Jazz is one of the many gifts that America has presented to the rest of the world. Many countries have made fantastic contributions and additions, but the roots of jazz dig down deep in American music and life, representing our amazingly diverse culture.
The problem today is that children do not inherently grow up with an appreciation or understanding of one our nation’s most distinctive art forms. With today’s popular music in the mainstream media, students are simply not exposed to jazz the way they were years ago. In most cases, the only way they gain exposure to this American treasure is through school or a family member enthusiast.
Imagine trying to teach football or baseball to students without their knowledge of what the game looks like or without a favorite team or player to watch or talk about with family or friends. Most often, students who excel in an activity have role models and great examples to emulate.
So knowing the obstacle, how important is it that we make jazz education a necessary part of a well-rounded music education?
I strongly believe that learning any genre of music has the remarkable ability to teach a multitude of concepts across a wide spectrum of disciplines while creating unique connections between them. I believe that jazz can teach these same concepts, but also stretch the margins for our students, especially through teaching an understanding of culture, creativity and cooperation. Jazz presents a practical opportunity for students not only to learn about melting-pot cultures, but to experience the blending of Western European concepts with West African, Latin American and Black American traditions.
Because so much emotion is poured into the creation of jazz, students must understand and learn how to convey that emotion through their performance. Music is one of those rare disciplines that require a student to perform a highly demanding technical skill while making empathetic decisions at the same time. When it’s all said and done, we are drawn to music to feel something. Understanding how jazz music came about and its cultural implications is a necessary step for students to authentically and accurately perform this genre of music.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with it.” Jazz can provide the perfect vehicle for students to hone their skills in creativity. Improvisation is the backbone of jazz. Students use previously learned skills and concepts of music performance in search of their own voice. This process of creative improvisation, no matter how they may sound at first, allows students to discover not only how to create entirely new material, but also how to string it together.
Students also gain the confidence to fight off fears of failure, which I believe is the number one killer of creative thinking. Music, and jazz especially, provide the opportunity for students to learn in a creative atmosphere while hearing the words “be brave, mistakes are OK!” Spontaneity and adjusting instantly to unexpected changes are skills that are transferrable to almost any aspect of life.
The majority of a school day centers around individual student success, often times with no connection to the other students learning around them. Music offers a unique learning situation where students must respect the democratic processes and relationships. Much of what they decide to do depends on the decisions and actions of those around them.
For this to happen, it requires students to listen first and then make a decision second. This process is never ending. As subtle as the swing eighth note rhythm on the cymbal or the staccato articulation of the lead trumpet, students are constantly listening and adjusting for discrepancies and tendencies with blend, balance, intonation, melodic lines, solos and the list goes on.
There is a hierarchy within a jazz ensemble that must be taken into account with all decisions, and that requires a certain level of maturity for students to learn, respect and commit to.
The skills and characteristics gained through a comprehensive music education that includes jazz performance may read as a 21st century job requirement checklist, and in many ways it is. Students who learn in this type of environment won’t hesitate working with someone else with a different background, culture or training. They will thrive in situations that are constantly changing, and they will be motivated by opportunities to create and to find new ways to solve a problem.
However, I believe the most important reason for students taking the time to study jazz is for its quality as an art. An art that is uniquely American, uniquely soulful and uniquely human. Students of any age need more of that in their lives.
Craig Stahl is the middle school band director and music teacher at Good Hope Middle School in the Cumberland Valley School District. He studied music education and music performance at Lebanon Valley College and Duquesne University. Craig currently plays lead alto with the Gettysburg Big Band and clarinet with the Hagerstown Band.