Ajay Heble – 2023 Killam Prize


University of Guelph

Dr. Ajay Heble is an internationally renowned scholar, a visionary arts leader, and an innovative community builder. Instrumental in establishing the academic field of Critical Studies in Improvisation, he has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of musical and other forms of improvisation as vital models for social change. Particularly noteworthy is the way in which this new field has addressed pressing issues of social and cultural transformation: human rights, transculturalism, pedagogy, the civic participation of aggrieved populations – issues central to the challenges of diversity and social cooperation in Canada. He collaborates with festivals, educators, social service organizations, and health care centres to ensure the broadest possible impact on Canadian society. His leadership has led to successful models of how children with disabilities, at-risk youth, and aggrieved populations can engage with, and feel included in, their communities.

He has published 15 books, and he cofounded and co-edits the first scholarly peer-reviewed journal in the field, Critical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation. He and his dynamic international research teams have been awarded three large-scale grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). In 2007, he received a Major Collaborative Research Initiatives grant to direct “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” (ICASP), which established a new field of interdisciplinary inquiry. As the founding Artistic Director of the Guelph Jazz Festival from 1994 to 2016—winner of the Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and three-time recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Arts—Dr. Heble established his role as a world leader in presenting a consistently vibrant, challenging, and culturally diverse program of the very best in innovative jazz and improvised music. Exploring music’s vast potential as a powerful community-building force, he steadfastly built large and enthusiastic audiences for innovative artistic expression through his one-of-a-kind programming, his unique educational and outreach initiatives, his commissioning of new work, and his creative community partnerships. Since 1996, Heble organized as part of the Festival an ongoing international scholarly conference on the social implications of improvised music.

Dr. Ajay Heble has always been passionate about the arts as a force for social change. His work has consistently focussed on how the arts can reinvigorate public life with the spirit of dialogue and community. His vision, leadership, and inspiration have fostered an innovative space in which scholars, artists, and community members creatively and collaboratively address pressing societal issues.

In his current role as the founding Director of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) at the University of Guelph, Dr. Heble has overseen a dynamic team of researchers who have taken the field in exciting new directions.

Tune in to listen to his interview on CBC’s The Morning Edition – K-W with Craig Norris to learn more about his research.


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