Partnership Award: Susan McGrath

Ajay Heble

Partnership award:

Ajay Heble

School of English and Theatre Studies

University of Guelph


Partnerships form the basis of Ajay Heble’s work. Whether it’s mentoring and training hundreds of students at universities across Canada, fostering the collaboration of 30 community organizations to spark social change or founding the Guelph Jazz Festival, Heble’s creative thought makes him a visionary.

At the heart of Heble’s research is the belief that improvisation involves creating and developing new, unexpected and productive collaborations among people of diverse backgrounds. This can help address societal issues such as: How we choose to live (and do things) together; how we negotiate differences in a community; how we adapt to unprecedented change; and how we remain attentive to our responsibility to build the world we hope to inhabit. Improvised music, Heble believes, can be a powerful site for sounding out such questions about “how.”

This unique focus on musical improvisation as a model of social change and knowledge transfer is what led Heble to create the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, with a SSHRC Partnership Grant.

Based at the University of Guelph, the institute brings together 58 international researchers from 20 institutions to “break down silos, bridge gaps and enable different kinds of organizations to come together and engage in a productive process of co-creative knowledge exchange.”

The institute has also had a significant effect on how research is done and how results are implemented. This, in turn, has led to successful models of how children with disabilities, at-risk youth and disenfranchised members of society can engage with, and feel included in, their communities.

Heble is a professor of English in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. He has also published ten books on jazz, improvisation and community engagement, as well as various scholarly papers. He has been the subject of various international press articles about his innovative work.

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship.

SSHRC’s Partnership Award recognizes an outstanding partnership whose mutual cooperation and shared leadership have advanced research, research training, partnership approaches or knowledge mobilization, to the greater benefit of research and society.

How would you describe the main focus of your work?

I am interested in the social impacts of improvisatory artistic practices. My work seeks to create positive social change through the confluence of improvisational arts, innovative community-engaged scholarship and collaborative action.

What is it about jazz and improvisation that you feel helps you achieve your research and community engagement goals?

There is a long and illustrious history—especially in African-American creative practice—that links jazz and improvised music with broader struggles for human rights, social justice and community formation. I believe this history speaks very powerfully to how musicians from aggrieved communities have sought to cultivate resources for hope out of seemingly hopeless situations.

Improvisation teaches us to make “a way” out of “no way” by cultivating the capacity to discern hidden elements of possibility, potential, hope and promise, sometimes in even the most discouraging circumstances.

What research accomplishments are you most proud of to date?

I’m most proud of the fact that the research our team has been doing has been instrumental in the development and consolidation of this new field of interdisciplinary scholarly endeavour. As part of this, we now have our own peer-reviewed journal; several international scholarly conferences a year; a book series with a leading international academic publisher; and summer institutes for graduate students. We also have students and postdoctoral researchers, trained by members of our research team, who are getting jobs in this field that we have helped to create.

I am also particularly proud of the way in which members of our research team have worked with a range of partners to develop a number of improvisation-based outreach initiatives in communities across Canada.

What do you most want Canadians to understand about your work?

I hope that the research we are doing will help to place the social function of improvised artistic practices firmly at the centre of both broad public debate and informed policy decisions about the role of arts in society. I believe that improvisation offers huge potential to document, assess—even exemplify—the ways in which creativity and innovation can be seen as vital tools for building sustainable communities, promoting social cooperation and adapting to unprecedented change.