Michael Heller

  • Associate Professor


Jazz Studies; Free Improvisation; Sound Studies; Historical Ethnomusicology; Music and Urban Space; Archival Theory


As a jazz scholar and musicologist, I am fascinated by music’s impact on cultural, political, and sensory networks. My most sustained research centers on the late 20th century African American avant garde, particularly improvising musicians in New York City. In 2017, I published a book titled The Loft Scene: Improvising New York in the 1970s, which chronicles an explosion of experimental venues that sprang up inside of the city’s crumbling industrial buildings. Through a combination of ethnographic and archival methodologies, the work provides a detailed historical account, while simultaneously tracing a series of discursive threads that continue to resonate today. An article drawn from this work was published in Jazz Research Journal in 2011, and was recently reprinted in the collection The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives: This is Our Music (Routledge, 2015).

I received my doctorate in ethnomusicology at Harvard University in 2012, where my research profile included several global traditions (particularly the musics of Indonesia and West Africa), as well as recent developments in sound studies and media theory. Much of my recent work has explored these latter directions, as I am drawn to the many ways that technology affects how we listen. I recently published an article examining the history of loudness measurement, arguing that high-volume sound carries the potential to collapse the perceived boundaries between physical experience, aesthetic judgment and political confrontation. Another piece under preparation considers how non-musical sounds are deployed in modern museum environments, using the Louis Armstrong House Museum as a central case study. I am also deeply invested in initiatives that combine scholarly methodologies with live performance. In 2010, for example, I used archival sources to reconstruct and prepare a new arrangement of Mary Lou Williams’ landmark Zodiac Suite, resulting in the piece’s first complete, large ensemble performance since its 1945 debut.

Recent Courses

  • Music, Media, and the Archive: Jazz Collections of Pittsburgh
  • Mary Lou Williams and Gender Discourses in Jazz Studies (Major Composer Seminar)
  • Writing About Music: Doctoral Seminar and Practicum
  • Jazz Literature: Interdisciplinary Frameworks and Current Scholarship

Selected Publications

The Loft Scene: Improvising New York in the 1970s. 2017, University of California Press.

“Between Silence and Pain: Loudness and the Affective Encounter.” Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1, no. 1.

’Complaining Time is Over’: Network and Collective Strategies of The New York Musicians Organization.” Jazz Research Journal 5, no. 1/2 (2011): 21-41. 

“Always In Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, The Most Outrageous Record Label in America by Jason Weiss [book review].” Jazz Perspectives 8, no. 2 (2014): 215-218.

“Monk’s Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making by Gabriel Solis [book review].” Jazz Perspectives 3, no. 2 (2009): 177-181.

Grove Dictionary of American Music. 2nd edition.  Entries for Boston: Jazz, Popular Music and Folk Traditions; Whitney Balliett; John Chilton; Ralph Ellison; Gary Giddins; Nat Hentoff; André Hodier; Dan Morgenstern; Stuart Nicholson. 2013.

Selected Papers

“Limit Factors and the Performed Canon: The Conspicuous 60-Year Absence of the Zodiac Suite.” Annual meeting of the Society for American Music (Sacramento, 2015).

“The Memory of Media: Autoarchivization and Empowerment in 1970s Jazz.” Annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology (Pittsburgh, 2014).

“Deploying Deadness at the Louis Armstrong House Museum.” Joint meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, American Musicological Society and Society for Music Theory (New Orleans, 2012).
 “Modeling Community in the Loft Jazz Era.” Annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology (Philadelphia, 2011).

"The Juma Sultan Archive: Unheard Sounds of the Loft Era." Annual meeting of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (Los Angeles, 2011).

“Projecting Results: Opera Supertitles and the People Who Hate(d) Them.” Harvard Music Department, Lunch Colloquium Series, October 3, 2008.

“’We Better Start Controlling Our Own Destiny’: Locality, Genre, Community and Ownership in the New York Musicians Festival and Loft Era.” Annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, (Columbus, 2007).

The Vision Festival: A Tenth Year Celebration. (co-presented with A. Scott Currie). Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies Jazz Research Round Table, April 5, 2005.

Education & Training

  • PhD, Harvard University, 2012

Faculty Groupings

Core Faculty

Main Department Affliliation

Associate Professor