Inaugural PhD in Creativity Fellow Announced

April 18, 2022

James Brandon Lewis, a critically acclaimed composer, saxophonist and writer, has been named the inaugural recipient of The Balvenie Fellowship in University of the Arts’ PhD in Creativity program. The scholarship opportunity is supported by The Balvenie and informed by drummer, DJ, Academy Award-winning director, New York Times bestselling author and founding member of The Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

The first-of-its-kind PhD program at UArts supports creative minds from anywhere in the world while removing the constraints typically found in higher education programs, allowing students to explore new ideas in innovative ways. The low-residency degree advances interdisciplinary research in the arts, humanities and sciences through intensive immersion in creative thinking. Lewis will join the program in June 2022, embarking on a fully funded, three-year journey that will bolster his studies at the intersection of molecular biology and music through the lens of art, life and philosophy.

In 2011, Lewis created Molecular Systematic Music, a twofold approach to music that braids the fundamentals of music theory with the ideas of molecular biology through the context of DNA. While Lewis is not a molecular biologist, the ideas he expresses deploy the vocabulary of molecular biology as useful metaphors while exploring new possibilities and relationships across disciplines. These previous explorations will form the foundation of his studies at UArts.

“University of the Arts seeks students who have achieved proficiency in an intellectual pursuit in any field and, in many cases, this pursuit has not been able to fit easily into existing PhD programs. The work James has already done, alongside the complexity of his studies, is inspiring, and we’re thrilled to have The Balvenie and Questlove by our side as he excels in this program,” said Dr. Jonathan Fineberg, program director for the PhD in Creativity.

The scholarship runs parallel with the online Quest for Craft series, which represents The Balvenie and Questlove’s commitment to expanding and showcasing the convergence of craft in creativity. The partnership was launched in late 2020 and intends to unpack the uniquely human elements that elevate the great to the exceptional.

Lewis attended Howard University and received his MFA from California Institute of the Arts. He has received accolades from NPR, The ASCAP Foundation, MacDowell and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and has been heralded as “a saxophonist who embodies and transcends tradition” by The New York Times. Rolling Stone described his music as “deep, gospel-informed spirituality with Free Jazz abandon and hard-hitting funk-meets-hip-hop underpinning.”

Lewis has released several critically acclaimed albums, most recently, 2021’s Jesup Wagon. In addition, Lewis leads numerous ensembles that tour internationally and is a member and co-founder of the American Book Award–winning ensemble Heroes Are Gang Leaders. In 2020, he was voted the rising star tenor saxophonist in Downbeat magazine’s international critics poll.