There are teachers and then there are teachers. On the cusp of teaching my last Jazz History class, I’ve been thinking about what makes teaching more engaging and effective. What is needed to make a class really sing and not just the written melody, but the whole arrangement, plus the solos.
In her first semester at Brown University, my daughter took a Jazz History class, which delighted me no end. Until I found out that the teacher had the class memorize the dates of each given recording, the names of each musician, the producer and other overly-technical details that matter a little bit, but are near the end of the list of important things. Aargh!
The delight of my Jazz History class has been to go far beyond the surface facts and investigate deeper and wider, to go where most classes never venture. Some thoughts:
WHO: Identify the key musician (not all of them!) in a recording and tell their story. Find quirky little details that attract kids’ attention: like Duke Ellington’s piano teacher Mrs. Clinkscales and Ella’s last-minute decision to sing instead of dance at the Apollo Theater Contest and win. And then keep going. What challenges did they face as a black person in a racist culture, a woman in the patriarchy, a gay person amidst homophobia and so on? And how did they react?
WHEN: What was happening in that time— musically, culturally, historically? How did the music in that particular moment of historical time draw from the music of the previous? What were the attitudes of the time that created challenges for the musicians? How does each musical style connect to the art of the time, the poetry, the literature?
WHERE: Whether it be New Orleans, Kansas City, Harlem, L.A., the where of jazz matters.
Culture constellates in both time and places and though genius can flower anywhere, there is an ecology of the jazz biosphere, the musicians who came from Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or San Francisco, but didn’t seem to connect in Hartford or Des Moines or Houston or Seattle.
HOW: How does jazz work? What to listen for to make sense of the solos, the conversations, the back and forth? What is happening rhythmically, melodically, harmonically? What is the quality of the timbres? The specific musical forms? How did these change through time?
WHY: What does jazz mean to culture? To our humanitarian promise? How does it sing to the zeitgeist of the time? How does it reflect it, shape it, predict it? Why is it important?
For starters. Then the real job of the teacher, the ability to connect this all to the students, to connect to the students themselves, to offer this information as the starting point of the students’ further investigation, to elicit the student responses and reactions to this extraordinary world you’re opening to them.
The whole direction of this Jazz History class has been to show how it grew larger and larger, how music and styles unimaginable in the 20’s blossomed in the 40’s, how it grew yet larger in each decade to follow. And to teach it all in a way so much larger than memorizing the dates and musicians on each recording.
Brown University, take note.
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