Inspired by Jazz, Pair of UCSB Professors Receive MacArthur Foundation Honor

By Lauren Clark   |   July 8, 2021

Jazz really can change the world; at least two of UCSB’s most accomplished professors think so. Dr. Jeffrey Stewart and Dr. Victor Rios have just been named as the newest recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Chairs — the same prestigious foundation known for their “Genius Grants.” 

Stewart, a professor of Black Studies and winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, and Rios, a professor of Sociology and winner of the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award, combined efforts to start a pop-up jazz club — called Jeffrey’s Jazz Coffeehouse — that both entertains and promotes intellectual exchange with young Black and Latinx people.

Since October 2016, Stewart and Rios, along with Kim Yasuda, professor of Art at UCSB, all worked to create Jeffrey’s Jazz Coffeehouse, an initiative to both enlighten and edify UCSB students as well as the general population of Isla Vista. 

The Jazz Coffeehouse emerged as a pop-up event at local eateries, featuring performances from jazz acts from as far as New Orleans, as well as visual art exhibits, spoken word, and other creative performances. Why jazz? As Stewart explains, he was inspired by how in a jazz club, people of different backgrounds and talents “work together to create something beautiful — an ephemeral kind of utopia. As we know, these clubs often don’t last. They go out of business. But it’s not about the property, it’s about the people.” 

With the resources granted by these MacArthur Foundation Chair appointments, Stewart and Rios will pursue scholarly research and programming stemming from their work on the Jazz Coffeehouse. The theme, “A New Eden in Southern California: Promoting Black and Brown Futures in Resilient Communities,” combines artistic performance with social justice and community engagement work to address public policy issues facing the student community as well as the larger Isla Vista community and, they hope, the rest of Southern California.

At the Jazz Coffeehouse events, students present their own original research, which engages with issues pertaining to students’ actual lives — such as the plight of undocumented students living in Isla Vista or gender-based violence in Isla Vista in the wake of the 2014 mass shooting. Stewart explains that throughout the five-year duration of the MacArthur Chair appointments, “we hope to position young people as knowledge creators and solution makers.”

Stewart and Rios saw they had something special, bridging the gap between the arts and social justice. This is especially important for Stewart and Rios because they have found so many Black and Latinx youths feel disempowered by what is happening in the world, as well as by dominant narratives about Black people, Latinx people, and anti-immigrant sentiment.

“How do we create engagement with the youth, so they feel like there’s a future?” Stewart asks.

Stewart and Rios intend to use the resources and funds from the MacArthur Foundation Chairs to expand Jeffrey’s Jazz Coffeehouse, as well as pursue programming and community engagement work that focuses on how the university can serve Black and Latinx youths in the local community. A big piece of this will include how UCSB students can participate and serve their communities back home, in areas such as South Los Angeles.

“It is nice that we’ve got this modest endowment — we’ve got like $35,000 or $40,000 a year — but it’s not a great deal of money,” Stewart said.

“It’s enough to get us started, but we want to go beyond having a conference or inviting some speakers in. We really want to have an impact. It’s nice to get the attention and the recognition of our peers, but we will need more substantial funding than what we have right now.”

“We’re really thinking big,” said Rios. “We’re laying out a five-year plan, we’re laying out a 20-point plan of what we want to accomplish, and then based on the modest resources, we will prioritize what we want to get accomplished — we’ll reach out, and we’d like to establish a satellite to UCSB somewhere, maybe in South Los Angeles.

“We’re thinking globally, acting locally.”


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