Jazz: The American Art Form

An interview with Mark George, pianist and president of the Music Institute of Chicago
November 18, 2015 Updated: November 18, 2015


Mark George is a pianist and president of the Music Institute of Chicago. He has enjoyed a unique career making music and connecting people of all kinds to the performing arts. As a musician, educator, and administrator, he has created or participated in a series of exciting and significant endeavors. In 2011, the Chicago Tribune named him Chicagoan of the Year in classical music.

In his five years leading the Music Institute of Chicago, Dr. George has transformed the organization into a model community music school for the 21st century. Building on a strong tradition of providing classical music training to families primarily on the North Shore, the Music Institute expanded operations in Evanston and downtown Chicago, and added an innovative jazz studies program.

In addition, Dr. George led a strategic planning process which positioned the institution at the forefront of best practices in music education, as well as an indispensable resource for the community in which it serves. In this same period, Dr. George served as national board chair for the Suzuki Association of the Americas, and trustee for the Solti Foundation US and the Billy Strayhorn Foundation.

Dr. George has held faculty positions at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Case Western Reserve University, Mount Union College, and the Baldwin-Wallace College Conservatory of Music. He received a master of music degree from Indiana University in 1985 and a doctor of musical arts degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1989.

A highly regarded pianist, he has performed and recorded extensively throughout the United States. His chamber ensemble, North Coast Trio, was grand-prize winner of the 1992 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and first prize co-winner of the 1993 Chamber Music Yellow Springs Competition. He has appeared frequently as a recitalist and soloist with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Trinity Chamber Orchestra, Epicycle: An Ensemble for New Music, and many others.

Dr. George previously served as director of the Hartt School Community Division where he developed a number of new programs, including the David Einfeldt Chamber Music Seminar and the International Summer Ballet Academy. 

Dr. George developed a number of innovative arts outreach programs, including ICARE (the Initiative for Cultural Arts in Education), a program that created long-term partnerships between public schools and arts organizations, and one that has had a profound impact on arts education in Cleveland, Ohio. His work as an interdisciplinary curriculum developer and consultant has rendered the arts and humanities more accessible to diverse communities hungry for knowledge.

Mark George also led the resurgence of the 2006 Grammy award-winning Cleveland Chamber Symphony, an orchestral ensemble completely dedicated to the music of our time. His board-level leadership, striking performances as a pianist, and inventive programming ideas re-established the ensemble as a major force in contemporary music.

SBB: Please tell me about your background in jazz.

MG: I am trained as a classical pianist, and while that is my strong suit as a performer, I have also always listed to and played jazz. My father was a sax player in the mid-century swing bands, so as a young person I was always exposed to big band music.

In my teens, I was mostly interested in the great bebop players … Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, etc. As an adult I studied the history of jazz, especially its role in the racial and political fabric of the United States. This aspect of the art form has informed my approach to curating jazz concerts and festivals.

SBB: What makes jazz different from other art forms?

MG: Jazz is unique because it is often created in the moment. Jazz players have a language that in some ways is very well defined. However, in the improvisatory part of the art form, each musician must musically interact with the other performers, the acoustics of the room, and the audience, often at the speed of light. This extemporaneous navigation of chords and scales and timbres inspires a kind of creativity that is not always present in other genres.

Jazz is also a quintessentially American art form. The American melting pot combined unique harmonic and expressive elements of African folk music, Western European structure and notation, and a rich tradition of vocalization, to create a cultural treasure. In addition, ever-present American racial tensions imbued jazz music and musicians with a special relevance and electricity.

SBB: You have a peculiarly interesting event coming up, the “women in jazz” theme for the Jazz Festival program.

MG: As was the case in general American culture, woman musicians of the early and mid-twentieth century could not practice their art freely. In the early years of jazz, women could not even vote in the United States, so it is not surprising that they experienced intense discrimination as musicians. With the exception of blues vocalists such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, women played a relatively small role in the early development of jazz.

Over the years, more and more women demonstrated their superb artistry as jazz musicians. Pioneers like Lil Hardin Armstrong, Melba Liston, Mary Lou Williams, and Marian McPartland paved the way for future generations of female jazz talent, but not without a difficult struggle against sexual harassment and unfair labor practices.

