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Interview: Ford Honors Program featuring JLCO and Wynton Marsalis

Photo: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis in concert. They’ll perform in Ann Arbor on March 30, 2014. Photo by Frank Stewart.

Each year, the UMS Advisory Committee (an organization of over 60 volunteers who contribute over 7,500 hours of service to UMS each year) works together with UMS staff on the UMS Ford Honors Program Gala. FHP is our annual benefit that supports UMS’s Education & Community Engagement Program, which provides free or low-cost education and community engagement activities focusing on K-12 students, teachers, teens, university students, families, adults, and cultural communities. Funds raised from the Gala make it possible for UMS to impact nearly 20,000 youth, educators, and community members each season.

This year, we’re excited to honor Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, artists who have a long history with UMS, and also a deep commitment to education.

cherylcassidy-200x200We sat down with Cheryl Cassidy, who’s leading the FHP efforts this season. Cheryl is a resident of Ann Arbor and a professor in the English department at Eastern Michigan University.

Caroline Kagan: What are you most excited about in this year’s program?

Cheryl Cassidy: I’m always excited about Ford Honors. We have been going, my late husband and I, and my daughter also, for the past thirteen, fourteen years. For me and for my family it’s always been a really exciting thing to be with people who are interested in the arts and to be a part of that community.

Of course I’m excited this year because Wynton Marsalis is just such a stellar performer. To be part of planning the whole thing is exciting, too. It’s fun, and it’s nice to be a contributor in a way that is very meaningful.

CK:  Have you attended Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis performances in the past?  If so, what do you like about them?

CC: You know, I thought about this question, and I was trying to think, what is it? I think a part of it is that not only does Wynton Marsalis excel at what he’s doing in his art, but he also has this very uncommon ability to transcend his medium. He goes beyond what’s predictable, in terms of musical boundaries, as does the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Along with that there’s this inclusivity that happens, so that the audience and the performers feel a part of the whole experience. That’s both a very fragile and a very unusual thing.

Secondarily, I’m excited because Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra have such an impact on our community. They’ve created possibilities for educational experiences for students, particularly those students who, under normal circumstances, would not be able to attend a concert like this. Of course the donors for this performance and gala are then supporting the continuation of those educational programs.

CK: Related to that thought, what do you think the Ford Honors Program brings to the community at large?

CC: I think the Ford Honors Gala in general and this particular performance and honoree in particular really reflect our community’s devotion to the arts. It’s not just a singular devotion. I think it’s very multifarious. In other words, it includes universities like the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, the community in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and beyond in the region. Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO really appeal to a great number of people. The gala reflects our commitment and our devotion to these stellar performers and indicates how much we value their creativity and how it enriches our lives.

CK: You also chaired the committee that planned the 2006 Ford Honors Program, which honored jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. What did you learn from that experience, and how have you incorporated those insights as you plan for this Ford Honors Program?

CC: I think the most important thing that I learned and that I experienced was the importance of having a really good team, a team of people who are dedicated and who are highly invested in the event, and we’re very lucky to have a great team working on this year’s FHP.

CK: Now I’m going to ask you a very hard question. Why do you support the arts?

CC: That is a hard question and that involves so much emotion. I think that for me, personally, the arts really enrich my life. And I think that the arts are part of how we are human. We have to incorporate the arts into our lives, because that makes us better people, better community members, better people in the world, because the arts transcend cultures. They are for the world and for everyone.

I buy into all that, but I think also my late husband was just fiercely devoted  to UMS. He wanted to go to every concert and I sort of had to say, “We can’t do it all!” He was really a person who treasured the idea that UMS was here in Ann Arbor, as do I. So I’ve been very conscious of that legacy, as has my daughter, and I think that’s part of it as well.

Interested in learning more about this year’s Ford Honors Program? Visit our FHP event page where we’ll keep the most up-to-date information about the gala.