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English prof combines music with literary masterpieces to create ‘lit hop’ album

| Judy Berthiaume

Dr. Joel Pace certainly isn’t the first person to find inspiration in the writing of American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the famous novel “The Great Gatsby.”

But the UW-Eau Claire English professor, who also is an accomplished musician, might be the first to combine his literary and musical talents to transform Fitzgerald’s actual work into an album, a creation he describes as “lit hop” — or literary hip hop.

Combining readings of “The Great Gatsby” and “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” with musical numbers that continue Fitzgerald’s stories where he left off, Pace’s band, Irie Sol, creates a unique musical experience on its latest album, “Dred Scott Fitzgerald.”

Inspired by Fitzgerald, who lived with his wife, Zelda, for two years at the historic Commodore Hotel in St. Paul, the album’s release party was held at the hotel Sept. 24, Fitzgerald’s birthday. The party — complete with 1920s costumes — was a sold-out event that served as a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization Fitzgerald in St. Paul.

Pace and some members of Irie Sol will perform selections from the album with UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz I at the second annual Gatsby's Gala event that will take place Nov. 13 at UW-Eau Claire.

Gatsby’s Gala guests will step back into the roaring '20s, where they’ll be surrounded by sights and sounds of the era. The event will feature nonstop music from UW-Eau Claire's Jazz I and Jazz II ensembles, including modern tunes with a '20s feel, and special guest artists throughout the night. Guests are encouraged to dress in their favorite 1920s-inspired black-tie attire

As Irie Sol prepares for its Gatsby’s Gala performance next month, Joel Pace took a few minutes to talk about his band and its new Fitzgerald-inspired album, “Dred Scott Fitzgerald.”

How would you describe your band, Irie Sol?

Irie Sol is a world music ensemble with band members from Jamaica, Brazil, Eau Claire, the Chippewa Valley, the Twin Cities and both coasts of the United States.

Our songs reflect our diverse geographies and musical influences. I sing and play trumpet in the band, which features several players who have performed with UWEC's Jazz I, such as Tom Krochock and Matt Rongstad.

We like to sample from various musical styles to create a literary and musical mashup of four ‘R’s’ — ragtime, rap, reggae and rock.

Tell us about your new album, “Dred Scott Fitzgerald.”

We were inspired by two works by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The Great Gatsby” and his short story called "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," which is about a young woman from Eau Claire.

Our record picks up where Scott's short story left off: Bernice becomes a jazz singer whose gigs on the speakeasy circuit take her on a journey. Retracing Fitzgerald's travels and those of his characters, she moves through actual and fictional geographies, interacting with historical figures as well as characters from his works — and even the author himself.

Each song tells a story and also leads into the next song, which continues the narrative.

“The Great Gatsby” is known as THE novel of the “Jazz Age” so the critical scenes all include soundtracks as Fitzgerald either mentions a song by name or drops the lyrics into the scene.

We wondered what happens to characters when the author ends their stories, so we thought it would be fun to begin where their stories ended. We used narrative lyrics to create fictional stories that continue the characters’ lives, where they mingle with characters from other pieces of literature, historical figures and even the authors who created them.

How do your teaching and music influence one another?

In my English 284 class, we apply critical race theory to Gatsby. For instance, we question why Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance are mysteriously absent from the work and yet clearly exert such a powerful influence. 

These very absences in the novel gave Irie Sol the idea to fill in these silences with music, to turn the novel inside out, so to speak, so all that is peripheral in the novel becomes central to our album.

So teaching directly influenced this album, and performing jazz and reggae helped me understand the way time functions in the novel.

Since Gatsby is a novel with a musical background, it inspired us to create an album with a literary backdrop. The rhythm of one drop (which defines reggae) and syncopation (which defines ragtime) feature silence where the listener is accustomed to hearing a beat. In both instances the beat arrives “late.”

Similarly, the plot of “Gatsby” hinges on silence, absence and the late arrival of Jay on the scene.

Like the jazz musicians of the day, Fitzgerald and Gatsby attempt to bend time to create the music of love and longing.

Music influences my pedagogy as well: in writing, teaching and analyzing poetry, for instance, the musical elements of rhythm, cadence, meter, time and syncopation are central.

Equally, a classroom is a choral concert of ideas with solos and counterpoint, where each voice contributes to the texture and harmony of the whole. 

Tell us about the album-release party and your choice of venue, the Commodore Hotel. 


The album begins in The Commodore, where Fitzgerald and Zelda lived on and off for two years while he was working on the earliest drafts of Gatsby.

There was a speakeasy here during prohibition, where Scott and Zelda would've rubbed elbows with Capone, Dillinger and Ma Barker, so our album opens with just such a scene, only Jay, Daisy and Bernice are present as well.

The art deco lobby and bar have been refurbished and our album release was the soft opening of the space, the official Twin Cities celebration of Fitzgerald's birthday (in conjunction with Garrison Keillor's Common Good Books), and a fundraiser for Fitzgerald in St. Paul, the nonprofit group that is devoted to educational outreach and establishing a Fitzgerald Center in his home city.

The album release party in September was wonderful. All of the tickets sold, so we were able to raise $10,000 toward a Fitzgerald Center in the author's native city of St. Paul.


Photo credit: Lisa Venticinque

Photo caption: Joel Pace, seated with trumpet, and the band Irie Sol recently released their new album, "Dred Scott Fitzgerald," based on the works of the famous writer.