Since 1998, Guthrie Ramsey Jr. has been teaching Penn students about music. His classes have covered jazz history, studies in African-American music and jazz improvisation, as well as general introductions to musical life in America.
Ramsey has also continued to create music outside the classroom, playing piano and keyboards with his ensemble, Dr. Guy’s MusiQology. The latest result of that collaboration, Ramsey’s new album, The Colored Waiting Room, will hit stores later this month. We caught up with the popular professor last week to discuss the music he makes (“jazz infused with the sounds of R&B, funk, soul, Latin, and hip hop”), the music he teaches, and the music he’s listening to right now.
Tell me about the title of your new album.
I’m not just making music for people to enjoy—I also want to draw people into higher levels of consciousness and make them think about things in different ways. To me, the “colored waiting room” refers to a space of containment. It was meant to keep people separate and to keep people down, but I think what happens inside those very unpleasant experiences is that people actually make their own joy, make their own pleasures, make their own world and what they desire. As a result, [these rooms] weren’t just spaces of containment, they were also spaces of freedom and freedom dreams. So what I conceived of for this CD is that this colored waiting room is actually a nightclub—that the songs and spoken word on this CD take place in a nightclub called The Colored Waiting Room. It gives people a way to think about both sides of this coin.
What are some of your favorite tracks from the album?
The most sentimental track for me is “Little London’s Lullaby.” It’s a little blues lullaby that I wrote for my granddaughter when she was born two years ago, and my daughter—her aunt—sang the song on the album. It’s really sentimental to me because I trained my kids in music and now I’m trying to make the impression on my granddaughter that, ‘Hey, this is what we do.’
There’s another song called “Lake Como (Remix)” that I think might be my favorite on the CD in terms of how it turned out. I wrote it when I was staying on Lake Como in Italy a few years back. I recorded it as a solo piano piece, and a bass player who’s also on the CD said, ‘Wow, I can’t stop listening to that song.’ Those are the kind of comments you pay attention to, so I remixed the song and scored it for a full band.
I heard there was a lot of student involvement on The Colored Waiting Room.
Students who are interested in the real-world practices of the music industry have few formal or extra-curricular outlets at Penn. Consequently, some of the students who take my history and literature classes see this other part of my life and want to participate because they get to see the real workings of someone trying to put together [music] projects. They take independent studies with me or volunteer to help out with different aspects of the projects. It’s analogous to undergraduate research, but we’re working on projects. For this album, one of the students actually did research on mixing and mastering and sent around listening sessions. [Other students] wrote liner notes, and some helped write and produce the film I put out for this CD.
When did you first start making music?
I was exposed to a piano teacher around age five or six [but] I didn’t get really serious about it until I was about 11. Then it took over. It was just something that gave me many, many hours of peace.
Did you start out playing classical music?
I had lots of classical lessons in high school and college, but a lot of it has been in jazz and popular music. I started directing church choirs in 7th grade and then playing in jazz bands in high school. I was a real focused and directed little kid. It was kind of strange, man. After I graduated high school, I went on the road with a rock and roll band touring.
As a musician yourself, what are some of your goals as a professor of music?
One of the things I like to demonstrate to students is how much about the world you can learn through the study of musical practice. I also try to show them that people have lots of really personal feelings about music, and that there is a social constitution to what feels personal. I try to show them that all these attachments and identifications they’re making with musical practices are part of a larger cultural framework.
What are your thoughts on the current music scene?
There’s a lot to dig about it and there’s a lot that’s not so good about it. It’s very tough to make generalizations about any musical genre or form, but one of the reactions I’ve been having from [my new] CD—people always bring this up—is that it’s kind of a throwback to a stronger musical past, that there’s something different about what they’re hearing in this project than what they’re sensing currently in the music marketplace.
What do you think it is that’s lacking from current music?
So much music that people are finding disrespectful to themselves and others always gets the greatest attention, always has the highest sales. Across the board, there’s a lot of music circulating now that people find deeply offensive. I think that there should be alternatives. I don’t believe in censoring people, but I believe that if you present strong alternatives for people, we may see a shift in the aesthetic.
What are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to the new Nicholas Payton album, which is very controversial. I’ve been trying to understand where this CD fits into the larger scheme of things, and in my hip-hop class we recently talked about that piece’s pleasures and problems.
I’ve also been listening to a CD by Bill Ortiz—he’s a Latin Jazz artist—and to Christian McBride’s new CD [The Good Feeling].
I’ve been especially interested in CDs that have been independently released because I’m about to do that myself.