Greetings From New Zealand!

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2015 - This was an article written for The Penguin, the student newspaper of the New England Conservatory, to which I owe much of the confidence that I have in my own writing. I was honored to discover that this article was quoted by Tom Novak in the 2015 NEC convocation ceremony.

It's well known that New Zealand is a beautiful country. You've heard of Lord of the Rings, Flight of the Conchords, and if you've ever eaten lamb and liked it, it's probably from New Zealand. It's not a perfect country by any means, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Perhaps I should also mention the scenery?

When you run into people you know in New Zealand, you never ignore them. You always say hi, at least. When I arrived in Boston I soon found that this was not the norm. At first, I thought that people disliked me, and I also felt like an incredibly rude person when I found myself doing it to others. I'm used to it now but even then, I feel a certain sense of guilt for realising that.

My Bachelor's degree is from the New Zealand School of Music. They had a jazz program as well as a classical program, but the campuses were in different places. To make up for this, the school organised combined performance workshops, which all performance students had to attend regardless of major. These were basically concerts, that included both jazz and classical performances. As a result, we now have a really great open attitude and dialogue happening between young jazz and classical musicians in Wellington who are or recently were in university.

At the organisational level, more work still needs to be done. There are countless more scholarships reserved for New Zealand's classical performers and students of composition rather than jazz performers. Although some jazz projects get funded, funding from arts funding bodies generally goes to established classical projects. There is a certain feeling of reluctance to accept jazz as a 'serious' music, or at least there was during my undergrad. In some ways, that's actually a good thing, but not financially.

It showed in the difference in facilities we had. The classical school did not have amazing facilities, and they had fewer practice rooms than we did, but at least their school was more than a square corridor of white washed walls. Ours seemed to be re-fashioned out of what was formerly a mechanic's school. In one room, there was even a leftover garage door made of corrugated iron that lead outside. It looked like a prison, and it felt like one too.

For a long time, I felt that I had to measure up to classical musicians, that I had to prove that I was just as deserving of respect. I certainly felt this when it came to funding, but I also had a feeling of low self esteem whenever I participated in the National Youth Orchestra in New Zealand, even though there was no real reason for that and I don't think any of the orchestra members thought any less of me. In fact, looking back, some people thought that my involvement in jazz was something really cool and yet, at least for as long as I was wearing a bow tie, I would not allow myself to believe that.

My own personal insecurities aside, another result of this environment is that a lot of jazz projects are constructed that incorporate elements of classical music, or involve classical musicians in performance. One example is “Mantis: The Music of Drew Menzies”, which is a CD by NZ drummer Reuben Bradley released in 2013.

It features the New Zealand String Quartet playing arrangements by John Psathas who, among other things, wrote music for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Drew Menzies was a jazz bassist and a good friend of Reuben's who unfornately lost his life too soon, but he was also a great classical bassist and a member of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. You can imagine how that might have made a pretty strong funding application for a jazz project. This year, I'm looking forward to attending a concert featuring the Wellington Jazz Orchestra with soloist Michael Houstoun, one of New Zealand's leading (classical) concert pianists.

I don't think this is a bad outcome. I think it is actually quite beautiful that such a conversation has arisen in Wellington, even though the circumstances that shaped it are less than ideal and still something I will try to change. It has certainly shaped who I am and what I do as a musician.

The piece I put forward for the UNESCO International Jazz Day concert has its roots in this conversation – it is a piece I wrote to open the first combined performance workshop in 2012, that would show everybody the possibility of jazz students and classical students playing together. It is certainly not the first piece of its kind, even in New Zealand, but I think it was important for us at the NZSM to see that performance and finally realize that connection that had been the whole point of those combined events, however briefly.

For me personally, there have been two great takeaways from this experience. The first of these is that I began a wonderful journey of collaboration across musical traditions. I think the fact that two groups of people from different backgrounds, different historical contexts and with different understandings of the worlds within and outside of themselves, are able to come together and make beautiful music can teach us something about how we might learn to create an environment of communication and cooperation across ideological boundaries, of which have always been many.

The second is that, in order to continue being a musician, both in financial and spiritual terms, I had to really think about why music is important, and what musicians have to offer the world. Hopefully, you'll be hearing a lot more from me about this topic in the coming semesters.

I come to the New England Conservatory with my ears and eyes open. I am here to learn as much as I can, from as many people as I can. So far, each person that I have met at this school has left an outstanding impression on me. You are all very special.

Sometimes I wonder if we hear this word so often that we forget what it means. What I mean is this: each of us has beautiful and important things to say, and I really believe that we have a responsibility to share those things with each other. I am looking forward to sharing with all of you the perspectives that have been shaped by my unique circumstances and life experiences, and I especially look forward to hearing about yours. I hope you'll come say hi to me, and let me know what you thought of this piece.

Umar