Jeffrey Lee Puckett, courier-journal.com; via MF on Facebook
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Mike Tracy has visited dozens of countries as a music educator, sharing his knowledge of jazz with a dizzying variety of students. The University of Louisville professor has rightfully earned a reputation as being a jazz ambassador.
On Monday, he arrives in the Republic of Georgia with a fellow professor, Craig Wagner, and freelance writer Marty Rosen for another round of workshops and performances. This time, there's a bit more at stake.
The Republic of Georgia broke away from Russia 26 years ago, and resentments in neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan still simmer. The Tbilisi State Conservatoire also has trouble convincing music students to stay home when Paris, London and Rome beckon.
Tracy and Wagner begin a week of workshops under the auspices of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program, of which Tracy is the director. Performances at the June 8-11 Kavkaz Jazz Festival will follow.
It's hoped that nearly two weeks of musical diplomacy plants the seeds for a sustained accord.
This was all spearheaded by Helen Mechitova, a lecturer at Tbilisi State Conservatoire and director of the Kavkaz Jazz Festival. She spent six weeks in Louisville visiting with Tracy and other U of L staffers, including the College of Business' Bruce Kemelgor.
"They talked about her dream of bringing Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Georgians together under music instead of fighting," said Tracy, a saxophonist, "and he suggested using us as a catalyst, or a hub, for bringing these people together because we would be the ones inviting them. Since Jamey's name is recognized worldwide, that would be a helpful stamp."
Mechitova approached the Georgian government about the trip by citing Tracy's status as a Fulbright Senior Specialist. Fulbright got behind the idea, providing some of the funding needed to take Wagner, a guitarist, and Rosen, who will document the trip in real time via social media. His reports will be posted on the Courier-Journal's Facebook page, on the Facebook page called Tracy in Tbilisi and on Twitter at @Marty_Rosen. He'll also detail the trip in an upcoming Courier-Journal story.
"They're expecting a whole lot in a short amount of time," Tracy said of Mechitova and the Tbilisi State Conservatoire. "I think what we mainly can do is just help set up an apparatus where they can set up interconnections, and just kind of show them what's possible."
U of L's School of Music has a long history of encouraging cultural exchange. Tracy worked to begin a jazz program at the Estonian Music Academy in Tallinn, Estonia and regularly hosts musicians sponsored by the Open World Cultural Program.
"This trip is a little different because the idea is to bring together disparate people who don't really like to get along," Tracy said. "We all know that music cuts through all of that stuff because people want to play. The governments are the ones that are screwed up. The people are fine."
Wagner has accompanied him on trips to Brazil, Ecuador and Poland. Both Tracy and Wagner said that the trips are personally enriching and filled with opportunities to improvise off stage; language barriers have to be hurdled, teaching techniques are constantly being adjusted, and they've learned to expect that the roles of teacher and student will often be reversed.
"You go to a place like Brazil where there is such a strong musical culture, and everyone plays guitar down there," Wagner said. "They all say 'No, I don't play guitar' and then they pick it up and play this killing samba. I'm like, teach me that! I just got schooled and I'm supposed to be the teacher."
They've also learned what it means to crave opportunity. Tracy said that U of L's School of Music has been impacted by students from Russia, Poland and, especially, Brazil who were introduced to the school through exchange programs and trips such as the one to Georgia. They come from countries where little opportunity exists and where government control is rampant, Wagner said.
"We take a lot of stuff for granted," Wagner said, "and it's pretty heavy to think about the kind of political environment they deal with and how much it means to them to have their own personal freedom ... because that's not a high premium in a lot of places.
"We can bitch and moan, and certainly we have many problems here, but it's nothing like it is in other countries. It's pretty powerful when you seem them embrace that opportunity."
Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160 and firstname.lastname@example.org.