Teaching Jazz – Top 10 List (Part 1)

“The three primary objectives in jazz education,” says Missouri MEA Jazz Vice-President Chris Becker, “are:

· to understand the historical and cultural context of jazz
· to understand the theoretical, harmonic and rhythmic components of jazz
· to perform jazz individually and collectively with appropriate style and technique.”

So, how to go about achieving these objectives?

“I asked several of my colleagues for their suggestions on which jazz education concepts they thought could be used in any classroom, at any level,” continues Becker, a long-time MENC member. They helped him compile a list of 10 ideas. Here are the first five.

Play recordings of jazz performances in your music classroom.

At one time or another, most of us play recordings for our students: our own concerts, exemplary performances of the music we’re performing, examples from specific historical periods, etc. Use those listening sessions to play landmark jazz performances. Have your students learn the names of the jazz greats. Ask them to keep a log of the recordings you play for them, and to write a couple of sentences giving their impressions of the music and the performance.

Recommend a great jazz recording for your students to purchase.

We all occasionally ask our students to buy supplementary supplies for class. Suggest that they purchase recordings from either old-fashioned “brick and mortar” stores or online vendors. Give extra credit for a well-written review of a recording they’ve added to their collection.

Show a video in class that presents an introduction to jazz or features a jazz performer.

Many excellent jazz-related videos are now available on DVD. Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz For Young People and Ken Burns’ Jazz are two excellent examples of in-depth presentations suitable for use in a variety of classrooms. Select a segment or two, and use it as an introduction to a composer or piece of music you might schedule to perform. Many internet resources also present jazz history, theory and performance clearly and accurately.

Encourage your students to attend a live jazz concert and report to the class.

Concerts and recitals can be used to demonstrate the musical “conversation” between the musicians on stage. Nothing in jazz is more important than this interaction. Watch for significant upcoming concerts at local venues and nearby colleges or universities and announce them in your classes. Organize a field trip to hear a performance or clinic/demonstration. With older students, suggest they get together with friends and attend a jazz concert. Offer extra credit for a brief report on the concert as an incentive.

Program a classic jazz selection in one of your school concerts.

Selecting appropriate performance literature is an ongoing challenge/opportunity for all of us. We look for music that engages our students, offers teachable moments, and stretches their knowledge of music. Many compositions by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, which have been performed countless times by great jazz musicians, are readily available, well-arranged for ensembles at all levels, and appropriate additions to most concert programs.

Next week: Teaching Jazz – Top 10 List (part 2)

Adapted from “Jazz ‘Top Ten’ List” by Chris Becker, originally published in Fall 2008 Missouri School Music Magazine

Chris Becker is Director of Bands at Parkway South High School in Manchester, MO and Director of the Jazz Band at Washington University in St. Louis.

—Nick Webb, September 17, 2009, © National Association for Music Education