A Jazz Listening Session

I’m happy to be teaching at the National Music Camp of Canada for the next two weeks. This week, the students are between eight and thirteen years old and for one of my classes, I conduct a ‘jazz listening session.’

I prepared a list of songs to play for them and asked them two simple questions: Is this jazz? Why or why not? My strategy isn’t to look for right or wrong answers or to plug them with my favourite jazz tunes. Instead, I want them to develop a vocabulary for describing music that is consistent with how they feel about what they’re hearing.

For example, one student said he loves drum & bass because it’s repetitive. Later on, he mentioned that he doesn’t like classical music because it’s repetitive. I asked him to clarify the inconsistency and he said that drum & bass is catchy-repetitive while classical music is just repetitive.

Most of them used the word fast to describe jazz. I played them a recording of Art Tatum playing Tiger Rag. Most of them agreed that it wasn’t jazz because it was too fast and too showy! But Bill Evan’s rendition of Here’s That Rainy Day was jazz even through it’s really slow.

Jobin’s recording of Samba De Uma Nota So was considered jazz, but his recording of Desafinado wasn’t jazz because it had vocals. One student thinks vocals in jazz makes it ‘bad-jazz’ (Kurt Elling’s version of Tania Jean was ‘good-jazz,’ but only for the first 15 seconds). 

They were on the fence when I played them Mars from Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. But they all agreed that he was a ‘show-off.’

The entire session was filled with observations similar to this. I never implied what I thought was or wasn’t jazz, but I often challenged their definitions and viewpoints. Most of the time, I would repeat and question their statements and they would immediately pick up on the inconsistency. “There are never violins in jazz?” Or “Can jazz be slow?”

We take for granted how limiting most people’s vocabulary is for describing music. Even though I’m dealing with children, I would think that grown adults with little to no music education would have similar difficulties. How many people know the difference between a double bass and a cello? Can you imagine how they would describe jazz?

I haven’t wrestled with all the implications, but I feel there’s a wealth of information here that hits many levels. For example, if you’re wondering about how most people hear and describe your music, I would ask the kids. If you’re concerned about the future of jazz and wonder why it’s ‘dying,’ I would ask the kids. If you want to raise jazz from the grave, I would start educating the kids.

Open up their capacity to express themselves. Guide the development of their vocabulary.

PS: Before I played Brad Mehldau’s rendition of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android(from Largo), I asked them: “is Radiohead jazz?” One of the kids asked: “who’s Radiohead?” The kid beside him said in a very familiar tone: “You don’t know who Radiohead is!?”

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