BJA News

BJA Board Welcomes New Board Member Jazz Scholar Anna Celenza

Anna Celenza, who holds a PhD in musicology and recently joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, has written books for kids and adults on a potpourri of musical topics. She weaves compelling storytelling with academic rigor in books about composers ranging from Bach and Beethoven to George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.

One of her more intriguing and eclectic titles, from 2017, was written while she was living in Italy for four years with her husband, who is of Italian descent: Jazz Italian Style: From Its Origins in New Orleans to Fascist Italy and Sinatra.  

Previously, she had written and edited works focused mostly on classical music. The Italy book was her “first big jazz project” as a music scholar, says Celenza, who joined the BJA board this past September. She currently holds a joint appointment in JHU’s Writing Seminars and the Musicology Department at Peabody. (Musicology is the scholarly analysis and research-based study of music.) Previously, she taught 15 years at Georgetown University and nine years at Michigan State University.

Her knowledge of the Italian language was a boon to her research while in Italy, although the initial motivation for learning it was family. “I first tried to learn Italian so that I could speak with my husband’s grandmother at our wedding,” says Celenza.

In fact, Celenza is well-versed in several languages, including German, Danish, and Dutch.

Steeped as Celenza was in the musical traditions of 18th– and 19-century Europe, she eventually gravitated toward modern American music—namely jazz—as a focus for her studies.

“With each project I found myself going later in time and closer to America. Eventually I realized I just need to write about jazz. That’s what I really enjoy studying.” Jazz had always been a part of her childhood. Her grandfather played saxophone with the Ted Weems Orchestra in Chicago in the early 1920s. “Because of this, everyone on my mother’s side of the family loved jazz and listened to the music all the time.”

Like most musicologists, she is also a musician. She grew up playing cello and drums. But in her junior year of college, carpal tunnel syndrome took her away from the orchestra and toward an academic career. “In school I was introduced to music history and found I really liked it. I liked studying the cultural context of music.” She says the carpal tunnel syndrome was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed her to discover her passion.

These days she dabbles in jazz piano as a hobby. “I’m not good, but I’m having a really good time,” she affably admits. 

Celenza hopes to get involved in grant writing on behalf of BJA and the Baltimore jazz community. Among other projects, she would like to obtain funding to conduct a census of the city’s music community, similar to one she led for Washington, DC, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office, Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation and other DC organizations. The DC Music Census included a survey completed by anyone working creatively in music as a musician, producer, educator, venue owner or anyone participating in any music-related product or service.

That is a healthy first step, she says, in identifying what a community’s needs are. It helps stakeholders better understand the “music ecosystem” in the city and reveals gaps that need addressing. It provides solid evidence for grant proposals.

Celenza says a music ecosystem includes musicians, audiences, venues, schools, local government, the transportation system—all the factors that enable music to be played and enjoyed and to serve as a reliable and sustainable source of income for those who depend on it. She says one example of a gap in a city’s ecosystem would be a lack of midsize venues, with a predominance of only small open-mic clubs and large concert halls. That might force local musicians to go out of town for gigs in order to grow their careers.

Another example: “You can open up a great venue, but if you’re making your money mostly on booze, and there’s no public transportation—meaning people have to drive home—that’s not a good mix.”

Celenza co-founded the nonprofit Music Policy Forum, whose mission is to “develop vibrant music economies that support professional musicians, enhance communities, and support local creativity.”

In her board member application, Celenza provided this spirited personal mission statement:  

“As a jazz scholar, educator, and fan with a track record in public policy initiatives, I believe that a healthy music ecosystem is one that builds bridges and connects with as broad a coalition of supporters as possible. … I also firmly believe that jazz is a vibrant, living art form that has the power to evoke joy, sorrow, anger, and self-reflection that in turn can lead to human flourishing, political action, and social justice. For all these reasons, I hope that I might become a part of the BJA and contribute to your work of helping the art form, and the community, thrive.”

Mitch Mirkin is acting director of communications for the Office of Research and Development of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He is a longtime jazz lover and in recent years has devoted his musical talents to jazz composing. His original compositions are featured on two CDs—Dance of the DNA (2019) and The Madison Avenue Shul (2020)—with a third in the works for spring of 2022.

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