Jazz and Blues in the Classroom

Jazz and Blues both have as their origin African musical traditions as filtered through the experience of African-Americans in the late 1800’s and early 20th century.  Both have become important and distinct musical styles.  Jazz has evolved in many different ways, encompassing Dixieland, Swing, several types of Latin Jazz, and, more recently, Acid Jazz.  Blues is its own style as well and heavily influencing other styles such as jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.

Defining characteristics

Jazz is quite hard to define.  A working definition would be that it is “characterized by syncopated rhythms, solo and group improvisation, and a variety of harmonic idioms and instrumental techniques.”   For me, its most important characteristic is the improvisation.  This feature sets it apart from most music and creates a unique and powerful relationship between the performers and the audience.  Each performance is unique, created, if you will, based on those particular circumstances of time, space, and intangible chemistry.  The best jazz creates a sense of danger in that no one knows where the music will go.

Blues is easier to quantify.  It is usually characterized by its unique 12-bar chord progression.

Relevant timeframe and where the movement originated

Jazz and Blues both originate amidst the African-American population of the United States.  Blues emerged in the late 19th Century.  Jazz emerged in the early 1900’s.

A few artists of the time and the effect the artists and/or movement has had on society

Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King are all legends of Blues.

Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie are a few of the jazz legends.

According to Tom Bacig, jazz had a “profound effect” on the literary world, the fashion world of the 1920’s, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the status of African Americans.  “For the first time in American history, what was previously considered ‘bottom culture’ rose to the top and became a highly desired commodity in society.”

Why the genre is especially appropriate for incorporation into the elementary school classroom

There are many reasons jazz and blues are especially appropriate to incorporate into elementary school classrooms.  Among these reasons are their tight linkage with African-American history, their important status and uniquely American musical styles, and their intricate and joyous music.

At least one way you might incorporate that music genre into another subject, lesson or activity

Studying jazz is like a master class in music.  It builds on all that came before in innovative and brilliant ways.  To understand jazz is to have better access to many or most other musical styles.  This encourages the teaching of jazz in any music or music appreciation class.

Rather than teaching dry history, each period can be brought to life by accompanying it with the art, music, and dance of the period.  From the Civil War to Reconstruction to WWI to the Roaring 20’s to the Swing Era to the 60’s and beyond, there is music from these styles that give life to common experience of the era.  For example, whether in economics or history, understanding of the Roaring 20’s is not complete without a sense of the (jazz) music of that era.  Without jazz, the Roaring 20’s do not roar.

The intricate beauty and complexity of jazz is salubrious for brains of any age.  I believe in using background music whenever appropriate.  Like baroque and classical in general, I believe students find it simultaneously relaxing and supportive of contemplation.

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