James Gordon Williams, PhD ’13, is an assistant professor of music in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University. As a pianist, composer, improviser and critical musicologist, Williams often collaborates with poets, dancers and experimental filmmakers. His forthcoming book, Crossing Bar Lines: The Politics and Practices of Black Musical Space will be published in March 2021 by the University Press of Mississippi. Here, he discusses the influence of history and current events on the artistry of musicians, as well as the impact of UC San Diego on his trajectory and what that impact could be for others in the future.
What does Black History mean to you?
Black History emphasizes the brilliant intellectual, artistic, social, technological, and cultural contributions of Afro-diasporic people in America that continue to shape the world. Black history is not a month, but an experience lived throughout the calendar year. Carter G. Woodson who created Negro History Week in 1926 argued that a week or month was too minuscule a time span to celebrate the breadth of accomplishments of African-descended people and a year would only scratch the genealogical surface of the repository of myriad contributions by Black people.
Black History is World History, period. It’s not just a history of Black people but a history of human relations linked with power and racial hierarchies across geographies and time zones. It’s a history that features a continual Black effort of fight and systemic subjugation in all of its variegated forms. Yet this fight is not only about Black people but for all people, especially those marginalized people in our society. Others have benefitted from the beautiful struggle. Immigrants and white women are two examples of groups who have made social gains through the tireless work of Black men and women across generations.
The premise of the question invites us to think of Black history in a vacuum, but life isn’t really that way. I celebrate women’s history because I understand that patriarchy and gender inequities don’t happen in a vacuum. Like racism, sexism denies the sexist the opportunity to be uplifted by the intellectual and cultural contributions that women bring to the world. Now the recent, Black-led multiracial Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder show us that a growing number of non-black people understand that the fight for Black freedom from systemic violence is a fight for freedom for all people; that our destinies are linked not through the lens of race but by our shared humanity. No human being will be truly free until all aggrieved people are free. Consequently, the possibilities of true greatness will be held in abeyance under the patina of inequality unless we scrub that color away with greater access for all.
What fascinates you about your book topic?
One of the most exciting things for me in my book Crossing Bar Lines: The Politics and Practices of Black Musical Space is my use of Black feminist theory for reframing how African American improvising musicians translate their lived experiences into musical expression. Black feminism has taught me that theorizing through lived experience is as valid and as powerful as theorizing through historically legitimized theoretical frameworks based in the hierarchy of racial and gender supremacy. Being a musician myself, it is important to make explicit how musicians think about their creative processes relative to past history and contemporary events in the world. Often the model of 1960s protest music dominates the musical protest discourse. Yet African American improvisers and their allies are creating socially conscious work with the same urgency. I am fascinated by what drives the creative process and dedicated to understanding what is politically at stake for African American improvisers. The musicians I write about in this book, trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Terence Blanchard, drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Billy Higgins, and the late pianist Andrew Hill never had the luxury of improvising and composing music without the weight of racial discrimination, and in the case of Carrington, gender discrimination. This comes out in their philosophical and musical commitments to social justice as they cross the bar lines of social constraints. Yet they were able to achieve monumental accomplishments on the wings of prior Black generations of Black musicians. My book also shows that Black musician politics are not monochromatic and are expressed differently across a spectrum. Improvised music does represent a mode of survival and a way to deal with inequalities, but it is not rooted in a model of pessimism or prescriptive politics. The musicians in my book also show how the practice of improvised music sustains community well-being and human freedom in a space that speaks to all human communities who take the time to listen.
What do you remember most about your experience at UC San Diego?
After living in New York City for ten years as a musician, I came to UC San Diego to join the Integrative Studies Ph.D. program. Though I am a native Californian, it was not an easy transition, but I had help. UC San Diego requires that the student be independent—that they figure out things for themselves. This is a big academic/life challenge for any student at any age.
A community of scholars helped me to get from point A to Z. Then-provost of Thurgood Marshall College, professor of music and maestro Cecil Lytle was an important mentor for me. As his teaching assistant, I witnessed a pedagogical model of teaching excellence and mentorship. Anthony Davis, David Borgo and others were also supportive of me, both in and after I finished the program, and I would not have been in the program without them. Advisor Davis once told me, “You can get a PhD, James.” Davis’s declaration showed his belief in my hard work and encouraged me to achieve my goals. Anthony Burr was an inspiration for my popular music studies writing. Jann Pasler encouraged me to write a solid dissertation and exposed me to a crucial discursive that shaped my research. At a time when I had my first child in the first year of my doctoral program, professor Kamau Kenyatta in an unselfish act allowed me to use his office space as I worked on my dissertation. Conversations about improvisation I had with Kenyatta years ago provided inspiration for some research subjects in the ensuing years. Ethnic Studies professor Roshanak Kheshti and communications professor Patrick Anderson were also mentors and gave precious time for helping me with my scholarship. The UC network also provides an opportunity to work with other professors in other UC schools, and UC Santa Barbara emeritus professor George Lipsitz continues to have an impact on my scholarship.
I remember how The La Jolla beach areas provided a quotidian break from the pressures of graduate schoolwork. I used to joke that if I knew how to surf, I may have taken much longer to finish my PhD.
UC San Diego celebrates 60 years this year–in your perspective, what can history teach us moving forward into the next 60?
I am proud of the UC system and UC San Diego’s commitment to diversity. Giving historically marginalized students like myself a chance is key to UC San Diego’s continual success in the next 60 years and beyond. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown pronounced inequalities in our society relative to education, health care, access to housing, and general safety and well-being. These historical disparities are increasingly stark, and America is reeling in these difficult and turbulent times. The repair order for our social relations is staggering and must be fixed by all in society, not just those historically affected by the inequality, but by those who have profited and thrived on those historical inequalities. The demographic models of future populations tell a story of increased diversity and shifting of power. UC San Diego will be even stronger in the next 60 years if they continue to support hard-working students by continuing to provide opportunities for social mobility. UC San Diego took a chance on me, and because of that opening and my hard work, I have thrived and will continue to thrive.