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Jazzing Up Her Research

Jazzing Up Her Research
The Summer Scholars program is giving Sara Deforest the chance to blend her love of music with her sociology studies.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.23.09] Sara Deforest (A'10) faced a difficult decision when choosing a major her sophomore year - music, her great passion, or another, more "practical" concentration in the liberal arts. She ended up choosing sociology, but she never set aside her love for music.

When Deforest applied for the Summer Scholars program, she found she could neatly combine her two interests in music and sociology into a research proposal. Specifically, she is studying the social networks of jazz musicians in the '40s and '50s.

"We're looking at three styles within jazz -- bebop, cool jazz and free jazz -- and the leaders around each style, looking at all of their discographies, who they played with and how interconnected they were," explains Deforest, whose work is being mentored by her advisor, Associate Professor of Sociology at Tufts' School of Arts and Sciences James Ennis.

The idea for examining social networks within jazz came to her after reading an article that mapped the networks of scientists and demonstrated that a collaborative environment led to further innovation and experimentation. Deforest, who plays trumpet, thinks jazz musicians may have worked the same way and hopes to support this theory with her research.

"It seems like there were a few leaders for each genre, like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker for bebop. They were the ones to actually sit down, grab a rhythm section, grab a piano, bass and drums and mix them all together," says Deforest, who minors in communications and media studies. "I think the network of people is what helped spread bebop around."

The social networks surrounding an intellectual movement can reveal how certain discoveries come about, says Ennis. His research on social networks has ranged from studying corporate structure in the biotechnology field to critics' taste for movies and popular music.

"It's about looking at what the social organization is for creativity," Ennis said. "These social structures can enable or constrict innovation."

Another goal is to understand how and why different genres within jazz evolved. The emergence of new genres, Deforest thinks, is directly related to the people who played jazz during this time period; as they listened to different kinds of music, different forms of jazz popped up on the scene.



The predominant music of the time was used mainly for dancing, with composition that was simple and easy to listen to, explains Deforest. The musicians that she has been researching, she believes, wanted to take their music beyond the dancehall.

"For example, a lot of what happened with bebop was that there were musicians who wanted to change [the way music was played]. They wanted to take it a step further and have it be a musician's music," Deforest says. "Bebop is known for being really complex, both rhythmically and harmonically, playing lots of different chords incredibly fast."

Deforest is taking a hands-on approach to her research, looking to better understand the musicians she is studying by tackling their songs herself.

"Now if someone gives me a song, I can see who wrote it and I will know the whole history behind it. As I read about a song, I try to find it somewhere and play it on my trumpet. I'm trying to extend my repertoire."

While many students conduct Summer Scholars research in preparation for a senior thesis, Deforest thinks of her achievement as something much more personal. Building off of her passion for music, her research led her to learn more about the jazz music that she has played for years.

"I'm finally reading about and studying the topics that I've been hearing my friends talk about for years. It's really great for me to have the opportunity to study something at my own pace and have it be exactly what I'd like to study for a summer," Deforest says.

Deforest, who plays in the Tufts Small Jazz Ensemble, hopes to maintain her connection to Tufts after graduation, and even continue to play music here.

"I was practicing one night, and this guy who graduated last year was practicing too, so we ended up playing together. I'm hoping stuff like that will still happen, even after I graduate," says Deforest.

Story by Catherine Scott (A'11)



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