Today, the term female jazz musician is hardly relevant. Women are accepted as jazz musicians for one reason … they are good. The Music Institute’s Sixth Annual Jazz Festival: Celebrating Women in Jazz honors both the challenging history and the present success of women in jazz.

SBB: What are the dates of the performances?

MG: The festival begins on November 14 with a screening of “Lady Be Good,” a documentary on the history of female jazz instrumentalists. The filmmaker, Kay D. Ray will be present to discuss the film. That same day, the Music Institute of Chicago will sponsor its Jazz Invitational, an opportunity for local high school jazz ensembles to be coached by professional jazz musicians on the Music Institute of Chicago faculty. The director the Music Institute’s jazz program is trombonist Audrey Morrison.

The following weekend the festival presents three shows at Nichols Concert Hall. On Thursday, November 19, the Anat Cohen Quartet performs. Friday, November 20, Music Institute of Chicago artist-in-residence Tammy McCann sings a program of jazz standards with new arrangements for jazz quartet and string orchestra by Charley Harrison.

Harrison is a faculty member at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA. On Saturday, November 21, two-time Grammy Award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater performs a powerful tribute to Billie Holiday on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Finally, Music Institute of Chicago piano students, of which there are 750, will compete to perform on the Nichols Concert Hall stage as part of the festival. In recognition of the Billy Strayhorn Centennial, three winners will perform Strayhorn’s piano pieces Sprite, Valse, and Fantastic Rhythm.

SBB: The Music Institute of Chicago is a very impressive school, please give our readers an insight into its workings.

MG: The Music Institute of Chicago is a community music school, which means we work with anyone who is interested in the art form … students of all ages and every level of experience. About 30 of our students, out of a total of about 2,500, aspire to be professional musicians. For the rest, we are dedicated to transforming their lives through music education. The goal is to give them the tools they need to have a deep engagement with the musical art for rest of their lives. We offer private instruction and many kinds of classes. You can learn more at www.musicinstituteofchicago.org.

We place a large emphasis on creating a community of music lovers. Our students play together in small ensembles and perform regularly at public venues as a community service. For our community of music listeners, The Music Institute of Chicago is blessed to have a world-class performance space, Nichols Concert Hall in downtown Evanston. We produce a series of faculty and guest artist concerts, which attract audiences from Chicago and beyond.

SBB: What are some of your other interests?

MG: Recently, I have enjoyed observing how people and institutions interact with music, often in unlikely ways. I love attending sporting events, especially major league baseball games. Most people don’t notice it, but music and sports can be quite intertwined. I find it great fun to bring these worlds together.

SBB: Thank you Mark.



“I never thought Jazz was meant to be a museum piece like other dead things once considered art.” —Miles Davis

A very young Beethoven auditioned for a position before the Salzburg choirmaster, the young Mozart, and the church committee. Beethoven played some of his written compositions, drawing little response from the group. Mozart interrupted him, “Please do not play your composition; just improvise.” Beethoven did so with stunning effect, and Mozart turned to the committee and stated, “This is the man to keep your eye on.”

Its roots in slavery, its limbs sprung from Louis Armstrong, who changed music forever by musically masterminding the solo and Charlie Parker, whose 1943 recording of “Cherokee” is the formidable blueprint to build on. And there was Diz, Bud Powell, and Monk, who created new compositional rules without breaking the old ones.

But the trunk of that tree, the body of the music, has always been improvisation: instantaneous, improvisational, conceptual, intimate orchestration, integrated into the work of the other musicians in the set. Louis Armstrong called it his mojo, Miles referred to it as having the chops, the French call it Le Jazz Hot. It doesn’t matter what you call it. What matters is how it calls to you and how it calls to the performing artist. Me, I hear the jazz performer hearing the clarion call of inspired, instinctive, creative revelations, an artist’s commitment to instinctive creativity.

Shelley B. Blank has worked with major national and international newspapers as a journalist as well as a corporate executive. He has produced programs for Public Radio and lectured on modern multimedia communications and technology.