Jazz musicians cooperate to make America's music

What Jazz Really Teaches Students

By Guest Blogger, Dan Schunks, Director, Mineral Area College Kicks Band Concert

This has been a difficult summer. The divisions and fault lines in our country have become more obvious, exacerbated in many cases by the rhetoric of politicians. There are no simple answers that will make everything better.

As a former high school band director, I can’t help sounding one hopeful note. To my colleagues in music education, you have a tool that can promote understanding and appreciation of the American experience. That tool is called jazz. This is an art form that was born in this country, and it has extraordinary power to unify. It builds on the talents, hopes, dreams, and despair of those who came before. And it offers young musicians an opportunity to have a direct experience of what is possible only through collaboration.

I challenge you to immerse yourself and your students this uniquely American music that celebrates the fabulous mosaic that is this country’s history. When you think about it, the history of jazz IS the history of America. All of our diversity, creativity, and ingenuity are on display in this synthesis of art and imagination from diverse cultures. To share this with your students, you as a teacher must know this history and experience the passion that is jazz. This means dedicating yourself to something more than rehearsal and performance. That may sound vague, but you have a real opportunity to make a difference by introducing your students to jazz in all its complexity.

To begin the journey, you must go back to the European invasion of this country and then the journey of people torn from their homes and culture in Africa. Within a generation, Africans lost most of their culture except what could be passed down through oral tradition. To be fair, European immigrants were struggling too, although most were here of their own choosing, searching for a new start and, in particular, freedom to worship according to conscience.

Where these cultures met and began to merge, we discover the roots of jazz. In the call and response of slaves chanting while they toiled in the fields, we can see the beginning of blues. Music had the power to help people bear burdens that are unimaginable to us today. In those chants, we can still hear the strength and dignity of people determined to survive. As a music teacher, you have the opportunity—and I would say the obligation—to teach this musical history which shows the strength of the human spirit.

As the chants evolved into blues and gospel, they traveled beyond color. Blues are legendary in the delta, of course, but they also found their way to Appalachia where coal mines sucked the life from men before their time. Whether it was in eastern Kentucky or southern Mississippi, the blues became a therapeutic release that helped people cope with the rigors and vent the anguish of their lives. Of course, the music wasn’t always sad. Gospel promised those with little or no hope in this life an afterlife free from pain and misery, and then the music became joyous, energetic, and full of life.

All of this music found its natural place in New Orleans, a melting pot where it could simmer and soak up the spices of life. New Orleans HAD to be the city because it embodied diversity and culture that didn’t exist anywhere else in the country at that time. The music of the great blues players came down the river to percolate with the culture of New Orleans, and the steamboats began to spread this new musical language north.

You owe it to your students to introduce them to the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson and others who were famous in their time and place. Give them an opportunity to appreciate the likes of Jelly Roll (Ferdinand) Morton, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thorton, Miff Mole, King Oliver, Sidney and Wilbur DeParis. And of course, you must pay tribute to the first national face of jazz, Louis Armstrong. Standing on the shoulders of those who came before him, Armstrong spread the gospel of jazz. Don’t let your students miss out on the experience of listening to his brilliant and powerful solos that still shine today.

You—and maybe even some of your students–probably know household names like Edward Kennedy Ellington, and William Basie, but dig deeper. Introduce the contributions of Fletcher Henderson and JImmie Luncesford, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, Sweets Edison and Sonny Payne. Help your students understand chains of influence and collaborative connections–how Chick Webb, a drummer who meticulously tuned his drum before every performance, taught a young Buddy Rich to do the same. Webb also discovered Ella Fitzgerald who, with Billie Holliday, would influence an entire generation of jazz vocalists. Honor them all by telling their stories and playing their music and the music of countless others who have given us this art.

As you and your students explore this music, you will discover a mosaic of great beauty and detail, created by musicians of many colors. Charlie Parker, John Birks Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford. From swing to bebop, they made music so intense that those who weren’t part of it often couldn’t understand it. From young turks to moldy figs, Bebop was so hot that the period that followed had to be Cool. And it produced an artist who overshadowed those who came before and after. Miles! His first name was all that needed to be said. And in his wake, there were other greats– Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley, the great Clifford Brown, and of course, J.J. Johnson, Bill Harris, and Kai Winding.

By now it should be clear that when you appreciate and teach jazz, you’re teaching more than music. A strong jazz curriculum promotes unity–not a fake unity where everyone goes home and back to their old ways, but a genuine experience of community that opens up the possibility of healing and understanding. Artists have used jazz to make statements. Think of Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday or Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. But jazz itself is a statement about what people can do when they play together and listen to each other and respect each other’s talents.

Music is the most honest of all classes, a place where students have the opportunity to feel the power of this shared legacy. Do not pass this opportunity by. Do not cheat your students out of this musical birthright. If you already love this music, share your passion. If you don’t know it, search it out! If you do this correctly, jazz will be more than a class. It will become a shared passion. And it will be transformative!

Note: From time to time, this blog will feature essays that illustrate the principles of Cooperative Wisdom. This column, for example, encourages specialists (band directors) to use their expertise to expand and strengthen cooperation. If you have an idea for a blog post, please contact us.

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