Genes & Jazz: A Fusion of Music with the Scientific Method


By Matt Micucci

Harold Varmus and Jacob Varmus – father and son. Harold is the Nobel Prize winning geneticist who helped unlock the biological mechanism behind cancer. Jacob teaches at the New York Jazz Academy and can often be found on the bandstand playing trumpet leading his quintet through his own compositions.

Despite the different career paths, the two have come together to collaborate on a unique project called Genes & Jazz, which was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum in 2008 and will be on display at this year’s Indian Summer Festival in Vancouver on July 17. Though the Vancouver version will be leaner and lighter.

Genes & Jazz is an unprecedented fusion of soulful music, played by Jacob, and the scientific method, as illustrated in a three part presentation by Harold.

Jacob says: ““At first it’s basically Bio 101: cell structures and functions. And then in the next act he talks about how evolution works as a result of mutations, which are very rare, inadvertent errors in the copying of DNA. I can’t remember if this is his analogy, but mutation is like a giant printing press—copying, copying, copying—and it might be right a million out of a million times. But every now and then there’s a mistake in the copying. It can result, sometimes, in a cancer—or it can confer a stronger trait, one that’s more likely to persist through time, and that’s basically how evolution works.”

The compositional process of creating a theme, and then spinning variations on that original idea offers another useful analogy itself. “Mutations are basically variations, evolutionary variations,” Jacob explains. “A lot of great music is built on repetition and variation—most of the music I enjoy, actually.”

So what of the father and son collaboration, and coping with the unusual demands of taking his scientist dad out of the lab and onto the stage? “I’ve learned a lot about how he reacts to different situations where he might feel worried or anxious. I’ve learned better how to react to that, and how to be helpful, and when to just let things go and try a different approach.”

Join Our Newsletter
Join thousands of other jazz enthusiasts and get new music, artists, album, events and more delivered to your inbox.

The Authoritative Voice in Jazz