When the position of Vice Provost for the Arts at Duke University was created in 2007, the arts at Duke looked a little different than they do now. 

The music department housed the only creative graduate-degree program. Duke Performances had just hired Aaron Greenwald as its director, and most of its performances took place in Page Auditorium. The physical spaces for the arts were scattered around random buildings throughout campus. The job was only a part-time position, though composer Scott Lindroth, its first occupant, still managed to oversee a profound series of changes over 13 years.

Today, as Lindroth returns to his composing studio to spend more time banging on motorcycle parts and other unusual-sounding objects, Duke boasts numerous world-class performing venues, a visionary performing arts presenter, multiple new graduate programs in the arts and revitalized undergraduate programs, and the shining new Rubenstein Arts Center. Duke clearly wants to make the case for itself as a leader in the arts, not just as a hospital, a hub of scientific research, and a basketball team. The university has also doubled down on the position of Vice Provost for the Arts, making it a full-time job. 

Stepping into this expanded role on July 1 is another member of Duke’s music department, bassist, bandleader, and Director of the Jazz Program John V. Brown Jr. Brown has been teaching at Duke for nearly two decades, rising from an adjunct bass instructor. 

Born and raised in Fayetteville, Brown has been surrounded by music from nearly the beginning. After trying and rejecting both piano and viola, he found the bass at age nine and never looked back. While in college at UNC-Greensboro, he was simultaneously a member of drummer Elvin Jones’s band and the North Carolina Symphony. 

“I would take a red-eye from LA on Sunday night,” he recalls, “get back for rehearsal on Monday, then go to class Monday afternoon. It was crazy, but I loved it.’

After a brief detour to law school, Brown returned to music, teaching at North Carolina Central University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Duke (sometimes simultaneously), performing regularly with a wide array of jazz musicians including a longstanding partnership with Nnenna Freelon, and founding his own ensembles. Currently, he leads seven of them, ranging from a trio to a big band, alongside his duties teaching courses at Duke. (I was a teaching assistant for one of his classes during grad school a decade ago). He even served as a juror for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2017.

As Vice Provost, Brown will have to give up some of those musical activities, but he is excited about the possibilities of the position, even if he feels like he’s drinking from a firehose right now. I spoke with Brown by phone on Juneteenth, and we talked about his vision for the future of the arts at Duke, the pandemic, anti-racist art, and much more. 

INDY: What drew you to this position?

JOHN BROWN: I sought the position out because I felt compelled to do more than what I’m doing. I wasn’t unhappy. In fact, I was quite happy doing what I was doing. While I do very much enjoy performing concerts and being in front of an audience, I recognize that a position like this at a place that I love would give me an opportunity to help connect more people to the arts than playing one concert at a time. 

These days, I like to say that I feel called to illuminate more than I am to shine. That is simply being able to illuminate the work of others and help inspire and encourage others to create and, similarly, create an accessible space so that that work can be experienced by wide audiences. When I’m on stage, one arguably might state that I shine. In that context, I do have the meaningful experience of affecting the lives of the people who are in there. But as Vice Provost for the Arts at Duke that could be happening across all different types of arts, across many different types of audiences. Coming off stage and putting my bass down to do it may seem unattractive or even mundane, but I like knowing that I do that work that helps us enable people to connect with art.

What do you want to see arts at Duke becoming in the future?

I am committed to making arts accessible on every possible level, starting at home, looking at our student experience and enhancing those opportunities, inspiring people to collaborate, giving people license and motivation to use arts as the foundation for connection. There isn’t a part of our lives without art. I often challenge groups that I’m addressing: “Remember back to your childhood, did you sing? Has anyone in the room never sung in the car? Never sung in the house when you were by yourself? Anyone who’s never painted or drawn something? Is there any of us who’s never gotten some good news, don’t you have a little spring in your step? Has anyone here never danced?” 

When you help people understand the breadth of art and how it really is an integral part of all of our lives, then they can further appreciate it when they become more educated about all types of art, and then even further appreciate people who commit their lives to making it, commit their lives to sharing it.

Arts have to be shared, arts have to be experienced, and if I gotta be on a Zoom call all day and go to ten meetings and don’t get up from my office chair except to get something to drink—if all that time and work and conversation leads to a meaningful experience that might change somebody’s life, connecting an artist to students who are looking to find their voice, it’s all worth it to me. 

What do you see the artistic life of campus looking like in the near term as we deal with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath?

It’s going to be a challenge. I mean, that’s obvious, right? I’m encouraged by the fact that we all recognize that challenge exists, and that there are serious conversations taking place about how we’ll beat it. If it’s got to be Zoom a moment, then it’ll be Zoom. There are so many opportunities that might not actually involve us putting ourselves in an auditorium or theater or inside a museum, but there still will be ways that we can enjoy the existence of this art. 

Right now, musicians, writers, poets, and filmmakers have all been thrust into these moments of solitude. All this is doing for many of us is creating a space to just really let loose. We are all in zones of creativity. I’ll just tell our audiences to be ready because I predict there will be a flurry of productivity during this period. If artists are like me and other musicians I know, they have just wanted to play. I did a livestreaming Facebook thing with Nnenna Freelon on Monday. First gig I’ve done in three months. Just to play with another person after being in a space where I couldn’t perform with another person, to experience that energy of a live person again, was just was so filling and inspiring.

So just imagine what it’s going to be like when you put five musicians on stage, or you put a group of dancers on stage again, and they get to move the way that they’re used to moving, and the singers get to sing the way that they’re singing. Just imagine what that’s going to be. I think the other side of this pandemic will be a rich period to enjoy what people have been creating while we’ve been in this space.

We are in this moment of the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the uprising in support of Black lives, which has focused attention on the role of race and policing in society. These are huge, complicated issues. How do you see arts, at Duke and more broadly, helping us navigate them?

In this moment, I am thinking about the arts as a matter of expression and a vehicle for unity. When we set out to experience art, one must recognize that that is someone’s product. It is the result of someone’s experience that led them to create something and share it with the world. If we talk about an emotion or a thought or a feeling, there isn’t anyone who does not have those. Depending on what that thought, emotion, or feeling is, there is art to connect you with that and connect you with other people who also have experienced that. I view the arts as a uniting force that is a very effective tool of combat to win the war over these negative things in our world. I have great hope for what art will do in the world right now. It’s my charge to help all these worlds come together as much as possible and in as many ways as possible.

I’m also thinking about the email that Duke President Vincent Price sent out to the Duke community yesterday. He’s talking about refocusing the mission of the university to try and make it into a leader of anti-racist thought, research, and practice. How can the arts at Duke support this newly articulated mission?

I think that the answer is kind of in the method and that is rooted in freedom. Giving people the freedom to create and the space to create, I believe, empowers people to create. For those who are motivated to create something that is meant to address racism, I think the best thing we can do is encourage them to create and say, “We are united as an anti-racist people.” Simply being vocal and being obvious and being deliberate about countering negative forces. I think that one element of that is inspiring people to create and enjoy art. 

I don’t like to think of myself as a Black man in America, but here lately, I have to think about it because the world makes me. But even so, with this opportunity, I just want to remind people that we are men and women and transgender people. I hope that we get away from labels. But if you and I both walk out the door, and somebody were to look at you and describe you, they’re not going to say you’re white. But when they describe me, the first thing they’re going to say is I’m Black. And I just hope to get to a place where that is something that we notice, but it’s not dispositive. It doesn’t change the conversation. I would love to live in a world and inspire people who similarly want to live in a world where we moved that needle.

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