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Cecile McLorin Salvant Earns a Prestigious New Accolade: the 2020 MacArthur "Genius Grant"

Jonathan Chimene

It’s no longer a stretch, if it ever was, to hail Cécile McLorin Salvant as a genius.

Some of us have been banging that drum for a while now, but today it became official, when the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2020 class of Fellows.

Salvant is one of 20 individuals to receive this honor, colloquially known as the “Genius Grant.” She’s the sole musical artist in this year’s class, which also includes the jazz-adjacent cultural theorist Fred Moten, children’s author Jacqueline Woodson, and science fiction writer N.K. Jemisin.

Salvant is one of the leading jazz artists of her generation: a three-time Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal Album, a 2020 Doris Duke Artist, a restlessly inventive soul who also works in visual media. She appears on the recent Blue Note debut by Artemis, a collective that also features the likes of pianist Renee Rosnes and clarinetist Anat Cohen. Her animations have graced the band’s music videos, including one for a cover of Steve Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” which she sings.

In a https://youtu.be/2nBSXSCvl04">short video profile produced by the MacArthur Foundation, Salvant frames her work in terms of character and drama. “For me,” she says, “storytelling has been a way also to delve into some difficult topics — dark aspects of our culture and our history.” That much is clear in any of her performances, whether she’s excavating old blues tales or finding a new angle on the Great American Songbook.

But the most daring manifestation of Salvant’s vision so far has been Ogresse, a 90-minute multimedia piece featuring her music for an original dark fairytale. The piece, which she created in collaboration with the composer-bandleader Darcy James Argue, had its premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by a handful of concert performances, including one at NJPAC in 2018.

Credit Jonathan Chimene / WBGO
Cecile McLorin Salvant performing in 'Ogresse' at NJPAC, Nov. 16, 2018.

A subsequent performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center, in 2019, was riveting in both the particulars and the broader picture — and extremely well received, by a capacity audience in the Rose Theater. Salvant and her Ogresse colleagues were in San Francisco about to present the piece at SFJAZZ when the coronavirus lockdown forced a last-minute cancelation. (Undeterred, Salvant turned it into a house concert, in the living room of philosopher and political activist Angela Davis.) 

As a MacArthur Fellow, Salvant joins the ranks of improvising artists across a dazzling range of expression — like percussionist Tyshawn Sorey and guitarist Mary Halvorson, to name just the two most recent honorees. And Salvant has proven, over a relatively brief period, that she has the ambition, the rigor and the imaginative resources to stand proud among their ranks.

To learn more about Salvant, start at her website. I wrote a short profile for JazzTimes in 2018.

In 2016 she was featured by Jazz Night in America, along with pianist Sullivan Fortner. Salvant and Fortner played a Tiny Desk Concert in 2018, around the time they released The Window on Mack Avenue Records.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.