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Kansas City’s Creative Couples

Zhou Long and Chen Yi have taught for more than a decade at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance in Kansas City, Mo. Photo credit: Julie Denesha, KCUR.
Zhou Long and Chen Yi have taught for more than a decade at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance in Kansas City, Mo. Photo credit: Julie Denesha, KCUR.

UMKC Professors Profiled for KCUR’s Creative Couples Series

The work of iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera was on display this summer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Kahlo and Rivera are known not only for their paintings, but for their tempestuous marriage, which sometimes influenced their art.

Inspired by Kahlo and Rivera, KCUR-FM  has profiled some of Kansas City’s creative couples on air and online. From ballerinas to sculptors to musicians, KCUR found out how two artists make a life together, and how their relationship influences their work. The station included University of Missouri-Kansas City professors Zhou Long and Chen Yi, and UMKC professor Bobby Watson and his wife, Pamela Baskin-Watson, as part of this series.

Zhou Longand Chen Yi

Listen to their story here.

Born and raised in China, composer Zhou Long and his wife, composer Chen Yi, have taught at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance for more than a decade. They’ve spent 30 years studying, teaching, and composing side by side. The prolific composers maintain a rigorous schedule with frequent travel around the globe.

The two met while studying at the Central Conservatory of Music in Bejing. Their “Class of 1978,” which also included Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Bright Sheng, marked the first students allowed to study Western classical music after the Cultural Revolution.

Zhou and Chen share an apartment just above tree-lined Southmoreland Park in Kansas City, Mo., filled with music, scores, and mementos from their travel. However, the studios where most of their work is completed remain separate realms where the composers can focus on their commissions.

On their individual musical styles:

Chen: “Both (of us) are very much devoted to the combination of East and West. Still I can tell the difference from our characteristics. For example, the color. His (Zhou’s) music is more delicate. I would say that kind of instrumentation and different groupings that would form different colors that you may tell right away that, oh, that is not Chen Yi. For me, I have kind of a big stroke (laughs), this kind of passion and a more dramatic shape.”

Despite similar backgrounds and influences, their strong individual voices and styles keep their work distinct.

Zhou: “We are very different in the style and the attitude of writing. Chen Yi can finish a choral work on an airplane. But if I am on the road, I can’t write a note. I can think about it, but I can’t just keep writing. I only compose in my studio here in Kansas City. I have to come back and then I can do the composing.”

Bobby Watson and Pamela Baskin-Watson

Listen to their story here.

Pamela Baskin-Watson grew up in Kansas City, Kansas in a musical family. Her mother was a choral director, and her father, a singer; she and her siblings pursued music, and for Pam, it was the piano.

Bobby Watson grew up in Bonner Springs and Kansas City, Kan., and started taking piano and clarinet in grade school, and, the instrument he’s known best for, the saxophone, in high school. His father, Robert Watson, Sr., also played saxophone, and they played duets in church.

Pam and Bobby met in 1971 in a practice studio, when they were both students at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

On first impressions:

Bobby: “I just remembered how wonderfully she played the piano. She was really into jazz. She turned me on to a lot of music in the beginning of our relationship that she had been listening to. She always had a gift for melody and she liked things that were very melodic.”

Pam: “I thought he was cute, you know, but I didn’t know anything about him. He hadn’t made a name for himself or anything. He was just another student at JUCO (Kansas City Kansas Community College) at that particular time.”

Their first date, recalls Pam, was going to a club to listen to guitarist Pat Metheny, who grew up in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

In 2000 Bobby took on a professorship in jazz, and director of jazz studies position, at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. It opened a new chapter for the couple. Bobby still travels and plays at international jazz festivals. Pam is an accompanist, and sings in the vocal ensemble Book of Gaia.

KCUR-FM is a service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.


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