Humanitas: A jazzy Christmas, Maya art, and a column spawns a new seminar

In this edition, a jazz lecturer taps a Yale undergrad for a new Christmas album, a “frustrating” column inspires a new course, and a new urbanist is honored.
Wayne Escoffery playing tenor saxophone in the recording studio

Grammy Award-winning tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, a lecturer at Yale School of Music, recently recorded the album, “This Christmas,” with one of his students — vocalist and Yale College junior Teddy Horangic.

In the latest edition of Humanitas, a column focused on the arts and humanities at Yale, we drop the needle on a new jazz Christmas album, produced by Grammy-winning saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, that introduces a new voice from Yale College; look toward a spring philosophy seminar that was inspired by a “frustrating” 2021 opinion column in the New York Times; invite submissions for the new Yale Nonfiction Book Prize; and celebrate major honors for a Yale alumna and former faculty member who helped pioneer the New Urbanism movement and a Yale anthropologist who co-curated the first major exhibition of Maya art in the United States in more than a decade.

For more, visit an archive of all arts and humanities coverage at Yale News.

That hit a nerve: ‘Frustrating’ column inspires philosophy seminar

In the summer of 2021, Yale philosophy professor Daniel Greco read a New York Times opinion column by Ross Douthat arguing against the idea that modern science has largely discredited religious and other supernatural beliefs.

Instead, Douthat maintained, widespread secularization now prevents people from interpreting things like near-death experiences and divine encounters through a religious lens. In secular and educated circles, “any natural human eagerness to believe coexists with the opposite sort of pressure, to dismiss supernatural experiences lest you appear deluded or disreputable…,” he wrote.

It was a good column, said Greco, a member of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but he completely disagreed with it.

Two people I know wrote me and said how frustrating it was. We couldn’t really put a finger on what was wrong with it, but it definitely hit a nerve,” Greco said. “And it struck me — it would make a good course.”

And now it is. Greco reached out to Douthat, who is now a senior fellow at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs, and next spring, the two will co-teach a philosophy seminar called, “Is this all there is? Materialism and Religion in the Ancient and Modern World.”

Both instructors will attend every class and argue opposing points of view. Greco is an atheist, and Douthat is a devout Catholic. The first assigned reading is the 2021 column that Greco found so vexing, paired with a 1927 essay by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell titled “Why I am Not a Christian.”

I think of it as a discussion rather than a debate,” Greco said. “I’m not out to win converts. The goal is to get to the roots of disagreements.”

Among the topics to be examined are evolution, miracles, near-death experiences, and free will. Greco said they hope students come away with a greater understanding of what these and related issues look like from very different points of view.

There’s a broader sense that it’s hard to have respectful conversations across deep disagreements,” he said. “That’s kind of the ideal of what college should look like, but it happens more rarely than you’d think. This seemed like a good example of a topic where we could practice that very difficult skill.”

New Christmas jazz album has a Yale flavor

Earlier this year, when a producer approached Grammy Award-winning tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, a lecturer at Yale School of Music, about making a Christmas jazz album, the first vocalist he thought of was one of his students, Teddy Horangic.

This Christmas album cover with Teddy Horangic and Frank Lacy
Yale junior and vocalist Teddy Horangic, left, with trombonist Frank Lacy on the “This Christmas” album cover.

This holiday season, Horangic, a Yale College junior who is also interested in environmental economics and sustainable entrepreneurship, is one of the featured vocalists on the newly released album, “This Christmas,” produced by the Night is Alive jazz agency. Escoffery, the executive producer, selected the music and the musicians.

Teddy has a really natural feeling and understanding of jazz phrasing which is very unique for someone her age,” said Escoffery, a lecturer in jazz improvisation and director of the school’s jazz combos and jazz ensemble. “Great pitch, intonation, and instincts. I was looking for something to include her on because it’s important for her to work in a professional environment with world-class musicians.”

Accompanying Horangic are Escoffery, Frank Lacy on vocals and trombone, Xavier Davis on piano, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, James Burton III on trombone, Richie Goods on bass, and Quincy Davis on drums. Many of the musicians, including Escoffery, are part of the Black Art Jazz Collective, which is dedicated to celebrating African American cultural and political icons.

The album’s eight tracks are all contemporary jazz takes on well-known favorites, including “O Holy Night,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “We Three Kings,” and “Let it Snow.” It is available on Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube.

This is Horangic’s first professional recording. But she previously had an opportunity to sing at a Jazz at Lincoln Center event celebrating jazz great Charles Mingus. Escoffery brought Yale’s Jazz Ensemble to the event, and “she sang with Frank Lacey then, trading phrases. He was a great mentor to her.”

This Christmas” represents a major landmark for Yale’s Jazz Initiative, established by the music school in 2016 to strengthen and expand jazz studies, and is a testament to the university’s support for the program, Escoffery said.

It allows me to bring my network into the Yale community,” he said. “These experiential learning opportunities, where students are thrust into an environment where they are sitting next to professional musicians, are very important.”

Manuscripts wanted: Announcing the Yale Nonfiction Book Prize

The Yale Review and Yale University Press are accepting submissions for the inaugural Yale Nonfiction Book Prize, a biennial, international prize that will recognize “artful, innovative, and intellectually probing” book-length works of nonfiction.

The prize includes a $15,000 advance, publication by Yale University Press within the Yale Nonfiction Prize Series, and a first-serial excerpt placement in The Yale Review. The inaugural judge is acclaimed nonfiction writer, poet, and Yale Review editor Meghan O’Rourke.

