Benjamin Barson

Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow


Benjamin Barson is a composer, historian, and musicologist. His research thinks through jazz as an Afro-Atlantic art form deeply tied to the counter-plantation legacies of the Haitian Revolution and their echoes in Radical Reconstruction. He received his PhD in Music from the University of Pittsburgh and recently completed a Fulbright Garcia-Robles postdoctoral fellowship at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California in Mexicali, Mexico. Barson’s research rethinks migration, agency, and cultural resistance, and has published on topics ranging from the musical cultures of Chinese indenture in the late nineteenth century United States South (The Cargo Rebellion, PM Press, 2023) to the legacy of Haitian migrants in early Louisianan blues (in The Routledge Handbook to Jazz and Gender, 2022). In addition to his academic and scholarly output, Barson is the recipient of the 2018 Johnny Mandel Prize from the ASCAP Foundation for this distinguished work as a jazz saxophonist and composer. Barson, disturbed by the incredible oppression wrought by white supremacy and the destruction of global ecology, employs a musical practice that draws from the deep well of revolutionary musicians within the jazz tradition, often composing through a collaborative process with activists and social movement leaders in the Global South. His work Mirror Butterfly: The Migrant Liberation Movement Suite (2018) was hailed as “Fully orchestrated and magnificently realized” (The Vermont Standard) as well as “a call to action” (I Care if You Listen). His teaching encourages students to consider musical aesthetics and their associated production practices through a holistic, interdisciplinary approach rooted in methodologies developed by scholars in Africana studies, musicology, cultural studies, and Atlantic History from below.

Research Focus

The nineteenth-century Black Atlantic and early jazz

As a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow with the Society for the Humanities and the Africana Studies and Research Center, Dr. Barson will be working on publishing his research in a book monograph titled Brassroots Democracy: Maroon Ecologies and the Jazz Commons. This work explores the evolution of jazz aesthetics and their interaction with social movements in the Caribbean basin, employing theoretical frameworks from cultural studies such as those developed by Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and Paul Gilroy, as well as theorists from the global south and Latin America including Enrique Dussel, Jean Casimir, and Édouard Glissant. Barson thinks through jazz as a product of colonial social relations as well as a culture of afrodiasporic resistance. Consulting documents from the Freedman’s Bureau (a federal agency that “supervised” the abolition process) as well as nineteenth-century Black and white newspapers, Dr. Barson explores how Black activists in post-Civil War Louisiana developed a grassroots democratic culture through mass assembly and collective brass band music making—a configuration that he coins as “Brassroots Democracy.” Barson argues that practitioners of Brassroots Democracy expressed and developed “counter-plantation” and liberation theologies, powerfully altering the nature of both Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. His work takes on pressing debates raised by musicologists of the African diaspora, historians of slavery, scholars in cultural studies, and religious studies scholars of the Black Atlantic. This manuscript is currently being prepared for publication with Wesleyan University Press’s Music/Culture series.