Step aside, Stephane Grappelli — There’s a new jazz string musician in town. And she also happens to be the new artistic director for the Bronx Arts Ensemble.
Bronx native and professional jazz violist Judith Insell has reached a new administrative height in a long history of organizational leadership. From the Harlem School of Arts to the School for the Performing Arts Bronx House, Insell has overseen music programs and artistic curation for years.
“I felt it was very important to go to HSA and do the work because I’m a person that’s very much about community building,” Insell said. “I realized there was a need for a lot of support of young developing musicians to have the opportunity to train and become the professionals that they wanted to be.”
Insell was once that sort of artist, just starting out in what she described as the average professional musician’s training. She attended prestigious institutions like Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music. Later, she performed with renowned jazz bassist Joe Fonda for her album “Dark Wood Explorations,” which she released in 2008.
“I was trained classically, but started an interest in jazz during college,” Insell said. “I believe that my position as a performer has certainly informed how I work over the years. I know how long it takes to learn and perform a piece. If I didn’t, I think my administrative skills would suffer.”
In time, Insell got involved with non-profit arts programs and organizations, and eventually arrived at Bronx Arts Ensemble, beginning a long-lasting career with the organization, beginning as its music programs director.
“That was primarily about concerts, as in programming and executing the concerts,” Insell said. “Bronx Arts Ensemble does, normally — pre-pandemic — a lot of concerts. (Like) 60 to 70 concerts a year.”
Insell began an initiative in 2016 called “Music Through a Global Lens,” placing the everchanging cultural geography of the Bronx itself at the forefront of the ensemble’s arts and education programming.
“I thought, since the Bronx is a very diverse place, it would be appropriate for Bronx Arts Ensemble to be more conscious of the different cultures that live in the Bronx,” Insell said. “We started to look at different populations of the Bronx, and since then there’s been a focus on Mexico, Puerto Rico, Indian music and more.”
Insell became Bronx House’s performing arts director just outside of Morris Park a year before being called back by BAE’s executive director, David Nussenbaum, to do what some might refer to as a tall task.
“I was asked to fully revamp the curriculum,” Insell said.
“That happened last summer. I came back with the goal to expand the initiative to be culturally responsive, to look at social justice practices, to look at diversity and equity inclusion, and social and emotional learning that would be focused in our arts education school partnerships — which there are a lot.”
The ensemble has partnered with 45 public schools throughout the Bronx, working with teaching artists and providing a curriculum based on ideals like cultural responsiveness and social justice.
Of course, something of a speed bump — or perhaps, a pothole — occurred in March.
“It was going all along really well,” Insell said. “And then the pandemic hit. We’ve tried to keep it up with our online classes, and I think we’ve been pretty successful with that. We were able to put together a summer series that is very much in line with those ideals.”
Through recorded and live sessions, BAE kicked off a summer arts series featuring general music education, African drumming and dance, yoga and meditation classes, and capoeira classes — all of which are taught and performed by professional Bronx-based artists.
After a complete overhaul of BAE’s curriculum. After a pandemic forced everyone to consult the virtual world for artistic guidance and learning. And after succeeding at both of those major endeavors, one more request was made of Insell.
“And then, all of a sudden, I was asked if I would step up and be the artistic director,” Insell said. “Which means being in charge of the creative vision for the organization. That would mean having that reach across (the) arts and education division, and also the concert programming division. I’ve worked both sides of it, so it’s not that hard of a stretch for me.”
From school to school, and organization to organization, Insell has kept her home borough in mind. In returning — both as an administrator and as a musician in her own right — she considers her penultimate goal to be focused on a very important fact: The Bronx is a vast, diverse and vibrant musical community that deserves a little more than it’s received.
“The community in the Bronx never gets enough respect,” Insell said. “I’m forever trying to get the Bronx the highest quality art. It is deserving. Bronx citizens deserve the best art.”