Eli Namay

  • Graduate Student, Jazz Studies

I come from a Syrian/Lebanese immigrant community in Charleston, West Virginia, and am currently a doctoral graduate student in the jazz studies department. I regularly improvise on the upright and electric bass, compose, research, educate, and engage in community organizing (political activism). But “I,” an actually existing embodied self, am none of these —“musician, researcher, etc.” —if they are formulated as static identity categories. 


Before coming to Pitt, I lived in Chicago from 2008-2020, where I was active playing an eclectic array of musical styles—from Appalachian folk, to metal to traditional Arabic music. I found my cultural home in the city's free jazz / improvised music communities. I also organized, wrote, and did political education work with the DSA and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, among many other groups. I regularly go back to Chicago to play with “Je’raf,” and other musical friends. In Pittsburgh, I've continued this eclectic musical trajectory. You can find me playing around town in a wide variety of configurations. My focus right now is on facilitating space for people from different traditions and backgrounds to come together and improvise. This is done mainly through curating first time improvised meetings and free jazz jam sessions. 


Ethical organizing and power sharing is at the heart of my research concerns. How do we as embodied, ecologically and historically situated beings, organize and share power ethically? Following from researchers like Fumi Okiji and my mentor Rami Gabriel, I believe that there is exploration to be done in the realm of jazz and improvised music that will offer insight on this big picture, open ended question. I feel that the act of improvisation itself can contribute to effectively organizing ethical ways of being. On this last point, part of my research interest involves looking at the somatic / therapeutic dynamics of improvisatory activity, as has been done by figures like Milford Graves, Sun Ra, and Pauline Oliveros.


I am researching epistemologies that resist the false dichotomy that has dominated 20th century critical theory discourses. This is a false dichotomy that can be understood as reductionism / determinism on the one hand, and hard social constructivism / epistemological pessimism on the other. A famous illustration of this dichotomy is the Foucault / Chomsky debate. Researchers that come from dialectical science, emergentist, and complexity theory perspectives offer promising alternatives. These perspectives allow us to talk clearly about the dynamics of our embodied (biological) selves, while at the same time they provide us with tools to continue addressing reductionist and deterministic fallacies that are continually used to justify domination and atrocity. Here, I hope that my work can help contribute to healing the divide between the “hard” sciences and the humanities / social sciences. I largely look to the work of Sylvia Wynter, Terrence Deacon, Robert Sapolsky, and the Science for the People collective on this front.


As a jazz studies graduate student, I hope to put this bigger picture theoretical work in conversation with ethnographic documentation of recent organizing efforts to create space for improvised / experimental music in Chicago. In this work, I am examining large scale economic flows and small scale interpersonal dynamics, with a specific concern around in-group / out-group dynamics. As I examine Chicago, I am also documenting my current cultural organizing efforts to help create space for improvised and experimental music in Pittsburgh.

More info about all of my activity, along with audio and video documentation of my music can be found at elinamay.org.