Jazz Appreciation Month Gains New Support from MENC Society

Society for Jazz Education Head Offers Tips for Incorporating Jazz into April Classroom Studies


Willie L. Hill Jr., chairman of the MENC Society for Jazz Education, believes when music educators perform, they offer a good example for students.

MENC has participated in and supported Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian Institution, since its inception in 2002. Each year, the month of April sees concerts and other activities that celebrate jazz in the United States.

This year JAM takes on new importance for MENC following the launch in 2008 of its Society for Jazz Education. Hill, director of fine arts at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a former MENC president, chairs the society.

When asked if he had any suggestions for music educators who want to incorporate jazz into their classrooms in April, Hill said, “I wish every month were Jazz Appreciation Month!” Until that happens, he offers a few tips.

“One way to handle it is to take a historic approach. Concentrate on the greats of jazz history—Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane. Music educators can use these musicians to create strands that will be meaningful to their students,” Hill said.

He added that another key is to teach students the art of jazz improvisation. Improvisation is one of the most creative elements a musician can learn, he said, and students enjoy the challenge of learning “improv.”

Hill also said teachers can:

  • Encourage their students to attend a jazz performance with their families. “In April there are so many resources available and a lot of them are free.”
  • Show jazz performances in the classroom. “A number of them are available on YouTube.”
  • Look on the JAM Web site for more tips.

During the interview Hill discussed jazz education and the MENC Society for Jazz Education. Here are some other suggestions Hill has for music educators interested in jazz.

Q: What do you consider the advantages of membership in the jazz society?
One very important thing is that it gives jazz educators the opportunity network with one other. We can go on online on the MENC Web site and share teaching ideas, ask questions and there are also lessons plans that members will find helpful. We believe that it is important to have comprehensive jazz education programs on all levels and the Jazz Society will help us accomplish that. In addition, the MENC Jazz Academy during Music Education Week in June will allow members to network in person and to take advantage of research and performance sessions. Become a member (of the MENC Society for Jazz Education) and help us strengthen the field. Help us advocate for music education.

Q: As a performer yourself, do you have any suggestions for members who might be trying to balance their own teaching responsibilities and a desire to perform jazz?
Individuals need to continue to develop their musicianship. If you are not prepared, it is difficult to help your students. Too many jazz educators stop playing and that is a huge error. You need to continue to play so you an demonstrate authentic music to your students.

In addition, you must be organized. Stay organized and you can work more efficiently. It will also help you deal with any discipline challenges. Having a balanced life will serve you well.

Q: What special skills do you think jazz performers who are also music educators bring to the classroom? And to their students?
I really believe jazz artists have an artistic advantage than can help expand the musical horizons of their students. A really good jazz artist and jazz educator knows a lot of the European tradition of classical music as well as the birth of jazz and blues and can share that with students.

In addition, the jazz tradition requires a real feel for music, including, keen listening skills. When you do improv, you must listen to everyone around very carefully, hear what each section is doing. Those kinds of isolated listening skills provide the foundation that permits improvisation. Those are great skills to pass along to students.”

Some helpful jazz-related links:

Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM)

MENC’s Society for Jazz Education

My Music Class

Visit the MENC Events Web site has information about the Society for Jazz Education Academy that will be presented June 18-19 during Music Education Week in Washington, DC. The academy will include sessions on improvisation, the future of jazz education, and much more.

Roz Fehr, March 25, 2009. © MENC: The National Association for Music Education