Jazz in the Classroom

America’s own art form is finding a place in the mainstream of music education

Through its first century of existence, jazz has traveled an unpredictable path. What began as a high-spirited soundtrack to the action in New Orleans bars and bordellos has become not just a respectable musical style but an American institution, the stuff of Ken Burns documentaries, repertory concert series at Lincoln Center, and exhibits at the Smithsonian. The latter’s curator of American music, John Edward Hasse (the same man who turned April into Jazz Appreciation Month, see related story), argues that jazz ranks among this country’s greatest contributions to world culture: “In my judgment, it’s a fundamental part of who we are as Americans. Young people in Germany are surely educated about Bach and Beethoven, and young people in the United States should surely know about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.”

But are young people in the United States learning about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington? How is this great American art form being taught at the elementary and secondary levels in American schools?

“It all depends on where you are,” says Zachary Poulter, band director at Syracuse Junior High School in Syracuse, Utah, and author of Teaching Improv in Your Jazz Ensemble, which will be published by MENC in early summer. “Some programs do an outstanding job at teaching students about jazz, other programs make jazz a pet project that’s fun but not incredibly educational, and at the other end of the spectrum it’s not taught at all. The resources are there, but not everyone’s using them.”

Judy Shafer, director of education at the Jazz Arts Group in Columbus, Ohio, claims this is partly because “a lot of teachers aren’t prepared to deal with jazz, and that unpreparedness can come off as fear.” Chuck Owen, president of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE), agrees: “One of the major needs in jazz education right now is for general music teachers to have sufficient exposure to jazz so they can feel comfortable teaching it. Ultimately that’s going to mean requiring at least a single course in jazz pedagogy as part of any music education degree.”

Individual Creativity

The idea of making jazz a required part of general music education will no doubt set off some skeptics’ alarms. And even if you are not a skeptic, you may wonder: What’s the real value in learning about jazz? What special skills can it foster in young people?

Lisa Kelly, who teaches jazz voice and music theory at Douglas Anderson High School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida, says, “Self-discipline and flexibility are the most important things jazz can teach. And the two go together: the more prepared you are, the more spontaneous you can be. In jazz as in life, you have to improvise.”

Ah yes, improvising—perhaps the single most distinctive feature of jazz. As Owen puts it, “Jazz fosters all the skills that you’d get from working in any instrumental or vocal ensemble. But one thing that makes it unique is that it’s so strongly based around improvisation, and that teaches kids the value of individual creativity. It also encourages them to explore their instruments in a way that they might not do if they were just sitting there reading a piece of music.”

Poulter knows firsthand how jazz instruction can improve students’ performance in more traditional school ensembles. “I see a significant difference between my band students who are in the jazz ensemble and those who aren’t,” he says. “For students who are in the middle of a clarinet section with 20 other people, it’s easy to be a follower. In the jazz band, they’re the only one playing their notes, so they have to learn to lead. Working on improvising makes them better at sight-reading too, because they’ve picked up that extra confidence. No matter what music they play, they’re involved with it on a deeper level.”

These educators make a strong case for bringing more jazz into the classroom. But how exactly should teachers go about doing this? What are good entry points for students?

Most jazz experts agree that the easiest—and best—way to get young people interested in the music is simply by letting them hear plenty of it. Owen recalls, “I visited a high school once where the band director was playing Miles Davis tunes as the kids walked into the band room, and the kids were singing along. I asked him how frequently he played music like this, and he said, ‘Every day.’ He’d realized something: There wasn’t a single point he could make to his students verbally about that music that was going to be as meaningful to them as actually hearing it.”

Poulter takes a slightly different approach with his junior high students; instead of playing jazz recordings right off the bat, he’ll make his students do the playing. “The very first thing I do is improvise on a single note, then two notes, then three notes,” he says. “The kids are all scared on the first day of class because it’s new, but after a half hour of call-and-response improvising, they start to realize, ‘Hey, I can do this, and it’s fun.’ When you start off that way, it’s so much more meaningful to come into the next class with a CD and say, ‘Here’s Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley playing call-and-response, just like you did.’ The students get it because they’ve had the experience.”

The Younger the Better

Improvisation is often thought of as an advanced skill, something that requires deep knowledge of harmony and music theory and therefore should not be attempted by younger students. The IAJE’s Owen stresses that this is not the case. “Theoretical concepts are important, but their purpose is to get students to the point where they can play what they hear, and there are lots of other ways to make that happen. Kids can really develop that sense from just playing around, and the younger they are, the better.”

