The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has administered the prestigious awards, also known as “genius grants,” annually to 20–30 individuals in fields such as physics, public health, visual arts, and American history since 1981. Fellows each receive a five-year, $800,000 grant. Recipients cannot apply for MacArthur Fellowships; they must be nominated.
Bryan, whose socially conscious work is steeped in jazz, classical, and sacred music, studied jazz piano performance at Mason Gross. She is one of 20 new fellows recognized by the foundation.
“I take this MacArthur award as an affirmation of my own unique path that I’ve been pursuing for many years and an encouragement to keep dreaming bigger,” said Bryan, 41, who studied at Rutgers primarily with late jazz pianist and composer Stanley Cowell, as well as with Conrad Herwig, current head of jazz studies. “I will be thinking a lot during this time about ways to expand my creative process as a composer and pianist, and as an educator and curator.” Bryan serves as the Albert and Linda Mintz Professor of Music at Tulane University in New Orleans. Last year, Opera Philadelphia named her their Composer in Residence.
Bryan credits her time at Rutgers with exposing her to a wider world of piano styles. Her work has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“With Stanley Cowell, I did a deep dive into many piano styles, starting with early stride pianists like Jelly Roll Morton and [New Brunswick-native] James P. Johnson, to introducing me to the music of Vijay Iyer,” a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. “I loved learning Cowell’s compositions and remain fascinated by his unique form of virtuosity at the piano,” said Bryan, who also points to Cowell’s practice of Buddhism and her time studying with George Lewis at Columbia University as critical to her work.
“My time in New Brunswick was foundational as it was my move to the East Coast, and I met a lot of musicians that I worked with while getting my first gigs as a bandleader in New York. My recent piano concerto, House of Pianos, was largely inspired by thinking of my lessons with Stanley Cowell and the expansiveness of the repertoire we covered together,” she said.
Among Bryan’s works is “Yet Unheard,” which sets poetry by Sharan Strange to Bryan’s score as a musical memorial to Sandra Bland, whose death in police custody in 2013 raised questions of racial injustice and racial profiling. Several Rutgers students performed “Yet Unheard” last year in New York City.
“As an artist, the best way for me to deal with emotions brought on by these questions is through music,” Bryan told Rutgers music students when she visited campus in November 2022. “Through music, my aim was to mourn the tragedy of what happened to Sandra Bland and her unfinished contributions to the world, and yet celebrate the strength of her spirt and recognize her humanity.”
Past Rutgers “geniuses” include writer and alum Junot Díaz (BA’92); artist and alum Joan Snyder (BA’62, MFA’66); artist Kara Walker, former Tepper Chair in Visual Arts; and John Keene, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University-Newark.