by Dave Latchaw
I recently spent an entire Saturday listening to and judging High School and Middle School jazz bands and combos. As I heard all of these groups perform, I began to think about just how much jazz education has changed in the last 25 years. There has been immense progress in the quality of the young groups. It is amazing that some schools have as many as three jazz bands and a couple of combos in their music program. Many of the “second” bands are starting to sound as good as the “first” bands did 10 years ago. It is also great to see enough interest from the students that they would take the extra time to play in a school combo. I had great fun hearing all the bands that day. At the end of the day I found out that a former student of mine won the over-all soloist award. What made me realize just how much the level of quality has improved was when it occured to me that my former student was not going to be there at the night show to pick up his award, because he was subbing a gig for me! He was totally ready to play it and
did a great job. I can’t believe he still isn’t old enough to drive!
As much as the overall scene has improved, there are some jazz programs that are in a bad way. Sometimes it’s the school that does not support the program, or the director is rather clueless, or there is a lack of interest from the kids. Still the majority of school programs are changing and improving for the better. There has been great improvement in the accessibility of information about jazz and jazz education. Organizations such as the International Association of Jazz Educators have provided a wonderful service in aiding the improvement of jazz education. The jazz information one can get from the IAJE website is great. A Jazz Improvisation Primer by Marc Sabatella is also great example of what one can find out there on the web. Another great resource is Jamey Aebersold, who provides not only a cool web presence, but also great opportunities for anyone to advance their jazz playing and knowledge with his camps and the products he makes available.
20 years ago, when I was attending a regional college, it was an all-out battle between me and the music faculty to get them to accept or give any validity to jazz. Fortunately I was able to gig a lot and play with great jazz players away from the school to aid in my jazz development while at college. I still find many entrenched University types that teach music education who still have a hard time with the concept of jazz. My theory is, it’s easier for them to dismiss the jazz art form than to fess up that they can’t do it, or that they don’t understand even where to begin! It is still slow going at the regional level of college jazz education. However, many regional college programs are trying to improve the availability of jazz education in their music programs. This is great, because it is these schools that are developing our next generation of high school and middle school music educators.
As a former jazz educator at one of those regional colleges, I find applicable theory knowledge generally lacking in the music education majors that I work with. So often when it comes to theory, the students learn only what they need to for the exam. After the exam, the student usually feels they do not need to be so on top of their theory knowledge, unless they are playing or studying jazz. Unless the college offers a jazz degree or has some evolved program, the jazz aspect of that school is usually a token gesture. To be a jazz player and educator you have to know your theory. No way of getting around it. As a school educator, you rarely work with a student who can improvise with a natural proficiency, so you must have knowledge of the harmonic information that goes along with teaching the student to improvise. A good musician who is an educator might be able to get the ensemble playing of his group to a high level of performance, but is usually caught out when members of that group go to improvise. You can tell whether a band director knows how to improvise by listening to his students solo. If the teacher is harmonically challenged, the student will be as well.
Over the last few years, school music educators have been doing a much better job of either learning more about teaching improvisation, or leading their students to people who can teach it. Not that I want to see jazz become a sport similar to marching band, but because of the competitive nature of the regional jazz festivals, the quality of jazz performance is growing rapidly. I fully recommend to anyone who is a jazz fan or musician to take some time and check out a school jazz festival in your area. It is very satisfying towatch so many young people go for it!