ACE winner Jason Finkelman2987

Jason Finkelman teaches an Improvisers Exchange Ensemble class at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. Finkelman, the director of Global Arts Performance Initiatives, is the winner of this year's Arts, Culture and Education (ACE) Advocate Award.

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URBANA — If you’ve ever enjoyed listening to improvisational and avant garde jazz, Balinese gamelan, Spanish flamenco, music from Mali or the sounds of instruments made from recycled materials, right here in Champaign-Urbana, then you probably have Jason Finkelman to thank.

For 19 years, the Urbana man has been bringing local, national and international artists to the area as director of Global Arts Performance Initiatives at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts; through his collaborations with the University of Illinois and other institutions, organizations and programs in the community; and as host of his own radio show.

Now the man who enjoys shining the spotlight on other artists is being recognized for that work and more as this year’s recipient of the ACE (Arts, Culture and Education) Advocate Award.

“He has been tireless in his support, presentation and promotion of the arts in our community for countless audiences across class, race and aesthetic boundaries,” his nominators wrote. “He is a generous, kind and open human who treasures and is a treasure to this community. (And) he is himself an artist who humbly puts the work of other artists at the forefront of his vision of quality of life for our community.”

While deeply honored, Finkelman said the award represents not just him, but “the wide range of colleagues and the community of collaborators I’ve had the honor of working with through the years.”

He added he’s just pleased to be able to create opportunities for local audiences to hear different types of music “that operate outside of popular culture.”

“Ever since I arrived in this community, I’ve sought out ways to share the music I love,” he said, describing it as a combination of “new and experimental forms of music, music traditions of the world and extensions of those traditions. You never know what impact hearing something very different will have on someone or how profound that experience may be. I want the music I present to be challenging in different ways. I hope it inspires them in different ways. And, what I hope to share with audiences is the joy of sound.”

Finkelman, who plays percussion and laptop electronics, was shaped partly by his time at the Painted Bride, an artist-run, multidisciplinary arts center in his hometown of Philadelphia.

There, he met Adimu Kuumba, a musician and self-taught instrument maker, who introduced him to African and Brazilian percussion, and made some of the instruments Finkelman performs on today. He also began collaborating with dancer and choreographer Cynthia Oliver, whom he married in 1997.

At the Painted Bride, he also was introduced by various musicians to the art of collective improvisation, where music is created in the moment.

“It’s more of a sound-oriented approach to making music,” he explained.

While studying jazz at State University of New York at New Paltz, in Ulster County, he met two more great influences — Pauline Oliveros, a legendary artist and composer of experimental and electronic music, and Steve Gorn, a bansuri flautist and pioneering “world music” recording artist.

“The roots of my music is a combination of all these experiences,” he said.

Finkelman moved to New York City to focus on his ambient avant world trio, Straylight, which played regularly at the Knitting Factory, a premiere venue for improvisational music and avant garde jazz. In 2000, Straylight won a New York dance and performance award (Bessie) for composing SHEMAD, a full-evening performance written and choreographed by Oliver.


The couple moved to Urbana in August 2000 when Oliver joined the UI dance department. Finkelman also joined the department as the dance production liaison with Krannert Center.

In October, he hosted his first world music show on WEFT 90.1 FM radio. For years, he’s been hosting Fanfare for the Speeding Bullet, which airs from 8 to 10 p.m. on Sundays and focuses on a wide range of his musical interests.

In March 2002, he presented a cross-cultural jazz ensemble, featuring a guest artist — the late Roy Campbell Jr., a progressive jazz trumpeter — as part of Krannert Center’s Jazz Threads series. The audience’s enthusiastic response led him to form Nu Orbit Ensemble, a quartet of local musicians that regularly features special guest artists.

“That became my platform for my performance work,” Finkelman said, adding that he specifically works with community-based musicians.

Other programs and projects he curates:

— The Sudden Sound Concert Series at Krannert Art Museum, started in 2005. It’s the longest-running series of improvised music and avant garde jazz in the community.

— The Gateways to World Music performance and lecture series. This year, it has featured or will feature artists drawing from music traditions of West Africa, Spain, the Carpathian Bow and India. Finkelman’s dream: To have a physical center on campus, where audiences could listen to a wide array of international music in an intimate theater and students could rehearse together.

“It would also provide a home for our gamelan program,” he said.

— The AsiaLENS film series at the Spurlock Museum, which gives audiences a chance to view documentary and independent films touching on issues of contemporary life in Asia.

— The Improvisers Exchange, created to explore the dynamic practice of music improvisation with students and guest artists in the field. It’s now in its third year in collaboration with Unit One/Allen Hall.


Finkelman’s latest project is the Kuroshio Quartet, comprised of him and other improvising artists of Asian descent. It premiered last May at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center as part of the Immersion Festival.

“It’s a new investigation of how improvised music might address the notions of identity and culture,” he said.

For Finkelman, the quartet has become another outlet for exploring his heritage. He’s half Japanese on his mother’s side, and he’s been researching his family’s history and experience of being incarcerated at relocation centers during World War II, along with other American citizens of Japanese descent. Finkelman’s grandparents lived in California before they were uprooted.

Following their release, they and their young children settled at Seabrook Farms in New Jersey, where they had to start over.

Previous work of note includes the Late Night Space for Boneyard Arts Festival — an immersive arts event featuring a wide array of music, projection arts, visual art and dance — and the Sonified Sustainability Festival, presented two years in a row at Krannert Center.

“It was a fun blend of improvisational music and ecology,” Finkelman said, adding it featured instruments made with found and re-purposed materials and works that addressed ecological concerns.

When possible, Finkelman introduces artists to a younger audience through creative, interactive workshops in the local public schools, which broadens their knowledge about other countries and cultures along with teaching them about new kinds of sounds and music. They have played Balinese gamelan with Putu Tangkas Adi Hiranmayena, a UI doctoral student, and heard Sean Gaskell play an American kora, a 21-string harp native to the Mandinka people of West Africa.

Other students built their own skatchboxes — sounding boxes made out of cardboard and other recyclables that were invented by Tom Nunn, one of the musicians featured in the Sonified Sustainability Festival.

“That was one of those really beautiful things that happened in the program that you can’t predict,” Finkelman said.

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Noelle McGee is a Danville-based reporter at The News-Gazette. Her email is nmcgee@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@n_mcgee).