Kevin Fellezs

a white-haired man in glasses


Associate Professor of Music Kevin Fellezs says his path to academia began unintentionally. “I just wanted a steady income so I could play jazz at night,” he says. While getting his master’s in humanities at San Francisco State, Fellezs, who has a joint appointment in the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, “got a taste for scholarship.” “I wanted to challenge the way music was taught, particularly music by black Americans,” he says. Fellezs, who joined the Columbia faculty in 2012, now teaches frequently wait-listed undergraduate classes including “African-American Music” and “Popular Music and Protest Movements.” In early spring, he spoke to CCT about defining ethnomusicology, collecting vinyl and his Ph.D. advisor: political activist, academic and author Angela Davis.

FELLEZS GREW UP in a black, working-class neighborhood in San Francisco. “Hayes Valley is now very gentrified, but it used to be projects,” he says. His father, a native Hawaiian, was a singer and huge jazz fan; his mother is Japanese. Fellezs started piano lessons at an early age and accompanied his father when he sang. “If you had asked me when I was 5 or 6 who my favorite musician was, I would have yelled: ‘Duke Ellington!’ So I’ve been into jazz for a long time.”

HE PURSUED BEING a musician and wasn’t sure whether he should bother with college. “It was a matter of maturing and realizing that unless you ‘make it’ as a musician, it’s going to be a hard life,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a bitter old guy, so I went back to school.” As an undergrad at San Francisco State, teaching music theory was the extent of his ambitions until he was inspired by a class called “Comparative Cultures in China and Japan.” “Instead of the mechanics of music, I wanted to think about the meaning of music,” he says.

A FAVORITE PROFESSOR, Mary Scott, convinced him to work toward an advanced degree. After he earned his M.A., Scott recommended a Ph.D. program, The History of Consciousness, at UC Santa Cruz. Shortly after he applied, Fellezs met widely published UCSC sociology professor Herman Gray at a conference. Fellezs introduced himself, and after the two discussed jazz and collecting vinyl, they spent the afternoon record shopping. “That was all I thought it was, just ‘Nice meeting you,’” he says.

THEN HE GOT AN EMAIL from Angela Davis, asking to meet for coffee. “I was like — is someone spoofing me?! But it was real!” They met in Berkeley, where Davis told him she’d heard he’d connected with Gray. “She said, ‘He wants to work with you, and if you came to Santa Cruz, I’d be your advisor,’” Fellezs says. “And that was that.”

DAVIS BECAME A ROLE MODEL for Fellezs. “She taught me a lot of ethnic and feminist theory,” he says. “And the first time I lectured as a TA for her, she gave me a check. I couldn’t believe it. I had done it for other professors and they never paid me — it was always for the experience,” he says. “She said to me, ‘I’m not other professors.’ So now I do the same, and I get the same reaction. It’s how you show someone’s labor is of value. That was the sort of the thing she would teach by example.” Fellezs will teach a master’s class on Davis this fall.

FELLEZS IS INTERESTED in ethnomusicology, which derives from anthropology. “It’s about spending time with people and getting a sense of a space in which music is made,” he says. Fellezs completed a program this year with anthropologists from Columbia and Barnard, Pacific Climate Circuits, which looked at cultural responses to global climate change through interviews with indigenous activists, artists, musicians, filmmakers and poets.

AS A TEACHER, Fellezs says he wants his undergraduate students to appreciate music and music culture as something more than just entertainment or diversion. “Important things are expressed and articulated through music — even popular music. It’s not simply about spectacle or celebrity,” he says. Next year he will revive a dormant course, “Contemporary Native American Music,” and plans to include native Hawaiian music in the syllabus.

HIS BOOK Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk and the Creation of Fusion (Duke University Press) won the 2012 Woody Guthrie Book Award. He recently finished the manuscript for his next book, about Hawaiian slack-key guitar.

FELLEZS HAS AROUND 8,000 vinyl records in his collection. “I used to be more eclectic, but now it’s mostly jazz and jazz fusion. I have a big Hawaiian section and a Japanese pop section,” he says. But he’s not a snob: “I don’t even look for the best versions — I have plenty that I picked up for 50 cents. Sadly, there aren’t many record stores anymore!”

— Jill C. Shomer