Developing the Language of Jazz, Part 1

Developing the Language of Jazz, Part 1

A Scaffold Approach to Teaching Jazz Concepts to Beginning and Intermediate Jazz Ensemble.

By NAfME member Jonathan Holford and Mike Carubia 

Article written by Jonathan Holford


What Is Developing the Language of Jazz?

Developing the Language of Jazz is a jazz ensemble warm-up method geared for teachers to use with a beginning or intermediate jazz ensemble. It was conceived after many conversations with friends and colleagues who had little or no jazz experience and also had the responsibility of teaching jazz. In my experience, many college music education programs prepare music teachers to teach concert band, orchestra, and chorus with often a minimal focus on teaching a jazz ensemble.

The focus and goal was to create a pedagogically sound curriculum that holds true to the spirit and tradition of jazz music while being structured and attainable to the average music student, who often misses out on learning jazz due to technical limitations. The pressures of concert performance, lack of time or lack of knowledge prevents teachers from teaching the jazz concepts, tradition and style.

jazz | smartboy10


There are many specific instrumental jazz methodologies; however, few of them approach the whole jazz ensemble. There have been years where I have had a drummer who has never played a drum set, a bass player that can’t keep time, and a pianist who doesn’t have the first clue about comping chords. Moreover, the thought of preparing for a concert, let alone being pedagogically sound, often feels like a daunting task. Developing the Language of Jazz is a scaffold approach to getting your band to swing, read and ultimately interested in exploring this great American art form.


Goals of the Article

The goal of this article is to sum up a workshop that I presented at the 2016 NAfME All National Conference in Grapevine, Texas. This article will be broken up into Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 will address specific challenges that teachers and students face when teaching or learning jazz and Part 2 will focus on specific teaching strategies.




My grandfather would often say to me “Music is the Universal Language of Mankind.” He would say, with music you were able to communicate with people from different cultures and languages throughout the world. Furthermore, I believe there is much more to unpack from that statement.

We often hear the word literacy in regards to English Language subjects and test scores, but how often do we use it when we speak about teaching music? We worry about concert performances, the level of music, or how we compare our ensembles to other ensembles, forgetting that we are teaching a language that is both written and “spoken” (played). Like all languages it is not void of dialects or accents, thus the challenge of teaching jazz.


THE AURAL PROBLEM—Viewing Jazz as a Dialect of the Greater Musical Language


As a music education major who focused on playing jazz, classical friends of mine were overwhelmed of the thought of swinging; it didn’t make sense to them. Many of them were frustrated because they had limited experience.


You are a New Yorker working under cover for the New York Yankees and your mission is to infiltrate and assimilate into the Boston Red Sox organization and steal team secrets. You have mastered the phrase “Pak the cah in Havad Yad.” However, when ordering “cawfee,” members of the Red Sox organization become suspicious!! © 2015 Jonathan F. Holford


“Non-jazz” musician friends have shared that they are visually focused and have attempted to learn jazz from a VISUAL approach rather than an AURAL approach. To emphasize the importance of listening, I begin an ensemble’s first rehearsal with a story that goes something like this:

The moral of the story is that in order for my students who are native New Yorkers to fit in to the Red Sox organization they must master a Boston accent. Because they are not a “native Bostonian” they will go back to their “New York Accent” or what I like to call their default state (pun intended).

This leads to the following class discussion:

Teacher: So . . . how can we truly develop a Boston accent? By reading it in a book?
Students: NO!!! (Usually altogether)
Teacher: Why?
Students: That doesn’t make sense.

Click to enlarge images below.



Teacher: You have to immerse yourself in the city and surround yourself with people who speak the dialect and before you know it you will be speaking with a Boston accent.

Music is no different. Almost all of our students are conditioned to play straight eighth music, whether it be classical, rock, funk, rap or anything that is on the radio today. The challenge that we have as educators in teaching the jazz/swing style is that students need to immerse themselves into listening to jazz. Students, when playing jazz, often go to their “default state” which is straight eighth music. If we look at jazz in terms of a spoken/written language, and approach jazz like one approaches learning a language I believe we can better explain this style to students. Please reference the following diagrams.




Below there are two noted examples; one is played with a straight eighth feel and the other is with a jazz/swing feel. Can you identify which is which?





Having trouble? That is because just like the word coffee looks the same in New York and Boston, it is pronounced differently.


New York Dialect Phonetic

Boston Dialect Phonetic





This poses a very difficult problem for our students because there is nothing to indicate which notes are supposed to be played long and which ones are short.

Our students see:

However our students need to play the following with a triplet feel.





Often times there will be a symbol at the top of the page indicating swung eighth notes; however, because notation isn’t “phonetic” the way it sounds, students will often go back to their “default state” and begin playing the eighth notes straight.

Take this Charlie Parker lick as another example.

It is notated like this:

It phonetically sounds like this:


Imagine how confusing this is for our students. It’s like reading a word and pronouncing it as you had previously been taught and now have to pronounce it totally differently.


How Does Knowing This Information Help Us?

It is suggested that Einstein would say, “If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend fifty-five minutes thinking about the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” With this in mind, I believe that we as teachers need to:

  • Teach jazz like one learns a language.
  • Model for students as a parent models for their child or as a foreign language teacher models for their students.
  • Teach relationally and in the context of concerts and performances. (eg. In relation to straight eighth music, something they already know.)
  • In terms of playing (speaking) we need to teach students aural rules to follow.
  • In terms of reading we need to teach students visual rules to follow. (i.e., PHONOGRAPH – PH has an F sound)

In Part 2, we will be giving you specific applications to address these issues.

Read Developing the Language of Jazz, Part 2


About the author:

NAfME member Jonathan Holford is the co-writer of Developing the Language of Jazz with Mike Carubia. For 15 years, he has been member of the Hewlett-Woodmere Music Department where he has been teaching middle school band and jazz ensemble. His middle school jazz ensembles have been invited to perform at state and regional music conventions and for the NYS commissioner of education. He holds a B.S in Music Education from Hofstra University and a MA in Jazz Performance from the Aaron Copeland School of Music. In addition he is an active freelance woodwind specialist in the New York area, a guest conductor and a clinician at the state and national levels on jazz education and critical questioning in the music performance classroom.

Developing the Language of Jazz is formatted as jazz band chart and can be purchased here.

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