmaninoff or Liszt, or something that had aggression in it. I was not, when I expressed that interest, directed or supported. I think that really made me feel that jazz was not for me. It was that world way over there that I couldn’t engage in.
So it was a really nice full-circle moment that, when I ended up at Oberlin Conservatory, my job was initially in the jazz studies department. The vast majority of students that I teach are jazz studies majors. So it’s been a really cathartic experience in that way.
After high school, even though I wasn’t encouraged to do jazz performance, I was coming into my own personal knowledge and interest in jazz through hip-hop. Groups like A Tribe Called Quest and other groups that would sample jazz a lot sent me down a rabbit hole of learning who Ron Carter is, who Donald Byrd is, who Freddie Hubbard is, who all these people were. Bobby Humphry, Gary Bartz—folks who teach here—are heavily, heavily sampled. And so I was really getting into the music myself, and I was frustrated that I didn’t feel like I had an outlet to directly engage it.
When I went to college, I was a business major because I thought I wanted to have a record label. The whole time I was an undergrad [at Florida A&M University], I continued to take courses in the department of music in performance. I didn’t know ethnomusicology was a thing then, but I took courses on black artistic culture, and I taught piano lessons throughout college and stuff like that. I tried to keep my hand in a bunch of different worlds of performance. Culture studies, business, all of that.
Tell us about some of the topics you’ve researched in ethnomusicology.
My research is really about black popular music and how people use music to build communities among themselves. I am looking at upper-middle-class, lower-class black people in Atlanta, about how people use nightclub spaces to create a third space in a way that is separate from both their class counterparts. The idea of music and community is really important to me.
Very often we talk about popular music as if popular music is not also serious music and as if people are not using this music to actually work out their social identities. Whether you're a musician or fan, we use music to index who we are and who we want to be seen as and how we present ourselves. So a lot of my research deals with that—and as an extension of that the music industry, because these things do not exist in the ether. There's a machine that helps to build these things and disseminate them.
I'm even thinking a lot about the history and presence of jazz here at Oberlin’s campus and what that means. I'm thinking about what [Oberlin jazz studies founder] Wendell Logan was building and trying to achieve. I'm looking into what it means that jazz is now taught in conservatories, because one of the things I'm interested in, now that I found my way in the jazz world, is how to build a jazz community. So much of the language around jazz is that the audience is dying, the art is dying. However, everywhere I turn I see young brilliant musicians making incredible art.
So what does it look like to build community around that and help people understand that jazz is not this thing that you have to get dressed up for, and go to [Jazz at Lincoln Center] and pay $70 for, sit still, and be quiet? That’s fine, but it’s not just that. There's so many artistic permutations of what jazz is. You can touch it, feel it, and dance to it. That's how it started, so how do we go back and bring that feeling along? The music is there but the awareness is not, so how do we correct that? It’s something that I spend a lot of time working on with institutions and artists who are interested in figuring that out.
What can places like Oberlin do to be more inclusive of women in jazz?
We know that even in the jazz world, when people think about women in jazz performance, they normally think of them as vocalists and not instrumentalists. Given that, I think that it still goes a long way that jazz studies here now has jazz voice as a major and the jazz voice professor is a woman, because before [teacher of jazz voice] La Tanya Hall came, you had no women on the faculty.
Women on the faculty signal to students of any gender that there is an authority presence here that is a woman, and I think that is really important. Also, it brings that perspective into the department, and that affects how the department shapes itself. I know that it’s a thing that women musicians don’t want to be “women musicians.”
What happens in the jazz studies department—or in jazz period—is not separate from sexism that happens in the world in general. People have to continue to work on that and understand it when it’s brought to their attention or when they notice it in themselves or see it in their friends.
Also, continuing to incorporate the compositions of women is important. Everybody knows that you’ll have this “Women in Jazz Day.” It doesn’t have the same impact if it’s not in the repertoire, if you don’t have Mary Lou Williams or Teri Lynn Carrington. If you’re not playing or listening to it, if it's not fully integrated in every sort of way. I think that work is happening, but it doesn’t change overnight.
