WHY TEACH JAZZ?
by Todd Stoll
Happy National Jazz Appreciation Month! I encourage all of our members to go to the JAM website to find ways to celebrate and share the music we support and love. Our close friend and colleague, John Hasse, Curator Emeritus of American Music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and 2018 LeJENds of Jazz Education recipient, created JAM as a national celebration of our music. Which brings me to a thought — why do we teach jazz?
A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting with a group of high school jazz directors. It was a fairly diverse gathering in terms of age, with three decades represented, several women directors, and two directors of color. During our time together, one of them said, “I teach jazz because I was told to…;” it made me seriously wonder how many others are out there teaching jazz by force or mandate. While that in and of itself is a topic for another time, it has caused some reflection on the “why” for me personally and “us” as a community.
Why do we teach jazz?
My first thought was this: jazz sounds and feels good. When a band is swinging, and the energy is just right, man, there is almost nothing better in the world. It makes you want to dance, smile, tap your foot and nod your head, snap your fingers, kiss someone, cry, laugh, or some combination of all of these. It just makes you FEEL good. This alone isn’t “why” we teach jazz, but it sure can go a long way with your audiences and communities! The feeling of jazz is one of joy, love, and ascendancy. At its best, jazz shakes off sentimentality and immaturity, forcing you to deal with themes of adulthood. It’s the simultaneous creation of past, present, and future, and it is the reason so many of our music’s elders played well into the twilights of their lives. Once you get a taste of this, there is nothing sweeter.
An important overarching notion is that jazz teaches the 4 Cs — creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical decision making. When educational leaders defined these four essential skills, jazz educators literally leapt to their feet with a resounding YES! It was almost like they were thinking of jazz when they wrote them. For our music to be great, the musicians need to address all of these on a very high level.
Jazz, and music in general, makes you more human. It requires that you work with others in a meaningful way and make complex decisions under the pressure of time. Jazz specifically teaches about the individual voice and its importance in a society. The solo (improvisation) is an individual framing of one’s personal statement that is then shared with the greater society. It is a reflection of what that person is thinking, feeling, and expressing in that moment, and that becomes a sacred moment. In our current world, individual expression is something we have in great quantity, but perhaps the individual voice has a greater purpose.
The concept of swing is the group dynamic. Don’t get hung up on the implication of style; it’s a concept. Individuals must learn to sacrifice for the group to sound good — to swing. This involves giving up our selfish tendencies to play too loud, or to rush, or to be out of sync with others. Swinging involves sacrifice for the good of the greater community; jazz teaches us all to swing.
Jazz teaches us about facing adversity with persistent optimism. Yes, yes, the blues. I’m not talking about a form or a scale, I’m talking about where jazz comes from, where jazz survived, and where jazz thrives and speaks to people of all backgrounds. It slays dragons, lifts up communities, and inspires us to greatness. The bend of a pitch, the swoop of a saxophone, the wide vibrato of a voice, these are all the blues — that indefinable human quality the touches a place deep inside people. And while things are bad, it’s all going to be alright…
Jazz also teaches us about America. The music contains the stories of our nation, good, bad and ugly. Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall in 1946 making a statement about race with his “Deep South Suite.” Benny Goodman integrating his band a full decade before Major League Baseball. Mary Lou Williams getting off a train, following an assault, and recording her masterpiece “Night Life.” John Coltrane writing “Alabama” following the horrific murder of four little girls in a church in Birmingham. I could go on. This music, our music, is so rich and deeper than the notes. This is the one area that I wish we, as an educational community, would focus more attention on — the mythology of our nation that is carried in the musical DNA of jazz. The lessons of inspiration and courage, of coming together and overcoming, these are in our music and are perhaps more important than the technical requirements during this moment of national irresolution.
As we finish our school years, our semesters, our concerts, and move into the summer, let’s all take a moment to reflect and appreciate this transcendent music that we love and serve. In the spirit of swing, have a great April!
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.