What’s So Special About Jazz?

What’s So Special About Jazz?

Unique Attributes of America’s Music that Need to be Taken Into Consideration when Constructing Student Learning Objectives Specific to Jazz Education.

By NAfME member Glen Brumbach


When thinking about a Student Learning Objective (SLO) specific to jazz it is important to consider the unique attributes of “America’s Classical Music” (Giddens & DeVeaux, 2009, p. 44). Three criteria distinguish jazz music from Eurocentric based music taught in traditional band, choir and orchestra settings (Suber, 1976). These are:

  1. Improvisation (spontaneous composition)
  2. A sense of moving time (Swing style)
  3. Individuality of expression (the ability to make and establish your own personal sound)

jazz band


Improvisation :“Taking a Ride”


Improvisation is considered by many jazz scholars and musicians as the core activity of the genre. (Berliner, 1994; Prouty, 2012). Improvisation is mentioned side by side with composition in the NAfME 2014 standards pertaining to “Creating” and “Performing”. Improvisation opportunities occur frequently when performing standard repertoire in a jazz big band. Performers are expected to spontaneously compose solos given only the chord structure of the tune. While sometimes solos are written out in arrangements when playing authentic repertoire, only chord symbols are notated allowing the student to creatively construct their own solo over the harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment provided by the jazz band rhythm section and possibly augmented by riffs, short rhythmic phrases, performed by the horn sections.

Spontaneous interaction between the soloist and accompanying rhythm section allows for individual creativity as well as musical collaboration while making connections through the repertoire and from their own personal experiences. Despite the recognition of the importance of this activity for students, many music educators feel inadequately prepared to teach jazz improvisation to their students. The result of this deficiency in preparation leads to students’ improvisation performances consisting of a repetition of scales and arpeggios or pre-written solos without the student expressing his or her own creative voice.


Sense of Moving Time:It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing”

jazz band
iStock.com jcarino

The second criteria, that of sense of moving time, is evident by the instrumentation used in jazz ensembles. Jazz big bands and combos have rhythm sections devoted to creating the feel and spirit of the music. These rhythm sections consist of drums, bass, piano, and usually guitar. Bands and orchestras may have percussion sections and choirs have accompanists but no other ensemble has a section made up of a specific group of instruments devoted to providing the rhythmic feel and style of the music that carries the compositions and directs the soloists and ensemble members.


Individual Expression: “We All Have Something to Say”

jazz ensemble

The final criteria, individuality of expression, is evidenced by how jazz music is identified. Western European music is usually identified by composer and/or title of the work. Audiences attend a performance of Beethoven’s 7th symphony. Symphony orchestras are judged by how well they perform the work as it was intended. Conversely, audiences go to jazz performances to listen to a particular artist, who are known by their specific and unique sound. For example: Charlie Parker and Cannon Adderly both record and perform the same tune however their distinctive individual sounds and stylistic and improvisational approaches produce totally different renditions of identical compositions. The NAfME standard of “Connecting” allows students to synthesize their theoretical and aural musical knowledge with their personal experiences when constructing their jazz improvisations. These improvisations give students a unique voice to express themselves. The importance of providing students with the connections to make informed improvisational decisions.

The enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) by Congress in 2016 will probably not affect SLOs remaining an integral part of the education process. The SLO will continue to be used in order to measure student achievement as well as a component for many states in their teacher evaluation process. The task of constructing and implementing an SLO can seem daunting. However, a well-constructed SLO can showcase your music program and its importance and relevance in a student’s education. Jazz education can offer unique educational experiences through the unique three criteria and can produce outcomes beyond quantified evidence of student growth. Construction and implementation of SLOs pertaining to jazz education will be the topic of my session that will be presented in November at the National Music Education Conference in Grapevine, Texas.



Baker, D. N. (1981). Jazz pedagogy. Bloomington, Inidana: Frangipani Press.

Berliner, P. F. (1994). Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, G., & DeVeaux, S. (2009). Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Prouty, K. (2012). Knowing Jazz. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

Suber, C. (1976). Jazz education. In L. Feather, & I. Gitler, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies (pp. 366 – 374). New York, NY: Horizon Press.


About the Author:

band director

NAfME member Glen A. Brumbach, NAfME Eastern Division Band Council representative, recently retired after 34 years of teaching in the public schools of Pennsylvania. He has been director of bands at Boyertown for the last eight years having also taught in the Reading, Muhlenberg, and Muncy School Districts. He is a past District 10 President of PMEA as well as a former of ficer and committee member of the Cavalcade of Bands Association.

While teaching at Reading and Boyertown, his bands traveled across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Performance venues and destinations have included such festivals as Fiesta Bowl National Band Championship, Phoenix, Arizona; Kentucky Derby Festival, Louisville, Kentucky; Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, Carolina Dogwood Festival, and Niagara Blossom Festival, Niagara Falls, Canada. Performance venues included locales such as Walt Disney World, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; Washington, D.C.; New York, New York; and Boston, Massachusetts. His jazz band was the first such group to perform in the Piazza del Signora in Florence, Italy, as well other performances in Rome, Prague, Czech Republic, Salzburg, and Vienna, Austria.

Glen also was the marching band director for the 1993 Pennsylvania All State Lions Band and traveled with them to the International Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. He is currently a Teaching Assistant at the Maryland University School of Music, where is also pursuing his Ph.D. in Music Education. Glen resides in Greenbelt, Maryland, with his wife Andrea, a high school choral director in Arundel County, Maryland, and his son Wil, a professional jazz guitarist and music educator in the Prince George’s County school system.


Glen Brumbach will be presenting on his topic ”Constructing Student Learning Objectives specific to Jazz Education: The Outcomes may surprise you” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today!

music education

Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/NAfME2016. And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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