The prize is open to any writer who has not yet published a book of nonfiction.

Complementing the Yale Series of Younger Poets and the Yale Drama Series, this new prize will add great richness and variety to Yale University Press’s celebrated nonfiction list,” said Jennifer Banks, senior executive editor of Yale University Press. “We are thrilled to partner with The Yale Review and Meghan O’Rourke to discover and support those writers who are daringly and skillfully reimagining the nonfiction genre today.”

Added Meghan O’Rourke: “Like the Yale Series of Younger Poets before it, this will become one of those prizes that regularly launches powerful new voices and leads to the publication of seminal books.”

Manuscripts can be submitted via Submittable between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15, 2024.

For more information, visit The Yale Review site.

A pioneer in New Urbanism receives top architecture honor

Last week, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk ’74 M.Arch. ’23 Hon., who has twice returned to the Yale School of Architecture as a visiting professor, was named the 2024 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, the highest honor for architectural educators in the United States.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) annually award the Topaz Medallion for teaching that has influenced a broad range of students.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (Photo credit: DPZ CoDesign)

Plater-Zyberk, who taught at Yale as the William Henry Bishop Visiting Professor in Spring 1987 and then as the Robert A.M. Stern Visiting Professor in Spring 2017, is now the Malcolm Matheson Distinguished Professor of Architecture at the University of Miami School of Architecture (U-SoA). She served as U-SoA’s dean from 1995 to 2013.

This spring, Yale presented Plater-Zyberk and her colleague and Yale classmate Andrés M. Duany ’74 M.Arch. with honorary doctor-of-fine-arts degrees for their leadership in the development of New Urbanism, an urban design movement that emphasizes sustainability and human-scaled communities.

In awarding her the Topaz Medallion, AIA/ACSA also acknowledged Plater-Zyberk's pioneering role in developing New Urbanism.

As formidable an architect as she is an educator, Plater-Zyberk has transformed the teaching of architecture by ceaselessly promoting walkable and resilient design,” states the award announcement on the AIA website. 

Deborah Berke, dean and J.M. Hopper Professor at the Yale School of Architecture, received the 2022 Topaz Medallion.

Other past Yale winners of the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education include Robert A.M. Stern (2017), Serge Chermayeff (1980), a faculty member from 1963 to 1969; the late Vincent Scully Jr. ’40, ’49 Ph.D. (1986), who was Sterling Professor in the History of Art; the late Charles Moore (1989), chair of the Department of Architecture from 1965 to 1970; Spiro Kostof ’61 Ph.D. (1992), who served on the faculty from 1961 to 1965; and Peter Eisenman (2014), the inaugural Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice.

Lives of the Gods’: Anthropologist honored for Met exhibition

Yale anthropologist Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos has been named a 2024 recipient of the College Art Association’s (CAA) Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for museum scholarship in recognition of his work coediting the catalogue for a recent exhibition of Maya art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York City.

The exhibition, “Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art,” which was on view from November 2022 to April 2023, explored how the ancient Mayans gave material shape to their religious beliefs.

A recent exhibition at the Met in New York, “Lives of the Gods: Divinity and Maya Art.”
A recent exhibition at the Met in New York, “Lives of the Gods: Divinity and Maya Art,” explored how the ancient Maya gave material shape to their religious beliefs. Yale archaeologist Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos co-curated the show.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, who co-curated the show, edited the exhibition catalog with Joanne Pillsbury, the Andrall E. Pearson Curator of Ancient American Art at the Met, and James A. Doyle, director of the Matson Museum of Anthropology at Penn State University. The award, named in honor of the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, is presented annually to the authors or editors of an especially distinguished catalogue in the history of art, published in the English language under the auspices of a museum, library, or collection.

Lives of the Gods,” which was the first major exhibition of Maya art in the United States in more than a decade, featured nearly 100 rarely seen masterpieces and recent discoveries, including massive stone stelae, ceramic jars and vases painted with images of gods and goddesses, and ornaments and figurines carved from jade and obsidian, mostly dating from the Mayan Classic period between 250 and 900 A.D.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, associate professor of anthropology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, an expert in the ancient societies of Mesoamerica, organized the exhibition with Pillsbury and Laura Filloy Nadal, an associate curator at the museum.

The exhibition included a video of “The Dance of the Macaws,” performed by a group of young people in Santa Cruz Verapaz, a colonial and modern town in Guatemala. Speaking in their Indigenous language, they present a story of a suitor stealing away a young woman from her protective parents.

We wanted to incorporate content that informs the public about the resilience of Maya religious belief and to convey the point that Maya are living people, not something archaeological or from the past,” Chinchilla Mazariegos told Yale News last year. “These are living communities that still preserve aspects of the ancient religious beliefs depicted in the ancient objects presented in the exhibition.”

He will accept the award in February at the CAA’s annual meeting in Chicago.

Lisa Prevost and Mike Cummings contributed to this column. 

More arts and humanities:

Zero at the Bone’: Poet Christian Wiman confronts despair in new book
Yale Rep helps playwrights follow their hearts, find their voices
The Beinecke at 60: Staff members share collection favorites
In ‘My Egypt Archive,’ Alan Mikhail charts the making of history
Opera gives voice to Alan Turing with help of artificial intelligence
Ned Blackhawk’s ‘Rediscovery of America’ wins National Book Award


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