Ajay Heble | College of Arts

Ajay Heble

Director, International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI); Professor,
School of English and Theatre Studies
Phone number: 
x 53445
MacKinnon 406


Ajay Heble is the author or editor of several books including Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice (Routledge), The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro’s Discourse of Absence (University of Toronto Press), The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, co-edited with Daniel Fischlin (Wesleyan University Press), Rebel Musics: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds, and the Politics of Music-Making, co-edited with Daniel Fischlin (Black Rose Books), and New Contexts of Canadian Criticism, co-edited with Donna Palmateer Pennee and J.R. (Tim) Struthers (Broadview Press). He is also Artistic Director Emeritus and Founding Artistic Director (1994-2016) of the award-winning Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium (www.guelphjazzfestival.com), and a founding co-editor of the peer-reviewed journal Critical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation (www.criticalimprov.com).

His most recent books include Jamming the Classroom: Musical Improvisation and Pedagogical Practice, co-authored with Jesse Stewart (University of Michigan Press); Rebel Musics Volume 2: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds, and the Politics of Music Making, co-edited with Daniel Fischlin (Black Rose Books); The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation, co-authored with Daniel Fischlin and George Lipsitz (Duke University Press); People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now!, co-edited with Rob Wallace (Duke University Press); Improvisation and Music Education: Beyond the Classroom, co-edited with Mark Laver (Routledge); The Improvisation Studies Reader: Spontaneous Acts, co-edited with Rebecca Caines (Routledge); and Classroom Action: Human Rights, Critical Activism, and Community-Based Education (University of Toronto Press).

In January 2007, Dr. Heble received a prestigious seven-year Major Collaborative Research Initiatives (MCRI) grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to direct a large scale, multi-institutional interdisciplinary research project. Entitled “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” (ICASP) (www.improvcommunity.ca), this project brought together a dynamic international research team of 35 leading scholars from 20 different institutions to study the social implications of improvised musical practices, and it fostered innovative partnerships with a wide-range of community partners. Outcomes ranged across a wide spectrum of electronic, broadcast, and print media, with a focus on policy-oriented and community-facing impacts. In addition to public discourse and scholarly publication, ICASP highlighted collaboration with arts presenters, educators, street-level organizations, and policy makers to ensure the broadest possible impact.

In 2013, SSHRC awarded Heble and his research team a Partnership Grant to launch a partnered research institute, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) (www.improvisationinstitute.ca). Following extensive peer review, the initiative was ranked No. 1 among nationwide finalists for the grant. This seven-year award builds on the earlier seven-year SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiatives (MCRI) grant for the ICASP project.

Under Dr. Heble’s visionary leadership, The Guelph Jazz Festival—a three-time recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of the Arts (1997, 2000, 2001) and winner of the Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts has achieved a rock-solid international reputation as one of the world’s most inspired and provocative musical events. As its founder, Heble has jolted the citizens of Guelph into an appreciation of improvised and avant garde music, and delighted aficionados from around the world with his innovative and daring programming. Since 1996, Heble has organized as part of the Guelph Jazz Festival an annual international conference on the social implications of improvised music. This is the only regular and ongoing academic event of its kind attached to a major jazz festival.

Heble is also an accomplished pianist. His first CD, in collaboration with percussionist Jesse Stewart, was released on the Guelph Jazz Festival label, IntrepidEar, in 2001. All proceeds from this recording, as from the live concert it documents, have gone towards the festival. He has also released four recordings with his improvising quartet, The Vertical Squirrels.

Heble is in high-demand as a speaker, panelist, music jurist, and community-based arts advisor.  He has served on the Executive (and as past Vice President) on the Board of Directors for Jazz Festivals Canada, a not-for-profit arts service organization representing and advocating for jazz festivals and jazz presenters across Canada. Heble has also served as a member of the Artistic Advisory Committee for the Music Gallery in Toronto, and he has been a judge for the JUNO Awards.  He has given invited lectures and keynote talks drawn from his work at conferences and arts events around the world.

In his teaching, Heble has sought to develop pedagogical strategies that foster connections between what students learn or do at university and how they come to understand themselves as socially responsible citizens. To that end, he has attempted, whenever possible, to design courses at all levels (from first year classes to graduate seminars) to require various forms of community-based learning and research. The final “assignment” in his courses often takes the form of a “pro-active, community-facing intervention” which challenges students to move beyond the walls of the classroom in an effort to make collective interventions in the broader community. One of Heble’s most recent publications, Classroom Action: Human Rights, Critical Activism, and Community-Based Education (University of Toronto Press, 2017) is a book-length collaboration with some of his current and former students, focussing on human rights and community-based learning.


Dr. Heble is a recipient of the 2016 SSHRC Impact Award in the Partnership Category, the 2014 Dr. Winegard Exemplary Volunteer Award, and a Teaching Excellence Award from the Student Senate Caucus at the University of Guelph. In 2019, he was awarded an honorary degree (Doctor honoris causa) from 17, Instituto de Estudios Criticos in Mexico. In 2023, he was honoured with the Killam Prize in the Humanities, one of the most distinguised research awards in Canada. 






To listen to Dr. Heble's TEDxGuelphU Talk on Improvisation as a model for social change, please click the image below.