What Makes a Great Jazz Educator? Part 1

Good question.

“I’ve always had tremendous respect for jazz educators who consistently produce great results with their jazz ensembles,” says former Missouri MEA Jazz Vice-President Chris Becker. “Their groups swing, the soloists sound incredible, and the tunes are well-chosen. Of course, the music is well-prepared, all the details worked out, and the style is great. How do those guys do that? So, I asked…”

The answer, he found, “came down to three simple points.” This week, he discusses the first:

Listen to lots of jazz, then listen some more, and just keep listening

“Almost uniformly,” continues Becker, “ the first point everyone mentioned was that they listened to jazz all the time! I had the good fortune to hear jazz around the house growing up because my dad loved Cannonball Adderleyand Thelonious Monk and owned many of their recordings. My jazz habit continued into high school, college, and teaching, always expanding as my friends, teachers, students, and colleagues mentioned different artists and recordings. Today, because of iTunes and other digital music sources, it’s easier than ever to locate great recordings, and a simple task to bring in your ‘record’ collection to share with your students. One digital audio player replaces boxes and boxes of vinyl LPs!

“Implied in my last statement is that your students must also listen, and then listen some more. We’ve heard jazz described as a language (which it is!), and the process of learning jazz explained in the same way as learning a language. A child learns its parents’ language by hearing words spoken over and over, and a student of jazz learns the language by hearing the music played over and over.

“As valuable as it is, I’ve found it debatable whether it’s necessary for a great jazz educator to be a jazz performer capable of demonstrating for his or her students. However, there is no debate about the importance of listening and having your students listen. The language simply cannot be spoken if they have no idea how it should sound. The sound and feel of jazz must be in your head!”

Adapted from “What Makes a Great Jazz Educator?” by Chris Becker, originally published in Spring 2010 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, June 3, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (www.menc.org)