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Violinist and Pianist win MacArthur "Genius" Grants

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A violinist who runs a community music school in Providence, R.I., and a jazz pianist known for his eclectic sensibility are among the 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

The $500,000 grants were announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Winners are allowed to use the prize as they wish, with no stipulations or reporting requirements from the foundation.

Sebastian Ruth, 35, a violinist in Providence, R.I., is the founder of Community MusicWorks, a music academy that provides free musical instruction to more than 100 disadvantaged inner-city kids. In addition to being the organization's artistic director he is a founding member of the Providence String Quartet, its house ensemble.

Ruth founded Community MusicWorks after graduating from Brown University in 1997. In contrast to some arts outreach programs, Ruth and his fellow quartet members are a fixed part of their neighborhood, right down to their storefront headquarters in Providence's West End. The idea is to be as intrinsic to the fabric of a community as a clinic, library or church. As such, the organization provides its students – who range from elementary to high school – with a long-term instrument loan, mentoring relationships with teachers, as well as opportunities through workshops and field trips.

In a phone interview, Ruth said the money will give him the opportunity "to make similar risk-taking opportunities available for musicians." Although he declined to name specific programming goals he hopes to invest at least some of the grant into building the organization.

"It felt like a huge validation and a lot of ways the work I’ve done in my career," he continued. "It's been about forging a path that is not a traditional one in music. It doesn’t come with the normal credentials and validations that a normal career would."

Jason Moran, a 35-year-old pianist, composer, and bandleader, is known for his genre-blurring music that straddles the boundaries between jazz, blues, classical, funk and rock. His signature style draws links between the two-handed "stride" piano style of the 1920s with the contemporary avant-garde. Signed to Blue Note Records at 18, Moran made a string of adventurous recordings with top stars (Cassandra Wilson, Charles Lloyd, Ravi Coltrane) and up-and-comers (Jenny Scheinman, Stefon Harris), establishing a reputation for extreme versatility.

Over the past decade, Moran has been a member of The Bandwagon, a trio that has collaborated with dancers and visual artists, and expanded to unusual multimedia performances. His 2008 tribute to Thelonious Monk, "In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959," incorporated parts of old Monk rehearsal tapes and pictures of the North Carolina plantation where Monk’s great-grandparents were slaves.

"Through reinterpretation of jazz standards and new compositions of his own, Moran is expanding the boundaries of jazz expression and playing a dynamic role in its evolution in the twenty-first century," writes the foundation. This year, the New York-based Moran joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory.

The MacArthur Fellows program has a history of granting awards to innovative musicians. Past recipients include performers like the violinist Leila Josefowicz, pianist Stephen Hough, and conductor Marin Alsop; and composers including Milton Babbitt, Osvaldo Golijov, John Harbison, Bright Sheng, Charles Wuorinen and John Zorn. Critic Stanley Crouch and composer/jazz historian Gunther Schuller were also awarded fellowships.

Below: Jason Moran performs in the Jerome L. Greene space on April 30th 2009.