There are some people whose stage presence literally reaches out into the audience and grabs you, shakes you up and makes you listen. Rhodessa Jones is one of those people. She just arrived in Middletown today and will be here for several days hosted by the Outside the Box Theater Series, a series developed by the CFA and Theater Department. The idea to bring Rhodessa came from Sonia Manjon, Vice President of Diversity and Strategic Partnerships at Wesleyan, and Ron Jenkins, Professor of Theater, who is teaching a service-learning course that takes theater students to develop works with incarcerated women at the York Correctional Institution. Sonia and our President Michael Roth have both worked with Rhodessa when they were at the California College of the Arts, and Michael’s history with her dates back to his years at the Getty Research Institute.
Rhodessa has received numerous awards for her work, The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, a performance workshop that is designed to achieve personal and social transformation with incarcerated women. While she is on campus this week, she’ll be working with Ron’s students, as well as visiting theater classes and giving a workshop for teachers at the Green Street Arts Center. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to see this extraordinary artist live this Thursday night at Crowell. She’ll be performing excerpts from The Medea Project as well as segments from other highly acclaimed works including Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women and The Love Project. (And p.s.: Rhodessa’s brother is trailblazing choreographer Bill T. Jones, who had a major residency at the CFA in the Fall of 2006).
I met with Noah Baerman in my office last week just as he was leaving for New York for the final rehearsal for his concert this Friday, Know Thyself. Some of you may know Noah through the many roles he plays in life: composer, jazz piano player, writer, professor, husband (to Kate TenEyck, the CFA’s Art Studios Technician) and father to three foster daughters. On any given week you can find Noah directing the Wesleyan Jazz Ensemble, traveling to New York for a gig at the Jazz Gallery, donating his services by playing for a local benefit, or attending parent/teacher conferences at Middletown High School. As the story goes: “I was in the kitchen just having pledged to myself after a year of being exhausted by all sorts of family happenings, that I would take a year off to just center myself again, when I got the call from Chamber Music America.” The Noah Baerman Trio had received one of only sixteen awards given out across the country to commission jazz ensembles to create a new work. What is unique about the grant is that it not only supports the composer’s time, but it also pays for their musicians to spend time on the development of the work.
“I tend to be a really visceral musician and come at my music from an emotional rather than an intellectual or conceptual place,” Noah said as his eyes got wider and his hands began to fly. “The work that I’ll be premiering next week is about the quest for self-knowledge…all of the facets of the exploration that goes into a journey of self-discovery. I hope that it is highly universal, but also know that it is deeply personal. Making the work forced me to organize my thoughts and make peace with certain parts of my past. It’s the most musically ambitious work I’ve ever created and I’m so fortunate that I can debut it at Wesleyan where I feel the support of my community and the trust of my ensemble.”
Like Ellington and Mingus did before him, Noah writes for the individual members of his ensemble in mind. “There was this great moment last week when we were coming to an explosive moment in the piece where Wayne Escoffery (who plays sax) has to take off. I heard him play this section and I thought to myself ‘yes, yes, that’s why you are playing this piece.’” Noah’s ensemble also includes vibrophonist Chris Dingman, class of 2002 and former student of Jay Hoggard.
The moment he knew he wanted to be a musician? Watching Stevie Wonder play Superstition on Sesame Street when he was five: “It was my introduction to soulful music….All these years later, I’m still on a quest to create jazz works that have that kind of emotional directness.”
Performance/Talk by Rhodessa Jones, Thursday, November 12 at 8pm, Crowell Concert Hall
World Premiere of Know Thyself by Noah Baerman, Friday, November 13, 8pm, Crowell Concert Hall
Director, Center for the Arts