and writer-actor Ricardo Pitts-Wiley have been named Martin Luther King Visiting Artists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the 2009-2010 academic year. Established in 1995, MLK Program participants are appointed for their contributions to their professions and their potential contributions to the intellectual life of MIT. The program, which supports six to twelve visiting professors and scholars in each academic year, is open to individuals of any minority group with an emphasis on the appointment of African Americans. As visiting assistant professor, internationally acclaimed classical jazz composer-improviser-pianist Donal Fox will teach a new subject titled Musical Improvisation 21M.355 in the Music and Theater Arts Section. Students, selected through instrumental or vocal auditions, will study improvisation techniques in solo and ensemble contexts, examining relationships between improvisation, composition, and performance from a score. Topics, with occasional guest lectures, may include jazz, non-western music, and improvisation in western concert music. The course will culminate with one or more public performances.
Fox was recently awarded the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters Academy Award in Music. The prize is awarded to composers of exceptional accomplishment" and outstanding artistic achievement." Other awards include a Guggenheim fellowship in music composition, a fellowship from the Bogliasco Foundation, and three nominations for the CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts.
At Tanglewood's Ozawa Concert Hall, Fox demonstrated his extraordinary talent in The Scarlatti Jazz Suite, which had its New York premiere at the Blue Note in 2007 and was featured on American Public Radio’s Weekend America." JazzTimes noted, “This intriguing blend, in which a brief classical theme triggers spirited invention, swings mightily." Fox's reinventions and mashups of classical melodies and themes (also heard in his program Mashups in Blue, featuring music inspired by J.S. Bach, Curtis Mayfield, Robert Schumann, James Brown, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane and his acclaimed Monk and Bach Project (that premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2005) have led critics like Gary Giddins to say, Donal Fox is a remarkable pianist who has positioned himself on the cutting edge of jazz by incorporating classical techniques and melodies. The pinnacle of his achievement is found in his blending of Monk and Bach, in his vivid reimaginings of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and in such dazzling original works as Scarlatti Jazz Suite and Italian Concerto Blues. Donal is one of a small handful of musicians who embody the promise of jazz's future."
Fox was the first African American composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony and a special guest artist of the Library of Congress in a program recorded for American Public Radio. He inaugurated the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at the new Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston and was the first featured jazz artist to perform in the 100-year history of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and Bach Festival in Bethlehem, PA, in 2007. Fox has performed and recorded with Oliver Lake, John Stubblefield, Billy Pierce, David Murray, Elliott Sharp, Regina Carter, Andrew Cyrille, Stefon Harris, Al Foster, George Mraz, Gary Burton, Terri Lyne Carrington, Christian Scott, John Patitucci, Lewis Nash and poet Quincy Troupe. He has recorded as composer and pianist for New World Records, Evidence Records, Music & Arts, Passin' Thru Records, Yamaha's Original Artist Series, and Wergo Records.
Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, an accomplished actor, director, playwright and composer, will co-teach 21L.512 American Authors with Wyn Kelley, Senior Lecturer in MIT's Literature Section in Fall '09. Pitts-Wiley has performed critically acclaimed roles throughout the United States including The Actor’s Shakespeare Project in Boston, The Old Globe Theater and San Diego Repertory in San Diego, North Carolina Black Repertory, and Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI, where he was a member for 18 years.
In 2003, Pitts-Wiley and his wife Bernadet formed Pawtucket-based Mixed Magic Theatre & Cultural Events, a non-profit arts organization, dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. He serves as the company's Artistic Director. In keeping with the Mixed Magic Theatre mission, Pitts-Wiley has adapted for the stage and directed several productions based on classic literature. The goal of these adaptations is make the work relevant to contemporary audiences, especially young people, while preserving the integrity and language of the original source.
He has directed over 70 plays and musicals, from Romeo and Juliet to Driving Miss Daisy and has adapted and directed productions of Moby Dick: Then and Now, Frankenstein, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass and a play featuring the poetry and life story of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Pitts-Wiley wrote the book and lyrics for seven musicals and has also written and performs three one-man shows. These efforts include the script, lyrics and music for a musical, Celebrations: An African Odyssey and co-composer for The Spirit Warrior's Dream, Sara's Jukebox, Night Voices, Man/Woman/Chaos, A Secret Meeting of Black Men, and A Kwanzaa Song. Pitts-Wiley also wrote Waiting for Bessie Smith which features the music of the legendary blues singer. He recently collaborated with his son Jonathan, a Yale University graduate, to create From the Bard to the Bounce: A Hip-Hop and Shakespeare Experience.
Pitts-Wiley was instrumental in the development of a teachers' strategy guide, Reading in a Participatory Culture," in collaboration with MIT and in 2007, he took part in a panel discussion at MIT titled, Learning Through Remixing" (video link). He discussed using remixing and deconstructing Moby Dick to make literacy more inclusive and compelling for young people, while preserving the integrity of the novel. For example, he said, children don’t necessarily identify with a white whale, but they do understand “the vengeful pursuit of something that has hurt you,” when the white nemesis is translated into cocaine. Ultimately, Pitts-Wiley observed, it takes a community to sustain literacy, and theater can be the medium to enlist widespread interest and support.