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.

See You in Seven Days…

Constructivist education is about helping the students to construct their own knowledge. We do this is in many ways. We give them group or individual projects, short and long term, which they work to master based on their own skills, class materials, and prior knowledge. We, the teachers, guide them with Socratic Questioning to discover pieces their missing. We monitor their independent work, formally an informally, and choose when to help and when to allow short-term failure.

The arts are as amenable as any discipline to constructivism. If students are “taught” art, as I was, it easily becomes unenrolling dogma or, worse, noise. Art at its core is the artist representing meaning and emotional truths in his or her medium. These need to be received by each student individually, with them finding the emotions truths of the art for themselves. Likewise, to be an artist requires the practice of creating art independently.

These methods and skills need to be practiced and used in the classroom but they cannot be limited to the classroom. In fact, they are well suited to independent, overnight pursuit. Giving a student time alone to ponder, experiment, contemplate, and practice is incredibly valuable.

Being sick this week, I laid in bed and to pass the time I watched TED Talks. One of those talks was given by Evelyn Glennie, famous for being one of the world’s greatest percussionists and almost completely deaf. Here is a story she told that demonstrates the value of independent practice beautifully… and the inauthenticy of drills for good measure:

“I remember my teacher. When I first started, my very first lesson, I was all prepared with sticks, ready to go. And instead of him saying, ‘OK, Evelyn, please. Feet slightly apart, arms at a more-or-less 90-degree angle, sticks in a more-or-less V shape, keep this amount of space here, et cetera. Please keep your back straight, et cetera et cetera et cetera.’ Where I was probably just going to end up absolutely rigid, frozen, and I would not be able to strike the drum, because I was thinking of so many other things. He said, ‘Evelyn, take this drum away for seven days, and I’ll see you next week.’

So, heavens! What was I to do? I no longer required the sticks, I wasn’t allowed to have these sticks. I had to basically look at this particular drum, see how it was made, what these little lugs did, what the snares did. Turned it upside down, experimented with the shell, experimented with the head. Experimented with my body, experimented with jewelry, experimented with all sorts of things. And of course, I returned with all sorts of bruises and things like that — but nevertheless, it was such an unbelievable experience, because then, where on Earth are you going to experience that in a piece of music? Where on Earth are you going to experience that in a study book? So we never, ever dealt with actual study books.”

She continues, “So for example, one of the things that we learn when we are dealing with being a percussion player, as opposed to a musician, is basically straightforward single stroke rolls…. And interestingly, the older I became, when I became a full-time student at a so called ‘music institution,’ all of that went out of the window. We had to study from study books. And constantly, the question, well, why? Why? What is this relating to? I need to play a piece of music. ‘Oh, well, this will help your control!’ Well, how? Why do I need to learn that? I need to relate it to a piece of music. You know. I need to say something”

Independent practice is a crucial part of constructivist education.