Before the pandemic set in, Guthrie Ramsey could look forward to weekly attendance at St. Paul’s Baptist Church, where he directed the choir that included his young granddaughters. Musicianship is a family legacy for Ramsey, now the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music, whose grandfather bought a piano in order to expose his seven children to music. It was the height of the Great Depression, but music was always a priority, Ramsey says.
“Grandfather bought that piano on the South Side of Chicago, and they were sleeping on crates,” he says. “I grew up with music as a kind of family love language. It was how we expressed our connection with one another.”
The pandemic has damaged these cherished traditions but hopefully not destroyed “that weekly sharing of body to body, breath to breath, that interaction around music,” Ramsey says.
“Multigenerational Music” is the subject of a Feb. 28 conversation with Ramsey and his daughter Bridget, a singer/songwriter. This event is the first in a Penn Museum series of short documentaries and live conversations organized around the Year of Jazz by junior Suzanne Carpenter and seniors Jessica Greenup and Coby Haynes, the 2020-2021 Penn Museum exhibition interns. All events are free, virtual, and open to the public.
While the internship usually culminates in a physical exhibition, this year the students have taken to virtual scholarship, using jazz as a lens to examine three subjects: family, protest, and creativity. “We started trying to find the connection between jazz, anthropology, and the Museum’s mission,” says Anne Tiballi, director of academic engagement at the Museum. The group decided to center on jazz as an emergent conversation, she says, part of a tradition that looks backward and forward.
Considering music as an object of study is vital within a museum context, Ramsey says. When the public interacts with museum collections, there is a conception of how the museum helps its audience become “better citizens and more informed human beings,” he says. “To include a music like jazz, which has this rich social history, and which has become a global phenomenon, I think is very important.”
The event series also considers civic engagement, as Provost Wendell Pritchett changed the 2020-21 theme in the wake of the pandemic and civil unrest around anti-Black racism. “We wanted to take aspects of jazz that engage with community building,” says Haynes. “We chose topics like multigenerational music and protest because those are ways in which the music works as an agent that brings people together,” he says.
Haynes’ March 21 session titled “Music and Protest” will explore the relationship of jazz with protest movements, featuring jazz scholar Ingrid Monson, the Quincy Jones Professor of African American music at Harvard University, and Nicole M. Mitchell, an award-winning flutist, composer, bandleader, and educator.
Greenup is organizing the Feb. 28 “Multigenerational Music” event but is the only musician in her family. She was intrigued to hear about the Ramsey’s musical family and hopes for one of her own, Greenup says. Bridget Ramsey, who has a degree in music from Spelman College, has released two EPs and recently gave birth to her first child, who is already “bashing” the piano, Ramsey says.
There is a deep historical consciousness about Black musical history in Philadelphia, Ramsey says. “I noticed that many of the musicians I played with here had multiple expertise in lots of different styles. If you did a jazz gig, you would be expected to play a little bit of R&B, little bit of gospel. People understood that what they were doing came from something.”
“Jazz emerged in the early 20th century, and here we are years later and still thinking about it,” Ramsey says. “It’s shown that it has the ability to mutate and still retain some of its original qualities of freshness, of hotness, of deep communication, not only between the musicians who are playing but also with the audiences that are interacting. That does not make it singular; that just makes it what it is.”
Jazz is a live conversation happening in real time, says Carpenter, who is organizing the third and final event on April 18. “Pushing the Limits” is a conversation between professional musician David Cutler, director of music entrepreneurship at the University of South Carolina, and neuroscientist Roger Beaty, assistant professor at Penn State University, where he serves as the principal investigator of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Laboratory.
Carpenter plans to focus on the interdisciplinary nature of jazz, exploring how the genre encourages people to push musicians out of their comfort zones and deepen creativity, she says. “I think it really is a universal language, and it could reach people across different cultures, backgrounds, and traditions,” Carpenter says. “In that way, it’s a powerful tool to spark social change by breaking musical boundaries but also in trying to convey important messages through the music.”
All three students moonlight as musicians. Carpenter, who is double majoring in music and history with a minor in urban education, is currently working with students at Henry C. Lea Elementary School through the Music and Social Change program. Originally from Springfield, Pennsylvania, Carpenter hopes to continue teaching music and currently plays violin in the Penn Baroque Ensemble.
A biology major minoring in jazz and popular music, Greenup is from New Hope, Pennsylvania. She plays drums, participating in Jazz Combos and the Bloomers’ Band, which has just begun to play together this semester, in 45-minute blocks on the sixth floor of a parking garage, Greenup says.
Haynes, also a drummer, grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, with the legacy of the hardcore punk scene in Washington, D.C. “I’m coming to jazz honestly a little bit late in the game,” he says. In high school, Haynes thought jazz was “the polar opposite of punk music” but is fascinated how “the idea of musical freedom connects them both,” he says. Through the March 21 conversation, he is hoping to “expand the perception of what jazz can be and what it should be,” Haynes says.
“As I get older, my definition and understanding of jazz gets looser and looser,” Haynes says. “Jazz, for me at least, represents the musical and creative freedom to express yourself in whatever way you feel. It doesn’t have to sound a certain way. And there are no rules. It’s just whatever is in your heart. Express that, and be true to that.”
This authenticity is part of Ramsey’s legacy. He relates a pre-pandemic story of having guests for dinner with his family when “some hip-hop song came on that we all liked, and we jumped up and all started dancing.” The guest was startled that dancing was on the menu and that all generations were dancing together. But for Ramsey, “that’s how we practice us,” he says. “One of my deepest joys is that I’ve been able to pass that along.”