Planting the Jazz Seed – 7 Reflections

My mother-in-law is a belly-dancing teacher; I recently attended her studio’s belly-dancing recital.

Something occurred to me while I was watching all the performances: how did people start belly-dancing in Oakville, Ontario, Canada?  How was the seed planted?  Who taught my mother-in-law?  Who taught her teacher?  What’s the connection to Egypt?

You could probably trace it back to one or two people.  At one time, they shared their passion for belly-dancing with Canadians. Social circumstances were fertile in Canada so belly-dancing gained popularity.  Thus, belly-dancing is still gaining popularity and I occasionally find myself at belly-dancing recitals!

What about the jazz seed?  Who planted it?

It depends on where you’re from, but originally, it was probably planted three or four generations ago.  We’re its offspring, which makes you and me jazz cousins!  We share a passion for this music and if you’re like me, you want others to experience it as well.

So let’s bypass the useless, wasteful doom, gloom and all its variants so we can focus on this important question:

How does one plant and water the jazz seed?

The answer lies in education; there’s no other way!

I use education in a very broad sense.  It doesn’t just mean the transfer of information from teacher to student. It also means creating positive associations between a student’s mind and jazz.  I also use the word ‘student’ in a broad sense.  It means any person – regardless of his or her age – who is open to creating and preserving these positive associations.

I think our social circumstances today are particularly fertile for these associations to take root and thrive.  Here are a few points to reflect on:

1. Jazz Education is a Viable Alternative

You’d have a hard time arguing otherwise.  Especially considering how much progress has been made in high schools and post-secondary schools since the 70s.  But I say “viable alternative” because jazz education still isn’t mainstream.  This can change, and I think it should.  In comparison to the default, I think jazz education is equally good (if not better) for a student’s music education and for a student’s childhood education.

If we’re going to plant the jazz seed, we have to be confident in this.

Also, there may be some people who still think that kids under sixteen aren’t ready for jazz.  This is ludicrous on many levels.  For one, such a view cuts off the community’s lifeblood.  Doom ‘n gloom becomes inevitable.

As I wrote in my post Jazz Education, Jazz Unity:

“The fundamentals for a jazz education can start at age three.  Kids can improvise and play tunes at age ten.  Pre-teens can communicate musically in jazz ensembles.  Mid-teens can write tunes and start their own jazz ensembles.  I know this because I lived it.  And kids are still living it at the Humber College Community Music School.”

2. Share the Passion

People dig jazz because they associate it with positive experiences.  Students and former students will be naturally drawn to things with a history of positive experiences.

If you’re a lame jazz teacher, your students are going to have lame experiences.  Jazz = lame.

Passion, love and joy are infectious.  Teachers should share these things unconditionally.  Conversely, if you’re not passionate about music or jazz, you shouldn’t be teaching.

3. You Are a Jazz Hero

Are you a jazz musician? Do you teach jazz?  At a high school?  Music school?  University?  Privately?  That means you’re a jazz role model.  You are a jazz hero.  Kids need heroes and you possess certain qualities and skills that your students admire and want to imitate.  You may not be the hippest cat in town, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they look up to you.

This is very important: Teachers at all levels can be extraordinarily influential in a student’s development. That includes you! This means that you can be more influential than the jazz superstars. You are the teacher and have authority; you’re the best person to plant the seed.

Perform for your students. Bring in your heroes to perform for them. Play them recordings. Give them something to imitate.  Give them something to strive for.

4. The Aural Tradition

Jazz is deeply rooted in an aural tradition.  Being a part of an aural tradition means more than “playing by ear.”  It means that one can play, improvise, communicate, converse and respond musically with other musicians.  This also means that students will never be able to learn to play jazz solely with private lessons.

This is probably the most crucial step to a jazz education: Put your students in ensembles!!

I know what you’re going to say: “But I’m a saxophone teacher and my students only play the saxophone!”

Who cares!?  It doesn’t matter!  Put them all in a sax ensemble!  Teach them a jazz tune, teach them a bass line, teach them some inner voices and get them to improvise on top of it.  Be creative!  What’s important is that they’re all playing and improvising music together.

Yes, ideally you’d have a full ensemble with a rhythm section.  That’s what you’re striving for, but you have to start somewhere right?

Next time you’re teaching a private lesson with a student who isn’t fully engaged, try putting them in an ensemble with his/her friends.  How would that change things?

5. Private Lessons and Independent Study

…are still vital to a jazz education.  Students need discipline.  They need to build their skills.

Jazz is about the aural tradition, but it’s also about the individual.  And jazz is an excellent vehicle in which an individual can explore, discover, understand and enrich himself/herself.

Private instruction is a gateway into this undertaking.  It also works hand in hand with ensemble playing.  The more developed their skills, the more confidence they build.  Which means playing with other musicians is more fun and enjoyable!

6. Talented Students

It’s easy to get frustrated with students who lack skills and interest in music.  Consequently, much of a teacher’s positive energy is spent on talented students.

It’s important to remember that not all students have the skills, perseverance or desire to become musicians.  Instead, they may become directors, promoters, programmers, agents, managers, presenters, donors, sponsors, educators, journalists, critiques, radio hosts, page-turners, presidents, CEOs, public officials, taxi drivers, factory workers, moms, dads or a host of other jazz appreciators and supporters.

Their experience with you will last for their lifetime.

The jazz seed will thrive in different people at varying degrees.  If you have lame students, don’t combat them with more lameness.  They all need positive experiences.  And years down the road, we‘ll need their support. Every little bit counts!

7. Strengthening the Community

Music brings people together.

Being rooted in an aural tradition, jazz works exceptionally well in bringing people together – to play, listen, hang, eat, drink, share and bond together.

There has to be regular gatherings – at a place where the new generation, the old generation, teachers, students, heroes, and supporters can meet and interact around the music.

Jam sessions, student recitals and professional concerts are good examples of gatherings around jazz.  Combining all three into one event could be better.  Hosting it at a social establishment could be even better.

Doing this as often as possible is ideal; this is how the jazz seed really takes root!

How else can you create jazz gatherings?

– – – –

Education should be mutually beneficial for teachers and students.  Unfortunately it may take many years for them to realize this.  So when planting the jazz seed, you have to be patient!

Do you have anything to add?

How does one plant and water the jazz seed?

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