Beginning Jazz Curriculum and Instruction
Emerson, Daniel C.
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, College of Fine Arts and Communication
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Jazz education is an integral part of the music curriculum as a whole. Jazz ensemble provides opportunities for students to explore creativity (Wisconsin Model Academic Standards for Music A, B, C, and D) in diverse musical styles. It is its own distinct art form and should be included as a course or extra-curricular course for this reason. Jazz music reflects the time period in which it was written and performed, allowing instructors to easily include lessons on jazz history and American history (Wisconsin Standards H and I). Additionally, the almost universal availability of recordings of jazz works that include the composer performing allows both students and teacher to hear the composer’s original intent. Listening, analyzing, and imitating are key components in jazz performance and are transferrable skills to other areas of music (Wisconsin Standards F and G). The amount of quality literature, history, and resources available make jazz ensemble a logical part of any quality music program. Teaching a jazz ensemble is often an expectation of instrumental music educators in public and private school band programs either as a curricular course or as an extracurricular activity. However, many times this is simply an afterthought of the people hiring for the positions as well as for the educators expected to teach the subject. Also, many music educators are simply not trained in this field. In addition to not being trained in jazz pedagogy, many instrumental music educators have not had experience performing in jazz ensembles if they don’t play one of the traditional big band instruments. Jazz pedagogy, jazz improvisation, and jazz history are not requirements for most students obtaining an instrumental music degree. While many students might have taken a jazz history course, or participated in a jazz ensemble, or combo in college, many students like myself did not. Only once I began my teaching career did I realize how truly unprepared I was to teach a jazz ensemble. Under the direction of non-jazz educators, middle school jazz ensembles have a tendency to perform more rock and pop tunes than standard jazz literature. This can happen when teachers think students would be more interested in playing pop tunes, or when the teachers find it too daunting to teach improvisation, quality jazz literature, jazz theory, history, and its relation to other art forms. This project was created to be a quick, easy, effective resource for elementary, middle school, and junior high jazz directors. Another common failing of this modified version of a jazz band is that soloists are provided with a written out “suggested” part, which unfortunately removes the most important element of jazz music: improvisation in rehearsal and performance. When students are not taught how to improvise using appropriate rhythms, articulations, and pitches there is limited room for creativity or self-expression in rehearsal. Jazz groups based largely around tunes without improvisation do not set the students up to become life-long learners or consumers of jazz music. There are a few texts on teaching jazz available as resources. Teaching Music Through Performance in Jazz by Richard Miles and Ronald Carter is the latest quality text published to help the jazz educator including: suggestions for teaching a multicultural approach to jazz education, rehearsal techniques, rhythm section, and promoting a high school jazz ensemble. This text also contains teacher guides to over 65 jazz charts in three categories: developing, intermediate, and advanced. The developing section includes charts at grade 2 and higher. While this text provides a vast amount of knowledge, many of the sections very quickly move beyond what a middle school director could use in rehearsal. The teacher guides are excellent if you have a band capable of playing the charts listed at that difficulty level, but they don’t do much for middle school ensembles playing from a grade ½ through 2. There have been many jazz method books released in the last decade. Essential Elements Jazz by Michael Sweeney is a method book designed for group and individual beginning jazz instruction. The vocalization syllables used by Michael Sweeney in Essential Elements Jazz are user friendly, and stylistically appropriate. This method book also provides additional pages specifically for rhythm section techniques on individual instruments. For very beginning ensembles, Essential Elements Jazz provides challenges very early in the book for piano (2 hand chords), bass (walking bass lines), and extended ranges on brass instruments. There are multiple method books, and vocalization techniques available; directors can review them to find the method that will work best for their program. Even with all the progress made in jazz method books, most texts are still more suitable for older students, and are too advanced for middle school jazz ensembles. The following curriculum, syllabus, lesson plans, and appendices have been compiled as a reference for the middle school / junior high band director to be successful in teaching the language of jazz and improvisation.