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Kevin McHugh '06 Is Named Watson Fellow

Mar. 29, 2006

By Betty Gabrielli

Photo by Eva Green

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation has recognized jazz pianist and composer Kevin McHugh '06 as "a graduate of unusual promise" and awarded him a $25,000 fellowship to pursue a one-year independent research project outside the United States.

"The awards are long-term investments in people likely to lead or innovate," says Beverly Larson, the executive director of the Watson Fellowship Program. Each year the foundation receives nearly 1,000 applications for its prestigious fellowships from students at 50 selective, private liberal arts colleges and universities that participate in the fellowship program. This year, 176 seniors competed on the national level for 50 awards.

McHugh's project, titled "The Music of Megacities: Cultural Homogenization in Super-Metropolises," will take him to Brazil, Egypt, India, and Japan to investigate the development of local musical cultures. His project is worthwhile, McHugh says, because as the urban population of the world skyrockets in the next century, developing local traditions—especially music—will assume much greater importance.

"With a projected 2.5 billion more people living in the world's largest cities over the next 20 years, addressing the concern of cultural homogenization—and specifically local music—in megacities is incredibly important. I plan to perform with, interview, and record local jazz musicians in São Paulo, Mumbai, Cairo, and Tokyo, and discover how their music has become an expression of their global identity. I will try to understand the influence of local music on jazz, and see if there really is a sound of the city."

McHugh's talents were evident long before he'd been honored with a Watson.

Before graduating from high school in Seattle, he had racked up a number of honors, including three outstanding soloist awards at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and music studies and ensembles prizes at the Academy of Music Northwest (AMNW). He also was a Berklee World Scholarship Tour Winner.

He chose Oberlin, he says, because it offered the opportunity to pursue a BM degree in jazz. At the last minute he decided to pursue a BA degree in German studies as well.

"I fell in love with German language and culture in high school and traveled in the country performing with different improv' comedy groups, so I wanted to improve my language skills and also learn about Germany's political and cultural history," McHugh says.

In 2004 he won a scholarship from the German government for study at the Freie Universität Berlin and a grant from the Federation of German-American Clubs to study and perform in Berlin as a German exchange scholar. He recently composed music for Das Ohr des Dionysus, which was accepted into Berlin's 100 Grad Theaterfest.

At the Conservatory, McHugh says he discovered "a jazz faculty that is arguably a collection of the most talented performers alive today. The fact that students get a chance to perform with them, through combo and Oberlin Jazz Ensemble rehearsals and performances, is incredible. Add to that the opportunity to play with students who you know are going to be the next great jazz musicians, and the mix is enormously stimulating."

McHugh's interest in world music was solidified when, in summer 2004, trombonist Andy Hunter '06 invited him to play a three-month, six-night-a-week engagement with his quartet at Shanghai's House of Blues and Jazz.

"Two weeks later I stepped off the plane and into the sweltering heat and swarming maze of Shanghai, and my love of large cities and their music converged. I became intoxicated by the writhing energy of this megacity," McHugh says.

"Playing jazz in Shanghai was simply expressing the energy we felt there. We listened to the radio and talked with locals, finding out what was popular. We began incorporating Chinese pop songs into our sets. Just sitting down at the piano before the club opened brought on a wave of staff members who would crowd around me and demand that I play their latest cell phone ring tones."

Because of the lack of jazz education in China, McHugh suddenly found himself with a handful of students who not only wanted to learn his jazz tradition, but also to share their rich Chinese musical heritage with him.

"In Shanghai, teaching became an exchange of ideas, where I would play a few jazz songs, and my 'students' would teach me a few Chinese folk songs. As our band absorbed the local music and was caught by Shanghai's seething current, we tried to create a unique sound for the way we felt about living there," he recalls.

"There is no way to describe the incredible feeling of a huge city and the use of its energy to create music, rearranging the shout of a watermelon seller or the collective sigh of evening buses into a new song. I couldn't possibly canvass the personality of these great cities, learn their tempo and strut, and find connections between their culture and music by staying at home and listening to a CD," McHugh says.


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