“Thoughts On Education”
by Todd Stoll
Some thoughts on jazz education…
By one publishing professional’s count, there were nearly 1,000 method books, solo transcriptions, and play alongs available on the subject of improvisation, the great secret as one might say, to “jazz”. And since the beginning of the “Second Wave” jazz education movement (roughly 1965-1995) and the “ABC’s, (Aebersold, Baker, and Coker) the majority of our resources – the key that unlocks this most important aspect of jazz – have become ubiquitous. Another fact of this “Second Wave”, is the exponential growth of jazz bands and programs both in high school and on college campuses, by one report from just several hundred, in the late 1950’s to nearly 20K by the mid 1980’s! The irony is that while the programs and number of bands expanded, higher education jazz programs and the resulting-improvisation courses, combos, and then summer camps, and materials, with this growth, music education at the university level, did not equally train the next generation (or two…or three) of future jazz band directors. (I am totally aware of the divide between performance studies and music education at the university level) The few high school level jazz band directors who understood or could actually “improvise”, wore the label of “jazzer” and generally were viewed as an anomaly in the traditional music education landscape. How many times have I heard the “oh, he’s a jazzer…”or the “I’m not a jazzer” at a music conference or gathering, and then the specific and wide ranging biases that accompany these.
FYI, there are two great essays on jazz improvisation that have addressed some of these challenges, and I hope you will take the time to read them and give some thought as they will be the topic of a column in the near future. The first is legendary bassist/composer and educator, Chuck Isreals; https://chuckisraelsjazz.com/blogs/news/an-unpopular-perspective-on-jazz-education
And then pianist Ethan Iverson’s; https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/duke-ellington-bill-evans-and-one-night-in-new-york-city
So, while colleges and universities were ramping up their jazz and commercial music programs, (and their faculty published-in many cases for tenure and promotion) those same institutions, did little preparation of their music education students, to prepare them to teach, lead, and (gasp!) improvise themselves. Let alone, have any comprehensive understanding of the history of jazz, jazz theory, or the aesthetics of jazz. Heck, how about a repertoire survey, so perspective jazz directors have a fighting chance with programming their jazz bands. Now this is not ALL colleges, a number of them do have rigorous jazz pedagogy for their music education majors. This may be a good point to remind my colleagues at the university and collegiate level that the currency of their chosen profession-students-all come from a high school band director (…and middle and elementary…) And, given that pipeline, wouldn’t one want to truly educate and train-correctly-those who would mold and shape said “currency” for preparation for the next step?
This is also a moment for the university music education folks to recognize that they need to do a better job. In my position at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I interact with band directors daily-calls, emails, texts, tweets, FB messages, and generally those interactions basically go like this; WHAT SHOULD I PLAY? HOW CAN I MAKE MY BAND BETTER? HOW DO I TEACH IMPROVISATION? WHAT CHARTS DO I PLAY? HELP! I had many of these same conversations in 1987 when I began my career at a rural school district in south central Ohio
I have given this a lot of thought and have a few ideas, please, take or leave them, but, give some thought as to how we can change the current system that is woefully bereft of substantial training for the next generation. SO, here we go…basic jazz pedagogy for music educators in 3 steps (TAH-DAH!)
- Jazz history-a general overview of the history, styles and major figures of our music. (using recordings)
- Jazz language-a basic understanding and ability to improvise over a chord progression. Beginning with New Orleans music and ending with swing -it does not have to be super advanced or delve into more advanced harmony. The group improvisation of New Orleans jazz will provide a fairly safe place for beginners…I would also include some basics on transcribing solos and a list of “easier” solos with which to begin.
- Jazz Literature-a review of available charts, arrangements, compositions for jazz band-there are thousands of charts published-how does a director, especially one with little to no jazz experience, select and program for their jazz band?
If we started with these basics, and again, these would be a starting point, (perhaps for ALL music educators-imagine a basic understanding of our music-American music) all of our professional development sessions on topics like improvisation, ensemble conducting, theory, the rhythm section, recordings, etc., would have a much greater impact and our entire community would be lifted. Please send any thoughts or ideas or if anyone needs any help teaching this art form, feel free to reach out to any of us here at JEN-we exist to help and support all.
Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.