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What happens when a theoretical physicist and a jazz musician walk into a Kansas City theater?

NEA Jazz Master Big Chief Donald Harrison and theoretical physicist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander have been collaborating on a new project they call quantum improvisation. The two have a lot in common including an obsession with Kansas City legend Charlie Parker.
Donald Harrison / Stephon Alexander
NEA Jazz Master Big Chief Donald Harrison, left, and theoretical physicist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander are collaborating on a new project they call "quantum improvisation." The two have a lot in common, including an obsession with Kansas City legend Charlie Parker.

Theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander and NEA Jazz Master Donald Harrison are exploring their theory of quantum improvisation. The two will bring their collaborations to a Kansas City stage for the first time next week.

The connections between jazz music and the origins of our universe aren’t always obvious or easy to explain.

Theoretical physicist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander has been studying those connections for more than two decades. Alexander specializes in cosmology, particle physics, and quantum gravity, and he has some big thoughts on the subject.

“I would say the three greatest intellectual achievements of the century (were) ... quantum mechanics, Einstein's theory of relativity, and bebop,” Alexander says.

Alexander was born in Trinidad and moved to the United States when he was 8. He grew up in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, and first picked up the saxophone as a teenager. In his pursuit of bebop, Alexander studied the playing of one of the founding sources: Kansas City's own Charlie Parker.

"It's just mind-blowing what's coming out his horn," he says.

In the scientific realm, Alexander has spent most of his career trying to figure out what happened before the Big Bang.

Some of his biggest breakthroughs happen in darkened jazz clubs — often while he’s playing saxophone.

He says jazz takes his brain to unexpected places.

“The tools to do science and music is actually the unconscious, and our intuition is a great resource for creativity and innovation,” Alexander says.

As a theoretical physicist, Alexander has to come up with new ways of looking at, or clarifying, phenomenon.

“I think that what my music has done is help me, when I have an intuition or insight into something, to just actually trust it and pursue it,” he says.

Given all the musical experimentation going on during the jam sessions of Harlem clubs like Minton’s Playhouse or Kansas City joints like the Century Room. Alexander says musicians like Charlie Parker worked like scientists.

Charlie Parker performing in Los Angeles in the 1940s.
LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries
Charlie Parker performing in Los Angeles in the 1940s.

“What they were doing looked very much like what scientists would do in a lab," Alexander says. “They were trying different things out. There were even stumbling and making mistakes. Some things would stick.”

In 2012, Alexander met National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Big Chief Donald Harrison, a New Orleans sax player and big chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group.

Harrison, who is known for his improvisational style, had just recorded a song called “Quantum Leap,” and he turned to Alexander for feedback. As it turned out, the two have a lot in common — including an obsession with Charlie Parker, known in the jazz world as "Bird."

When Harrison was a young musician, he sought out every older player he could find who had worked with Parker.

“I am a student of Bird every day, all day, because his music is like the universe is: infinite,” Harrison says “He's a lifetime of study that you can never finish because he did so much.”

When Harrison was 19, another Kansas City legend pulled him aside after a concert in Chicago.

Count Basie told me how that sound in Kansas City developed,” Harrison remembers. “Of course, all the great saxophonists (were) there. Charlie Parker heard them, and he took all those sounds and came up with his sound.”

Parker’s cosmic improvisations riffed on the popular songs of the day. The result became its own artistic form — bebop.

For Alexander, Parker’s musical achievement is hard to overstate.

“It really starts with Charlie Parker and his genius,” Alexander says. “Genius, not just only on a musical level, but also, he was playing quantum physics.”

“I think it's a wellspring for researchers like myself and other scientists to sort of delve deeper into the hidden codes in there,” he says.

Harrison doesn’t have a background in science, but he says learning more about quantum physics helps him think like a scientist.

“Talking about music through the prism of quantum physics and theoretical physics has given me the keys to the vast universe, which we'll never be able to completely explore and find the answers to,” Harrison says.

Harrison and Alexander are calling their collaboration quantum improvisation.

“Donald is fluent in bebop, and I'm fluent in quantum physics,” Alexander says. “Now we're just translating for each other and expanding the tradition. We're just doing what was done in previous generations, just taking it now to a different level but within the same tradition.”

NEA Jazz Master Donald Harrison and Stephon Alexander will perform “The Jazz of Physics: Quantum Improvisation,” at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 22 at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64105. The show is presented by the American Jazz Museum and the Linda Hall Library.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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