Ajay Heble, a University of Guelph English and Theatre Studies professor, is stepping down as artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, which he founded 23 years ago.

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Heble will retire after the 2016 festival, which will run Sept. 14-18. He has served as artistic director since beginning the festival in 1994.

“This has been a very difficult decision for me, but I believe it is the right one at this time,” Heble said.

“It has been a genuinely inspiring and life-changing experience to be at the heart of such a wonderful community-based initiative that I know has touched so many people around the world in so many ways over the past 23 years.”

Over the years, the Guelph Jazz Festival has become a world-class venue for improvisational jazz performance and education. It has been hailed as among the most visionary musical events in Canada and received the prestigious Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for the Arts and the Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

The festival is sponsored by U of G’s schools of Fine Art and Music, Languages and Literatures, and English and Theatre Studies, as well as the Art Gallery of Guelph, the Central Student Association and other University departments.

Heble will help develop the 2016 festival program. A community celebration of his achievements will be held during this year’s event.

Shawn Van Sluys, president of the festival’s board of directors, said Heble has inspired countless people with his lifelong passion for improvised music.

“When I travel to other places in the world and tell people that I live in Guelph, I am often amazed that they know of this small city because of the profound work of Ajay Heble and the Guelph Jazz Festival,” Van Sluys said.

At U of G, Heble founded the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, backed by a $2.5-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The institute uses improvisation in teaching and learning and as a model for building successful communities.

Heble also created the annual Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium that runs during the festival. Hosted by U of G, the colloquium brings together researchers, artists and the public.