Making the Case for Jazz Education

As recently as 45 years ago, the idea that jazz, or any contemporary popular music, could serve a role in the education of America’s youth was highly questionable in the minds of many music teachers. Difficult as it might be to believe now, MENC published an article by Harry Allen Feldman, an instrumental music teacher in New York City high schools, highly critical of anyone even considering the notion. There were others who thought differently, and they were given a forum to express their views at the 1964 MENC Conference.

“The Nineteenth Biennial Meeting of the Music Educators National Conference, held March 11-17, 1964, in Philadelphia featured five special sessions on the discussion and performance of contemporary music,” wrote Richard Bobbit in his article in the June-July 1964 Music Educators Journal. “Four of these sessions were lecture demonstrations sponsored by the MENC Contemporary Music Project for Creativity in Music Education (financed by the Ford Foundation); the fifth was concerned with the techniques of modern jazz performance, and the potential role of jazz in music education.”

Enter Billy Taylor, who “(began by) stating the premises upon which he wished to elaborate:

1) jazz is a melodic art
2) jazz is a “manner of playing” that has evolved within the framework of a definite, extant repertory
3) the sixty-odd years of the development of jazz has clearly established a general awareness
that it is the only truly indigenous American musical idiom
4) the theoretical knowledge and technical dexterity necessary for the performance of jazz are of
the highest order, and should be utilized for the more comprehensive training of today’s young musicians

“He then proceeded,” continued Bobbitt, “to produce stylistic harmonic and melodic alterations of a number of melodies first stated in their original version, and it can be said in all sincerity that this was the session on contemporary music at which the audience, for the first time, seemed to respond enthusiastically as a group…The demonstration of improvisatory technique served notice that those who were not yet familiar with the idiom would do well to see to it that they become well-versed in all phases of contemporary music, and especially so in a field that is vitally important to the young people in our schools.

“Mr. Taylor observed, and rightly so,” Bobbitt opined, “that any idiom which contains so much of the accumulated melodic material of American life should certainly continue to expand its activity in public education. Jazz is an important dialect in our musical language. Properly played by professionals or skilled amateurs, and properly taught, it can provide a medium for exchange of highly developed musical ideas…The techniques of jazz, as well as other phases of professional American music, contain much that is of immediate value to the theoretical and technical growth of the young musician.”


Adapted from “Conference Sessions on Contemporary Music” by Richard Bobbitt, originally published in the JuneJuly 1964 issue of Music Educators Journal (read the entire article – MENC member log-in required)

—Nick Webb, August 24, 2010 © National Association for Music Education