The fact that improvisation can be successfully taught even with very young students is proven by New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), whose artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, has long been a promoter of jazz education beginning at an early age. Among JALC’s extensive list of educational programs—such as a tuition-free Middle School Jazz Academy for young instrumentalists and a summer Band Director Academy—one can find WeBop!, an eight-class jazz course designed for children under 5. Although most of its programs are meant primarily to serve students in the New York City area, JALC also offers resources to teachers online, including a comprehensive Jazz for Young People multimedia curriculum. For more information, visit www.jalc.org/jazzED.

The Jazz Arts Group’s Shafer offers a final piece of advice. “Don’t treat jazz as a separate style of music that you do a single unit on every year or teach during Black History Month. The process of jazz can be used to teach all the elements of music, and by incorporating jazz fully into the day-to-day curriculum, you give students a more comprehensive understanding of music. I’m speaking here as somebody who’s passionate about jazz, but I think that children will really be engaged by it. And if we’re not having music classes where the children enjoy themselves,” she adds with a chuckle, “we need to reevaluate why we’re having music classes.”

JAMmin’: A Teacher’s Guide to Jazz Appreciation Month

“The number-one problem facing jazz is not a shortage of talented musicians but a shortage of audience,” says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Hasse devised the idea of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM)—observed every April—to expand the audience for jazz, by expanding “awareness of the music, both as history and as a living art form.”

“That’s the purpose of Jazz Appreciation Month,” Hasse says. “Education has to be at the core of this, because that’s the way music gets transmitted to the next generation.”

Educators can get involved in JAM by going to www.smithsonianjazz.org and exploring the educational resources available there. The site features detailed lesson plans for a general introductory course, “Groovin’ to Jazz” (available for age groups 8–13 and 12–15), and for classes focused on specific artists, such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Here are a few additional ideas:

  • Decorate a bulletin board in your classroom or hallway with a Jazz Appreciation Month theme, including books to read, music to listen to, and pictures of famous jazz musicians and composers.
  • Start each day of April by listening to a brief jazz piece. Ask students to respond in a journal or class discussion.
  • Go to “This Date in Jazz History” at smithsonianjazz.org, and find an anniversary that you can use with your students.
  • Focus on one of the many jazz legends whose birthday falls in April.
  • Offer students extra credit for completing a jazz-related project during April.
  • Take your students on a field trip to a local museum, library, historical site with an exhibition related to jazz, or a local performing arts center for a jazz performance.

For more jazz information for teachers, visit www.menc.org or www.jazzinamerica.org.

Essential Listening:

A selection of classic albums to guide students through the history of jazz.

  • Louis Armstrong, The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Seven Recordings (Columbia/Legacy). Jazz’s first true icon in his 1920s prime.
  • Benny Goodman, The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert (Columbia/Legacy). One of the all-time great live documents of big-band swing.
  • Billie Holiday, The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O). This excellent compilation offers 25 years of highlights from the quintessential jazz diva’s career.
  • Duke Ellington, Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band, 1940–42 (Bluebird/BMG). A tour de force of composition and orchestration, including the immortal “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
  • Charlie Parker, Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker Collection (Rhino). The bebop pioneer is at his virtuosic best on these ’40s and ’50s recordings.
  • Dave Brubeck, Time Out (Columbia). The cooler, more classically influenced side of jazz is well represented by Brubeck and his brilliant saxophonist Paul Desmond.
  • Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook (PolyGram): The best of her many great “songbook” collections.
  • Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz (Atlantic). Full-band improvisation was not new in 1960—its roots go back to Dixieland—but Coleman’s version of it carried a revolutionary charge.
  • Stan Getz and João Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto (Verve). Blending Brazilian bossa-nova rhythms with lyrical soloing, this is a Latin jazz milestone.
  • John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (Impulse!). Passionate and intense, this small-group masterpiece depicts a spiritual journey through technically awe-inspiring playing.
  • Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Columbia). In the late ’60s, Davis brought electric instruments into his band; this is an entrancing introduction to that era.
  • Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters (Columbia). Following Miles Davis, Hancock helped create the fusion sound of the ’70s, laying improvisation over appealing funk beats.
  • Wynton Marsalis, Citi Movement (Columbia). Albums like this 1992 gem go a long way toward explaining why Marsalis has became jazz’s modern-day spokesman.

For Your Jazz Bookshelf:

  • Carole Boston Weatherford, The Sound That Jazz Makes (Walker)–grades 1-4
  • Ronald McCurdy, Meet the Great Jazz Legends (Alfred)–grades 3-6
  • Sandy Asirvatham, The History of Jazz (Chelsea House)–grade 5 and up
  • James Lincoln Collier, Jazz, An American Saga (Henry Holt)–grade 6 and up
  • John Edward Hasse, ed., Jazz: The First Century–grade 9 and up

Visit www.smithsonianjazz.org for a more extensive bibliography.


— Mac Randall, April 2008, ©  National Association for Music Education. This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Teaching Music Magazine.