Elevate Difference

Experiments In A Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia, and the Austin Project

In June 2009, I participated in a writing workshop with Sharon Bridgforth, not knowing what to expect and not knowing what I was expected to give. I only knew that I loved music, having already pledged my undying love for jazz at a young age, and that I loved writing; but I never intended to leave with a blueprint for the foundation of how I would put pen to paper from that point on. Since then, my writing has been centered in being present in the here and now, a soulful, deep listening, improvisation (which brings together both the aforementioned), and an integrity that refuses to deviate from what makes up what is known as the jazz aesthetic. It is always a work in progress, as it should be.

According to Austin Project founder Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and Associate Professor of Performance Studies in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin, the Jazz Aesthetic Manifesto “is a way to forestall the erosion of human connection by bringing to voice women of color and those white women who are able to learn the role of allies.” Jazz has always been about being in the moment, listening to oneself and to one’s surroundings, improvisation, and continuous change. Those precepts are among the few that shaped themselves into the manifesto that would become the Austin Project.

The Austin Project (tAP) was started in 2002 with a stone etching that “all women-all people-are inherently creative, are artists in their own right, and that claiming this identity can be transformative for individuals and communities.” It provides a space for women of color and their allies to write and perform in a jazz aesthetic as a strategy for social change, be they writers, performers, doctors, or social workers. It consists of collaborators Lisa L. Moore, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at University of Texas at Austin, and Sharon Bridgforth, Lambda Literary Award-winning author of the bull-jean stories and love conjure/blues. Mentors and teachers of the women of tAP have included artistic nobility such as Laurie Carlos, Carl Hancock Rux, Virginia Grise, and Daniel Alexander Jones, to name a few.

Not often do I find it difficult to summarize the works of a collective into several hundred words; however, this is one of those times. Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic includes the works of some of the previously mentioned collaborative artists, as well as a veritable who’s who in all things to do with art, activism, and the academics. Jones wrote that in conceiving the Austin Project, she was trying to save her own life; consequently, many births seem to have taken place, for many artists have birthed a way of creating, organizing, and performing. Whether it is art, activism, or academia—being present, listening, body- centered, true to the both/and instead of the either/or all on an inclusive level all serve as the foundation with which to maintain the integrity of the jazz aesthetic. It is always a work in progress, as it should be.

Written by: Olupero R. Aiyenimelo, August 4th 2010