Improvising Music and Ideas

The Vision Festival at Tufts: Art and Social Justice in America brings the best in free jazz and more to campus on October 27
Matthew Shipp at a piano
Matthew Shipp is one of the featured musicians at the Vision Festival at Tufts. Photo: Marek Lazarski
October 9, 2018


Acclaimed musicians will be coming to Tufts as part of a celebration of free jazz in the Vision Festival at Tufts: Art and Social Justice in America on October 27. The event includes legendary bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, with a keynote address by leading black intellectual Fred Moten.

An outgrowth of the annual Vision Festival held in New York City, which is well known for improvisation in music, art, and ideas, the Vision Festival at Tufts is the brainchild of Kurt Ralske, a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Art at Tufts, and David Locke, a professor of music and chair of the Music Department.  

Ralske was inspired to translate the New York Vision Festival into a smaller, but similarly provocative program after the surprise success of a free jazz concert and discussion at Tufts last spring.

That event struck him as so impressive that—assisted by the Music Department’s lead technician Peter Atkinson—he produced Seraphic Light [Live at Tufts University]. The CD won rave reviews from the New York Times and the blog The Free Jazz Collective, which called it “one of the best albums of the year, if not one of the best free jazz albums ever,” and was featured on NPR’s Fresh Air.

William Parker will be performing at the Vision Festival at Tufts. Photo: Eva KapanadzeRalske and Locke see their collaboration as indispensible to the organizing this larger event. “This would be impossible without the support of Tufts,” said Ralske. “One the strengths of the university is the number of faculty who are really dedicated to progressive ideals and who are empowered to act on them.”

Locke, for his part, said the program builds on the music department’s long-standing reputation for heralding the importance of black music through curriculum, performance, and programming. He also appreciates how Ralske “thought outside the box to bring to Tufts a kind of bohemian subculture of black intellectual artists and social critics.”

Ralske was especially happy to land Moten for the festival. An award-winning poet and professor at the New York University, he is the author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. He’s also “a long-time fan of free jazz,” said Ralske.

Fred Moten will be giving the keynote at the Vision Festival at Tufts on October 27. Photo: Peter Gannushkin“I’ve talked with faculty interested in cultural theory who are really excited he’s coming,” Ralske said, sounding still a little amazed himself. “When I approached organizers of the New York festival about doing a one-day event at Tufts, they said, yes, great idea—and oh, you should talk to a member of our board, his name is Fred Moten.’ And I said, wait, the Fred Moen?  We exchanged a few emails and he was happy to come—it’s been the icing on the cake.”

Tufts faculty will also take part in a symposium during the festival, “Sound and Social Justice.” Music department faculty members Stephan Pennington, an associate professor, and Joel LaRue, a senior lecturer will present their perspectives, along with Erica Walker, a lecturer in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, and Anthony Romero, professor of the practice at SMFA, followed by discussion with the musicians.

Ralske and Locke hope there will be more festivals to come at Tufts. One element of free jazz’s enduring appeal and vitality, said Ralske, is the fact that “improvisation is not just a strategy for art—it’s a blueprint for a deeper connection to life.”

“All the participants in this event are dedicated to this idea of improvisation as a mode of life—it’s connected to freedom,” he added. “It can be very inspiring to see that belief become visible.”

Vision Festival at Tufts: Art and Social Justice in America will be held on Saturday, October 27 at the Perry and Marty Granoff Music Center on the Medford/Somerville campus starting at 5:30 p.m. with a panel discussion; music starts at 6:30. The program is free and open to the public. See the full program.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at