For Wee Folks

“Kids love Route 66. It’s a blues. It’s a geography lesson. It swings and they dig it…”
cookie, MENC Forums
Most beginning music students, given a few rudimentary lessons, can learn to play a simple tune like Tea for Two. They’ll play it as originally written on the sheet music in front of them, and if they possess some measure of aptitude, it will probably sound quite lovely.

But as they say in certain parts, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The same holds true for music, especially if the approach to the piece incorporates elements of jazz. Tempo and melody can be manipulated, and when improvisation is employed something magical, often barely resembling the original*, can be created on the spot.

Jazz is an often complex, demanding and sophisticated music requiring considerable skill and dexterity from its practitioners. The best players typically have years of training behind them. Like all musicians, though, they had to start somewhere, which begs the question, when should a music educator consider introducing jazz concepts into their teaching?

A sampling of the discussion on this topic by posters to the MENC Forum seems to suggest that there’s no such thing as too soon:

KLR says, “I do a jazz unit with 2nd grade. I use When the Saints Go Marching In (sing regular version first 1st, then listen to Louis Armstrong version) and A Tisket, A Tasket (same deal, sing regular, then listen to Ella Fitzgerald version)…Another song I tried new this year, which the kids really liked, was All Jazzed Up Tonight. It was in one of the Music K-8 magazines from the ’07-’08 school year, and has a big band style accompaniment. It’s a bit wordy, and it took a few tries to get it down, but once they had it, they loved it – I had kids dancing all over the place.”

cookie continues, “The Disney catalog is always a good place to turn. Everybody Wants to Be a CatThe Bare Necessities, stuff like that. Those compositions use the swing rhythm and are a great introduction to how jazz feels…There are many songs from the swing catalogue that are innocent enough for kids. Some of the swing novelty-tunes like Three Little Fishes,Mairzy-Doats, and Skinnamarink are already music ed staples…Also, jazz is a way of interpreting compositions that aren’t necessarily “jazz” compositions. Somebody mentioned a “jazzed up” version of Once I Caught a Fish Alive. Doing something like that’s awesome for showing kids how jazz works. You can teach it to them straight and then show them how to make it “jazzy” through syncopation and the swing rhythm. It’s also the way authentic jazz musicians approach and individualize compositions.”
other resources:

· Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop by Chris Raschka
· Mysterious Thelonious by Chris Raschka
· John Coltrane’s Giant Steps by Chris Raschka
· PBS Kids Go! Jazz Lesson Plans (
· Learning With Jazz by Lucille Renwick (
· PBS Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns: Classroom (
· Smithsonian Jazz (

*Tea For Two from Piano Starts Here by Art Tatum – Sony B000002AAW (available at

—Nick Webb, June 23, 2011, © National Association for Music Education