You don’t need a DNA sequencer to determine where Jacob Varmus got his smarts: his dad is Harold Varmus, the Nobel Prize–winning geneticist who helped unlock the biological mechanism behind cancer.
At some point, however, the younger Varmus ventured off onto his own distinctive course. Rather than follow his dad into science, Jacob became obsessed with music. There’s still an academic dimension to his quest—he teaches at the New York Jazz Academy—but more often than not he can be found on the bandstand, playing trumpet and leading his quintet through his own tuneful original compositions.
That’s not to say that father and son can’t meet, however, for they do in Genes & Jazz, an unprecedented fusion of soulful music and the scientific method that will be on display at this year’s Indian Summer festival. Harold talks, Jacob plays, and if all goes well their audience leaves the room feeling considerably more clued in.
“My father’s role in this is that he gives some basic biology lessons, with the music kind of as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down,” Jason says of the three-part presentation, on the line from his New York City home. “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.”
Another useful analogy, he adds, is the compositional process of creating a theme, and then spinning variations on that original idea. “Mutations are basically variations, evolutionary variations,” he explains. “A lot of great music is built on repetition and variation—most of the music I enjoy, actually.”
Evolutionary theory even applies to the Genes & Jazz show itself. The version we’ll see in Vancouver is leaner and lighter than what father and son offered at their original performance, commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum in 2008; some judicious editing has resulted in a presentation that’s easier to digest. And Jacob reveals that he’s also developed some tools to cope with the unusual demands of taking his scientist dad out of the lab and onto the stage.
“We don’t always understand one another, and communication is definitely a work in progress, although I would say it’s improving,” he says. “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.”
As an improviser and jazz bandleader, has he evolved the kind of social intelligence that’s rare in geneticists? “There’s probably something to that,” Jacob allows—but for now, further study is required.
Indian Summer presents Genes & Jazz at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday (July 17).