Dr Katherine Williams

Exploring the impact of improvisation on live jazz performance

The live performances of jazz legend Duke Ellington, and how they differed from his recorded work, are to be explored in a new research project by a Plymouth University academic.

Lecturer in Music Dr Katherine Williams has been awarded the first ever Jazz Research Fellowship by the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation and the Jazz Education Network.

The two-year fellowship will provide her with access to one of the world’s most extensive musical archives – held in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC – where she plans to advance her existing research into one of the genre’s most important figures.

Dr Williams, module leader for performance within the university’s Music degrees, said: “Jazz is always surrounded by a sense of mysticism, and it is a genre that continues to inspire audiences to this day. Much of the music was written in the 1920s and 30s, but its appeal lives on through the fact there is so much improvisation involved.

“There have been few greater purveyors of that than Duke Ellington, and the result is the music heard by live audiences is in many cases hugely different to that on recordings, and they both differ to what was originally written.”

As part of her fellowship, Dr Williams will travel to Washington DC to explore the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of original papers, photographs, sheet music, recordings and advertising material.

She hopes to use that information to further understanding about the history of improvisation, and how it has influenced musical performances and can continue to do so in the future.

Dr Williams also plans to set up a band in Plymouth, encouraging students and the local community to recreate Duke Ellington’s work in its various stages as a way of representing jazz’s enduring appeal.

At the completion of the fellowship, she will deliver final presentations of her research at the Smithsonian Institution, as well as at the Jazz Education Network (JEN) Conference in 2017.

Dr Williams, who trained as a classical saxophonist before completing a PhD in classical music and jazz, has this year spoken about her research at events in Ireland, Belgium and California.

She said: “It is amazing to receive this level of international recognition, both personally and for the University, and I cannot wait to go to the Smithsonian and begin my research. Duke Ellington was a true pioneer – recognised as a composer rather than simply a musician and band leader – and it will be fascinating to explore the full extent of his talents. I also hope I can use what I learn to inspire students about the different ways they might approach performance in their futures.”


(from a press release)