How can musicians from all genres incorporate social activism into their music?
There are a couple ways that students can incorporate activism into their music. One is to look for repertoire that directly reflects social activism and directly addresses a lot of the issues that we are dealing with today. Another way to do it is to align yourself with organizations that do the type of work that you find useful and inspiring. Some people think, 'I have this gig coming up and I will give 10 percent of it and donate it to whatever, or I am going to invite people that work at this organization or work within this community to come to my show for free, so that they can have a good night out.' I think all of that is activism and important work.
The great thing about music and those that are gifted is that it can often say things that words can't. You are here to refine your technical abilities, but also to find your voice. Your voice can be angry. It can be defiant. It can be sad. It can be joyful. When you are committed to finding your voice, almost anything can have that resonance. Anger can be fuel for musical practice, and that is still musical activism.
What do you hope students will take away from your course on African American music? Also, how are these things important for those studying European classical music?
I hope that they—particularly jazz majors—understand the role of jazz in the continuum of African American music. I hope they understand what the narratives of African American music and African American people are. One, because I think that's important. Also because even if you’re talking about someone who may not care about that, but they want to know what about this class will help me be a better jazz musician, I think it's important that jazz musicians come up listening to other jazz musicians—the greats. I think it is really important that jazz performance can decode what some of their idols are doing in their music.
I hammer home stuff about minstrel songs, negro spirituals, about folk spirituals, because they never really go away. People are constantly taking pieces of them or taking the whole work and reinterpreting that in jazz performance. Like when we listen to “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” and connecting that to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and really thinking about why Dizzy Gillespie is drawing on this in his performance.
On a sociological level, let’s just be honest: The majority of my students are white men that play jazz, and there aren’t a lot of places for them and for us to have honest conversations about race and culture. So if this class can help us do that a little bit better—give people language, musical repertoire, historical references that make unpacking that easier, to have better conversations among themselves—I think that’s a win.
I think it’s hugely important that students of any race understand that “jazz” is a political term. I always say this: I am not here to tell you what your politics around that should be. But you should know what the discourse is, what people are arguing about, and why. It is up to each of us to decide how we engage or not. I think all of that does help give someone context in honing their musical voice, thinking about their musical practice, and how they want to angle their career.
That course is what makes Oberlin different from almost any other jazz studies program in the country. No other program has that course as a required course. Wendell Logan was very adamant that he did not want it to be called a “jazz history” course. He wanted it to be this grand narrative course, and I think that was a really brilliant move.
In terms of the classical side, some of my best students have been classical musicians. One of my students was a classical pianist, and for their group project, she did a piano duet with a jazz student, and she was like This is soooo different. In classical musical performance, there is musical interpretation, but your interpretation is strongly based on what is notated. She felt like it was a liberating experience, not that she was about to abandon classical music, but it helped her to really understand what those jazz kids are working on. When you say "improvisation," it doesn’t mean play whatever the hell you want. There’s a range of accepted response that one can give in their improvisation. It was really great to hear that from that student.
Even in the classical world, let’s just be real about the marketplace: Most students are not going to get gigs in the symphony orchestra and become concert pianists. So if you come to this class and it sparks musical ideas for your musical practice, then that’s a great thing.
What you are hoping for when you come to and leave this space is that you are going to make something that people want to hear. So thinking about the people that you want to hear you is just smart. Ethnomusicology is equipped to do that, so I think these types of courses would be a service to every student in the conservatory.
You also teach a class on entrepreneurship. Why is that important to you?
Yeah. Again, I was a business major. I think if we are going to constantly talk about how challenging the landscape is for musicians, then while students are here we have to give them a chance to start to figure out “What do I want to do when I leave here? I’ve been knee deep in classical viola, baroque violin, jazz saxophone, voice, whatever it is, so what is my plan for when I am out of this space?”
