How to Establish a Jazz Program, and Ideas to Jumpstart Your Existing Program

By Steve Holley, Educator and JEN Membership Committee Chair

As the chair of the JEN Membership Committee, I spent a good amount of my time at our conference sitting down and asking you, our members, what resources you would like to see our organization offer. To say you responded would be an understatement – I culled a list twelve pages long of suggestions, comments, and observations as it relates to your needs! Of those ideas, the two that were mentioned most often were “how do I start a jazz program” closely followed by “how do I make my program better?”

If you search for “starting a jazz program” on Google you’ll get over 44,000,000 hits! To insinuate there is “one true path” to creating and sustaining a viable jazz music program would not only be short-sighted, but a bit arrogant, to boot. My hope here is to offer suggestions that have worked for me as I came to my current position with little to no teaching experience. Over that time my program has grown from two bands to six, we’ve performed on numerous domestic and international tours, we’ve been recognized by Downbeat multiple times, and my kids play, on average, around forty gigs a year. We don’t have a marching or concert band program as we focus only on jazz, Latin, R&B, and similar styles of music. That said, I’ve made more mistakes than I care to count!

With that, I’ll focus primarily on creating a program at a secondary level, but several of the concepts work no matter the student level.

Make sure that your house in order. Determine your strengths and weaknesses (maybe by asking those who have known and played with you) and come to terms with your abilities. If you don’t fully comprehend the concept of swing, pocket, clave, articulation, chart selection, rhythm section issues, etc. seek out and learn from those who do understand. Bring in local professional musicians to work with your students; you might end up learning a few things yourself!

Work on cultivating support from your students, parents, and administrators. Depending on your particular situation the order you choose might be different! I would love to say that if you have student and parent support that your administration will follow suit, but sometimes that’s simply not the case. If you find yourself in that scenario, I would suggest finding articles that discuss the importance of 21st century education and how studying jazz, in particular, (i.e. developing creativity, working within the structure of a small group, etc.) is applicable to the current educational and work environment. Dave Liebman wrote a great article on that very topic.

Choose tunes that are both fun to play and educationally sound. Select tunes that your students will enjoy rehearsing, listening to, and transcribing again and again that help demonstrate and solidify the basics. Listen to different bands play the same tune; how were the different versions similar and/or different. Help them to develop their critical listening skills. How about this – let your kids pick the tunes –  maybe not every set, but a few here and there to start. Challenge your students to broaden their listening; you might be pleasantly surprised by their song requests as their palate expands. Guide them to the greats!

Get out and play…everywhere! Give your students something to work for and look forward to. As I mentioned above, my kids play clubs, casuals, festivals, weddings, restaurants, fundraisers, gala events, etc. Think about what gigs you played as a budding professional and book your bands so they gain those same experiences at a younger age. Utilize your performances not only as a real-world teaching experience, but as marketing/outreach/recruitment for your school and your program. Use music as a template in which to teach responsibility and professionalism. Whether it’s a club date or a board meeting your students will eventually have to show up at the right time, at the correct location, wearing the appropriate attire, with whatever “equipment” they need. Give your students the opportunity to fail. If we succeed, we assume we did everything correctly. If we fail, we have to truly evaluate our approach in the hopes of improving.

Give ownership of the band to your students. Whether it’s choosing music, managing the group’s social media accounts, writing charts, running a sectional, or rehearsing the entire band give your student the experiences that will help them to succeed outside the four walls of your rehearsal room. I make a point of not being on stage, or at the very least, being on stage as little as possible, on gigs. Help your students to become self-sufficient in rehearsals and you’ll see their confidence, their ability to deal with multiple situations, and their abilities skyrocket! Begin to teach your kids the basics of music business, e.g., booking, promo kits, social media marketing, etc. that will translate into whatever life career they choose.

Other questions to address include scheduling, credit vs. non-credit, choosing arrangements, odd instrumentation, funding, teaching improvisation, creating set lists, etc. – the list goes on and on. There are a multitude of articles and books on this very subject. For additional information, here’s a great article from our President Bob Sinicrope where he discusses what worked for his outstanding jazz program.

As we move forward, we at JEN hope to act as a conduit for the very best jazz education practices available. I would love to hear suggestions on what support systems and resources you need as a member of JEN. In short, what do you struggle with, and how can our community help you achieve your personal and professional music goals? How can we continue these conversations throughout the year so our conference is the culmination of those yearly discussions? Each month, this column will focus on a variety of supports from chart selection to copyright issues, from arranging for odd instrumentations to rehearsal basics, written by our members for our members.

I look forward to hearing from you at [email protected], to advancing jazz education, and to seeing you in Louisville in 2016!