A new book discussion group at the public library has ties to the JazzTrain project.
Chico Herbison, like many Lawrence residents, was introduced to jazz by the late Dick Wright, who hosted a Saturday morning jazz program on KANU-FM 91.5 for many years.
"I was first introduced through a course with him as a graduate student," he said. "I was a blues guitarist and started playing jazz because of him."
Herbison, an assistant professor of African/African-American studies at Kansas University, has since branched out to discover the jazz-like qualities found in some literature. He will bring his knowledge to the forefront during a "Jazz and Fiction" book discussion group beginning in mid-January at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.
The four-session group is part of the JazzTrain project spearheaded by the Lied Center and the Gem Theater and the State Ballet of Missouri, both in Kansas City, Mo.
The schedule for the book discussion group, which runs from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. each session and is limited to 30 participants, includes:
- Jan. 12: "The Wedding," by Dorothy West, discussion leader is Cheryl Lester, KU associate professor of English/American studies.
"This novel asks the question, 'Can the light-skinned, pale-eyed daughter of a prominent black family find happiness with a white jazz musician, someone so obviously of the wrong class, status and color?,' that those who could not see what love saw must take it on faith that it was there," Herbison wrote in his proposal for the book group.
- Feb. 9: "The Seven League Boots," by Albert Murray, leader is Herbison.
"Murray's novels and critical writings, through both content and structure, stress the centrality of blues and jazz to American history and culture," Herbison wrote. "'The Seven League Boots' focuses on the life of a jazz bass player, from rural Alabama, who struggles with the things that come too easily."
- March 8: "Jazz," by Toni Morrison, leader is Maryemma Graham, KU English professor.
"Not only does the novel, through its plot and characters, evoke 1920s Harlem and all the expressions of the Renaissance that occurred there, the very rhythms of its language help the reader hear the same music that underscores " the lives of Joe, Violet, Dorcas and others," he wrote.
- April 4: "Mumbo Jumbo," by Ishamel Reed, leader is Herbison.
"This novel, Reed's tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, is one of the most unorthodox fictional explorations of 20th-century race relations," Herbison said.
The book is the story of an attempt in the 1920s to stamp out an epidemic of "jes grew" before it infects white Americans and causes them to express themselves spontaneously and intensely through dance and other forms.
Herbison said he picked books that origin in the history and culture of jazz and whose form, content and texture reflected the improvisational nature of the music form. Although all the authors are African-American, he said he tried to select writers who are diverse in terms of age, gender and writing style.
A Kansas Humanities Council mini-grant will help pay for the speakers and some of the book discussion group's costs, according to Sandra Wiechert, the library's community relations coordinator. However, participants will have to purchase their own books. Paperback versions are available at The Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh, at a 20 percent discount.
Herbison said he hopes participants in the book group will find renewed appreciation for the power and beauty of jazz.
"If there is a quintessential American art form, jazz might be it," he said. "I hope they leave (the book group) with a tool to explore their personal worlds. That's the nature of improvisation and of life itself."
-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.