If students can start thinking about that here, it can hopefully make that transition better. Because I tell students all the time that if you say you want to be a musician, you are by definition saying that you want to be an entrepreneur. You are going to be finding your own gigs, you are going to be getting your own groups, you are going to be deciding what gigs you want to take that are offered to you. You are going to be figuring out your own health insurance. You are going to be figuring out if this is a contract you should sign. So let’s have a place where we can start to talk about that side of things and decisions other folks have made about them.
I encourage students to talk to their professors, particularly in jazz studies. You know, those guys are in and out, and on the road, and doing this, and doing that. That is a form of entrepreneurship—putting together their career. So I was just really excited and grateful that the course was approved, to bring it here to students. I bring in a lot of guest speakers in that course, almost every week. I don’t know everything, so let’s let you hear from a lawyer, let’s let you hear from someone who books artists. I have a friend who is an ethnomusicologist as well, and she is with a big, fancy concert series over at Cornell. I think it was great for them to hear from her, "This is what it takes for me to book you." They should hear that from people who are actually living that.
So I enjoy that course, and it is always interesting to see how students come into it and make it their own. It’s more like a workshop, an opportunity for students to become aware of things, like some students aren’t even aware that there are musicians’ unions, and why does that matter? Music is an art and a gift. But we don’t talk enough about the business of it and the mechanics of it. And I just think to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
You’re involved with a company, called Jooksi, that gives walking tours in New York about black music. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. I started it in 2012, and what it has evolved into is really like a field-trip version of the Introduction to African American Music class. I realized, living in New York, that it is one of the few places where you can take someone to places that connect with almost every genre of African American music that I teach about. You can go to abolitionists’ houses and talk about negro spirituals. You can go to the Paradise Garage and talk about house [music]. You can go to where Studio 54 was and talk about disco. Obviously, there are tons of places that you can go to that connect with jazz. Bessie Smith recorded St. Louis Blues in Queens. Louis Armstrong’s house is a museum in Queens.
So there are literally all these places that you can go to that connect to all these different genres. Hip-hop, obviously. I got really excited about not just the history, but that there are all these places to take people to hear great music today. Because New York is the kind of place that lots of people visit, but really and truly, outside of Times Square and the Financial District, they don’t necessarily know how to explore it. So everyone can’t take my class, everyone can’t come out here to Oberlin and get registered. I think it’s just a really exciting and interesting way to extend that experience beyond.
Can you remember the first albums and artists that were inspirational to you?
That’s a great question. I remember the first album I ever bought in my life. It was Michael Jackson’s Bad. That was the late 1980s, and it was the first album I bought with my own money. And these were actual albums back then. I read the liner notes back then, so that’s how I got to know things like, “Oh, this Quincy Jones person must be kind of important because his name is all over this album.” Quincy Jones became one of the first musical luminaries where I decided I wanted to know everything about him. So, I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. I was completely obsessed. My parents bought me the Thriller companion book. I was all in on Michael Jackson. The thing people forget about Michael Jackson is that the music was incredibly sophisticated and really well thought out. Again, this idea that pop music is only this superfluous thing is absolutely not true. Quincy Jones was a jazz musician, bandleader, and arranger, and he brought all of that to Michael Jackson.
How do you handle traveling between New York and Oberlin?
I always say that no one is going to feel sorry for me that I live in New York and work in Oberlin, so I just get over it. And I am grateful that Oberlin has made it as easy and as possible as it is. I realize that I am on a non-traditional academic path, and it’s always important to me that Oberlin feels like I am part of this community, and this community is important to me. So I work hard to remain available to students, faculty, and just the community here. Of course, there are times where I come up short. This is my fourth year here, you know, and I hope it continues to be mutually beneficial.
People ask me all the time, “How is Oberlin?” I say, “What do you mean? If you could teach any kind of kid, wouldn’t you want to teach kids that are both bright and creative? Most days it’s like a dream, because the level of rigor we are able to toss at students, and you all can bat back at us, keeps me on my toes for sure. I genuinely hope that it’s as enriching an experience for students as it is for me as an instructor. And I sleep a lot on planes.
You may also like…
June 27, 2022
June 6, 2022
Visiting Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and French Anna Levett Receives Prestigious ACLS Fellowship
June 3, 2022