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Duke Performances

Can Aaron Greenwald bring the Duke campus to Durham, and vice versa?



Aaron Greenwald is going to lose his job. Or at least that's what he's slightly worried about on a Thursday afternoon, sitting in a downtown Durham bar miles from his office in Duke University's Bryan Center. Since last winter, Greenwald has been the director of Duke Performances, the university program whose predecessor brought major performing arts events to campus for the last three decades. Properly, though, his title is interim director, and he expects Duke to start accepting applications for the position he's had since January sometime next week. He'll apply.

Interim director or not, Greenwald has sort of reinvented the Duke Performances wheel in his first year. He says he's proud of the work he's done, both as an organizer and as a fan of the arts: In a one-month celebration of Rocky Mount native and jazz piano titan Thelonious Monk, Greenwald will oversee a world premiere by the Kronos Quartet, a collaboration between legends Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, and a double bill with the trios of pianists Randy Weston and Kenny Barron. In November, The Classical Theatre of Harlem will spend two weeks in Durham, presenting its take on Romeo and Juliet, performing Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and collaborating with theater departments at Duke, N.C. Central University and Durham School of the Arts. During Soul Power, a seven-show winter festival, Solomon Burke will share the stage with The Dixie Hummingbirds, Mavis Staples will grace a bill with The Blind Boys of Alabama, and arguably the most important sidemen in R&B history—Maceo Parker and Booker T. Jones—will share a stage for the first time.

Duke administrators, Greenwald says, could hate it. By the time the season ends in April, he may be packing up his office: "I'm trying to do this stuff in the way that makes the most sense to me. And if that's what they want, then I'm probably OK. If not, then we'll see."

Greenwald followed his then-girlfriend to North Carolina in 2004. She enrolled in Duke's Fuqua School of Business. He was 28 and confident he could find a job in Durham. A Fulbright scholar with a theater degree from Columbia University and a stint in South Africa, Greenwald was certainly experienced: He produced country music videos in Nashville with Waylon Jennings before moving to New York, where he helped produce the Toyota Comedy Festival and the first two years of the New Yorker Festival. Before heading south, Greenwald spent another two years opening and programming the Museum of Jewish Heritage's new 375-seat theater, working with John Zorn and The Klezmatics. Certainly, he'd be fine in Durham.

"I was actually pretty desperate," says Greenwald, now 31, laughing about his dead-end job search three years ago. He finally saw an advertisement for a job directing something called the N.C. Festival of the Book, and he decided to apply. "I was a much different candidate than they expected."

Indeed, Greenwald isn't what you'd expect from the director of a literary festival: He's certainly a young, ambitious professional, the sort that sends text messages while having a conversation. But he has a small earring in his left ear, and he leaves his short-sleeved button-ups half unbuttoned, an ink pen hanging down against his chest. He listens to hip hop. Still, Greenwald transformed the festival, a biennial collaboration between Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and N.C. Central. What once was a series of readings became a set of free conversations between authors, entertainers and community members: The late cartoonist Doug Marlette spoke with novelist Pat Conroy about friendship; novelist and historian Reynolds Price digested Southern food with Crook's Corner chef Bill Smith; writer Kaye Gibbons and country star Mary Chapin Carpenter explored the creative process. Local bands performed, and Grammy winner and Durham resident Nnenna Freelon analyzed jazz poems. Greenwald's debut in Tar Heel event organizing was a success.

The end of the festival coincided with the announcement that Kathy Silbiger, who had directed the live programming at Duke for 25 years, would retire at the end of 2006. Silbiger built the program from four classical concerts in the early '80s to a sprawl of 40 events last year. Local company Paper Hand Puppet Intervention had its place in the wide series alongside experimenters like John Zorn and Pamela Z and jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. But Greenwald worried that the old model for Duke Performances simply plopped 40 interesting acts in Durham every year and sent them along too quickly.

"We needed to take the train off the tracks and say, 'What should a university's performing arts series look like, and what should its relationship to the community in which it operates be?'" says Greenwald. "The big question I asked was, 'How can we add context to our performances?' It seemed to me the university should be something other than a presenter of disparate acts."

Thelonious Monk - PHOTO BY W. EUGENE SMITH
  • Photo by W. Eugene Smith
  • Thelonious Monk

When he started the job on Jan. 1, he hoped to give Duke students and Durham citizens a chance to engage with an artist or, better still, a topic, by wrapping a series of concerts and talks around an idea—like Monk's hybrid of blues roots with experimental tendencies or the telling, natural relationship between soul sidemen and frontmen. Not a strict academic and not a stickler for tradition, Greenwald dismantled the series just as he rebuilt it, researching topics that interested him that he knew he could connect to Durham—soul music, jazz, black theater. He considered a Southern soul festival that explored the relationship between black and white musicians working together.

"What I realized real quickly was that the musicians didn't care about race. That wasn't their primary concern," he says, referring to a sequence of conversations he had about the idea with music historian Peter Guralnick, Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal and Memphis bandleader and saxophonist Jim Spake. "To do a festival highlighting that was to ignore the music. That's not how music gets made."

After all, there are infinitely more musicians and music fans than music scholars, and Greenwald wanted the series to be about connecting and teaching rather than preaching. He organized around the music and the people who made it: Who were the musicians behind the shift from gospel to soul music (and, later, to DJ culture), he wondered, and what was the relationship between the soloist and the choir, the frontman and his backing band?

The same sort of pragmatic, communicative principles applied to Monk: A hobbyist saxophonist himself, Greenwald interned at the Thelonious Monk Institute in New York while in college, and he was in charge of wrangling Monk's charismatic son, T.S. Monk, during a festival. Greenwald gushes about the jazz legends with North Carolina roots—Monk, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Max Roach: "If they were a group of old classical white guys, they'd be called the Piedmont School or something."

Monk's music, rooted in tradition but not bound to it, was a perfect symbol for Greenwald and what he wanted to accomplish with the series. He knows Duke students who don't know where American Tobacco complex is, and he knows Durham residents who feel like Duke is only a burden for its city. Reconstructing this Duke series, which sells 85 percent of its tickets outside of the university, can help close that Durham disconnect, Greenwald hopes: "Duke makes a large deal about the fact that it is an international institution, that it is has tentacles that reach out across the world. You can't be international without having a real sense of where you are."

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