November 1, 1998   



by Mike Vax

There are approximately 30,000 jazz ensembles in educational institutions today. Most are big bands of some sort or other. This has mainly to do with the fact that classroom size is of utmost importance to administrators and school boards. Believe it or not, in this era of "downsizing classrooms," these people in power still refuse to admit that classes such as music, art and drama, can and should exist whether they make up "full sized" classroom loads or not. In many school systems, even a 20 piece jazz band is considered too small a class. This of course, doesn't bode well for anything to do with combos or traditional jazz groups. Many times music educators create smaller ensembles from the big band as extracurricular activities. These sometimes meet after school or in the evenings. At least this is a start in the right direction. After all, the essence of jazz music is creativity and improvisation. These attributes are best learned in a smaller environment than a big band rehearsal.

In many areas, because of the number of classes that students are required to complete to enter college, jazz bands must meet during an "A" period. This is an extra period that can start as early and 6:45 AM. It is the only way for the music teacher to be able to have the students in both concert band (where the numbers DO please the administrators) and jazz band.

The jazz idiom per se, is not really taught in most high schools. The class is run much like a concert band rehearsal, where the teacher imparts knowledge by "rote." The music is rehearsed over and over until most of the notes are right. The real concepts of jazz performance and feeling aren't addressed nearly enough. The main goal seems to be to "learn the notes" and not worry too much about stylistic concept and improvisatory skills. The other problem stems from the "win, beat and get trophies" syndrome. It seems that since many of the administrators are ex-coaches, they do not understand the aesthetics of a wonderful performance. They must see trophies to feel that the band is doing well. The band director and the parents club then get caught up in this mentality and the joy of performance and creativity goes out the window. The band will literally learn 4 tunes for a whole semester and will perfect them (again by "rote"), until they can go to contest and win a trophy. Students from these types of programs usually have no real grounding in music theory, nor can they sight read.

If I were a high school band director, I would make sure that my students were LISTENING to all forms of jazz. Listening is still the key to understanding most musical styles. When I do clinics all over the country, I always ask the students who they like to listen to. Many times, they don't listen to anybody, and cannot even name five important musicians on their own instrument. This is something that really needs to be changed in our educational system.

Now to the positive side! We are giving jazz exposure to many young people in our schools. As music educators, many of us hope that we not only turn out some fine new jazz musicians to carry on the tradition of the music through performance and recording, but we hope that we are also turning out much bigger numbers of "trained listeners" who will become the fans of the future. If young people are exposed to creative music, they can become the adults who will buy recordings, attend concerts, frequent local jazz nightclubs and support the jazz societies.

It is a proven fact over the past century and a half, that students who are in music, do better with school work, leadership roles, community affairs, and will be more successful in whatever their chosen profession turns out to be. I like to think of music as a great teacher of deductive reasoning, which is just another way of saying "common sense."

Jazz education in our 2 and 4-year colleges and universities is doing very well. There are many programs that actually allow a student to major in jazz studies. (Usually with an emphasis on then becoming a music teacher.) There are many college and university bands where the level of jazz performance is on a par with many professional bands. The small group situation is much better than in the high schools and many institutions of higher learning have multiple combo classes, where the students can actually study different stylistic approaches, from traditional jazz to bebop and beyond. Most colleges that have a true jazz program also make available a variety of theory and improvisation classes, as well as jazz and American music history classes. Today's colleges and universities are really "hotbeds" of jazz performance, study, and intellectualism.

Contact Information: Mike Vax Music Productions and Friends of Big Band Jazz * * * 925-872-1942


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