8 bars with Courtney Bryan
Our guest is composer/pianist Courtney Bryan
8 bars with, is a series on Educated Guesses where we offer up 8 questions to a special guest for them to ponder and freestyle on. The questions aren't necessarily questions as much as they are prompts or linguistic ink blots meant to stimulate thought. The responses can be short and pithy, long and loquacious or somewhere in between.
New Orleans-born composer/pianist Courtney Bryan encompasses jazz, experimental music, gospel, spirituals, and hymns in her compositions. A graduate of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), Bryan has earned degrees from Oberlin Conservatory (BM), Rutgers University (MM), and Columbia University (DMA) with advisor George Lewis. She completed her postdoctoral studies in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, and is the Albert and Linda Mintz Professor of Music at Newcomb College in the School of Liberal Arts, Tulane University. She is a Creative Partner with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. She is also featured in the documentary, Jazz Dreams, II, with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and drummer, Jason Marsalis - about life in pre and post Katrina New Orleans.
Bryan’s awards and fellowships include: 2018 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, a 2019 Bard College Freehand Fellow, a 2019-20 Samuel Barber Rome Prize in Music Composition, a 2020 United States Artists Fellow, and a 2020-21 Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. Bryan appears on the CD, A Gift to Pops: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars. Her commissioned work, Reimagining Carmen: Carmen Jazz Suite on Themes by Bizet, was performed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis on January 15, 2022, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre at the University of California, Irvine.
1. New Orleans?
A place where time is cyclical. New Orleans is a spiritual place and you can find yourself time traveling in certain locations (like Congo Square or the French Quarter). Great food, music, art, architecture, accents, sounds, mannerisms.
2. Musical Inspirations?
Far and wide. My first inspirations came from my church, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in the Treme neighborhood. It is an Anglican church, with a mostly Caribbean, Central, South American, and West African congregation. I grew up hearing the mix of Gregorian chant, traditional Anglican hymns, Negro spirituals, and West African drumming and Calypso-inspired tambourines.
Other inspirations come from the music around me, and especially from the music of Edward Kidd Jordan growing up, the experimental traditions. Also I was inspired in my experiences with Western art music through the piano institute, introduced by my piano teacher Dr Daniel Weilbaecher. The sounds of brass bands, marching bands, and jazz are central to my musical inspirations.
3. The Piano?
My primary mode of communication, especially when I was younger. The piano was my primary mode of emotional expression. I've been playing the piano since I could climb onto the bench, and started studying at age five. I would like to spend more time with the piano these days.
I taught myself to compose as I learned piano as a child. I would improvise on something I learned in lessons or heard on radio or tv, and then I would create a through-composed piece and memorize it. I shared it with my parents who would record my original compositions. Mrs. Dean Curtis taught me to use the word "compose" in place of my expression "something I made up." My last year of high school, I studied orchestration privately with composer Roger Dickerson and then when I went to Oberlin Conservatory for college, that began my formal study of composition. I really dug deep into formal study during my time at Columbia University working with my advisor, George E. Lewis.
5. The New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA)?
Transformative time. I met so many musicians that were my friends and collaborators and now many of us have careers as professional musicians. I studied primarily with Clyde Kerr, Jr. in the jazz division. We were trained at a high level and when I got to the conservatory, I was able to place out of levels of theory and also had an introduction to playing music professionally from the experiences gained through NOCCA.
I loved Oberlin. It was a place to really find yourself and your true voice. I was in the conservatory but also took some courses in the college. My musician friends were both in the conservatory and college. I started with a triple major in classical piano, jazz piano, and composition and graduated with a BFA in composition.
7.Jazz Dreams II?
Jazz Dreams was an interesting experience; to be recorded on camera, doing everyday things over a period of time. Particularly with me being a shy teenager. However, I was serious about my music, and my music community and appreciated it being documented by Geoff Poister. For him to revisit me, Jason, and Irvin years later was meaningful. And I hope it can show people more examples of music education in New Orleans, pre-Katrina.
8. The Art of Teaching?
A huge part of my life. I have been teaching since I was an undergrad. I've taught piano of various styles for many years, and now I teach as a professor at Tulane University. In addition, with my position as Creative Partner with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, I teach young people how to create their own original music. I've been doing this sort of work through my composition projects over the years and I always love to engage with students of any age about the creative process.
I am working on a musical with the Fisher Center at Bard along with writer Suzan-Lori Parks, and director Lileana Blain-Cruz, and am writing a piano concerto that I will premiere with the LA Philharmonic and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra next year! I am finishing up a recording I started before the pandemic, and have a number of other projects simmering on several burners. A future goal is to write an opera.