Jazz

Jazz Appreciation Month: A New Program for Students

April 5, 2018

As a jazz educator and president of the Jazz Education Network (JEN), I have seen literally thousands of lives impacted by studying improvisational music – but I didn’t realize the full impact it was having until my oldest two children Porter and Bryn became involved. It has been so exciting to watch them grow in their own abilities, not just as musicians, but as people.

While still in high school, Porter credits his jazz studies with giving him the confidence to start his own successful business as a freelance musician, educator, and producer. He recently secured a full scholarship to continue his career path in music. As a sophomore, my daughter Bryn says that jazz studies have improved her problem-solving skills in her academic classes where she boasts a 4.0 GPA. As a parent, these types of results really are amazing to me!

These personal experiences showcased what I already knew about the well-documented benefits of music education both academically and socially. Jazz education in particular brings a unique set of advantages that seem tailor-made for the challenges our youth of this generation are facing. By definition, jazz is improvised music that forces the performer to create new compositions in the moment along with other musicians. Performing jazz music like the early jazz standards and big band standards  requires skills including creativity, adaptability, teamwork, and problem-solving abilities that are so highly sought after in today’s workplace. In fact, in my experience as an educator for the last two decades, I am hard-pressed to think of another course of study that provides the same set of benefits as well as the study of jazz.

“From the moment the first note is played, every member is working together to share and communicate their unique ideas and voices through their instruments while playing as one in a common groove. They’re developing 21st century life skills of success.” – Sharon Burch

Because of these benefits, we at JEN have launched a new initiative to encourage schools to start JEN chapters and community groups to create JEN societies. We began this effort in December 2017, and in the first two months we were excited to see 50 JEN chapters and societies formed. These chapters give schools the chance to create after-school opportunities for jazz students, and they also provide networking opportunities with other schools, musicians and jazz enthusiasts.

A chapter membership brings a host of benefits including the opportunity to apply for grants, advance notice for scholarships, and free or discounted membership rates. As the number of chapters increases over the next few months, we will create area units to connect groups in the same geographic region. This will help facilitate the sharing of resources and costs associated with area unit events, jam sessions, festivals and more, while connecting with each other throughout the year through online groups.

Above: Professor Chris Bruya and JEN Chapter President Domi Edson (center) join with other officers for a meeting at Central Washington University. Top photo: Students from Central Dauphin High School perform under the direction of their teacher Brandon Bitner.

A number of schools have jumped at the opportunity to create a chapter since the initiative was first announced. One of the first was Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, which had an unofficial jazz chapter for years before the JEN program began. It represents what a JEN chapter can do. Chapter President Domi Edson, who is a double bass performance major, says the group currently has about 100 members and holds at least one event a week. These events include jazz jams in cafés, sessions reading big band music, guest artists, clinics to help future jazz educators, and larger events like a Women in Jazz Day to encourage more women to enter jazz instrumentalist programs. The university also sends representatives to the JEN conference and goes on trips to see live jazz performances. Edson says she is busy planning fundraisers and obtaining limited university money for the chapter’s large number of activities, but she says new chapters should focus on smaller initiatives first.

“We do a lot of things, but schools should start with the one or two things they need,” Edson said. “We looked at our students and realized we needed a reading band, so we added it. We are located far from concert venues, so we fund trips to shows. Every school will be a little different in what will benefit their students.”

Two high schools just starting these efforts are Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Plano West Senior High in Plano, Texas. These schools have different levels of resources for jazz programs, but both have embraced high-caliber music education.

“Jazz is one of the true art forms created here in America, so I want it to continue and flourish,” Pierce said. “It also teaches student nonverbal communication. With the rhythm section at its core, students have to know how to communicate with one another and what their specific roles are in the ensemble.”

Central Dauphin has a larger jazz program than many schools. Its chapter was started by teacher Brandon Bitner, who is the Director of Jazz Studies and Music Theory at the school. Bitner has a music education and jazz performance background and has been a JEN member for a few years. His school is fortunate to have three jazz bands, and Bitner says the music they play resonates with today’s students.

“Jazz has become a wider umbrella. It used to be about swing, and now we also have Latin jazz and many modern groups that the students are already listening to on a regular basis,” Bitner said. “Therefore, students latch onto jazz because it is something they can relate to.”

Bitner is planning for the future with the chapter and says he would like to create opportunities for coffee-house-type performances and other out-of-school opportunities that students don’t currently have. He also hopes to use the chapter opportunities to seek grants to bring member artists to the school and would like to build connections with other schools and community jazz groups that have a JEN chapter or society.

At Plano West Senior High School, teacher Preston Pierce started a JEN chapter for the school’s 11th and 12th graders. Pierce is the school’s assistant band director, teaches band class, is the acting director of its jazz band, and oversees all jazz programs for the senior high’s feeder schools, which include students in 6th through 10th grades. Pierce says teaching jazz has benefits from a musical and historical perspective.

“Jazz is one of the true art forms created here in America, so I want it to continue and flourish,” Pierce said. “It also teaches student nonverbal communication. With the rhythm section at its core, students have to know how to communicate with one another and what their specific roles are in the ensemble.”

Pierce heard about our chapter initiative when his students’ jazz band performed at the JEN conference. He says the chapter is very young, but since they don’t have a budget for jazz band, he is hoping the chapter will open up new opportunities for the students. Like Bitner, he hopes to reach out to other schools and explore ideas, such as creating a jazz festival and incorporating younger students in the program.

We know from experience that there are many real benefits to connecting different segments of jazz in this way. The most visible benefits are the opportunities that our youngest jazz musicians have to connect and perform and learn at the feet of the masters. That’s really how jazz has always been taught. It’s an oral tradition. This is also why we consider the word “network” to be a crucial part of our organization’s Jazz Education Network name.

Our Managing Director Sharon Burch, who is a longtime music educator, says she knows directors of music ensembles realize how rewarding jazz is for their students, and she’s excited that JEN can help enhance that experience with this new program. She says the jazz chapters will help all students whether they are interested in becoming music majors or not.

“Aside from the obvious benefits of music, the skills students develop in the practice of jazz extend far beyond the band room, vocal room or performance venue,” Burch said. “From the moment the first note is played, every member is working together to share and communicate their unique ideas and voices through their instruments while playing as one in a common groove. They’re developing 21st century life skills of success.”

Bitner says he saw firsthand how jazz education helps all students when he received a thank you note from a former pupil who attended Penn State University as a science major. Bitner says the student relayed a story about how he tried out for the university’s competitive jazz bands and earned a spot on the second-best band – a noteworthy achievement for a non-music major. Bitner says the student indicated how excited and thankful he was to have this experience at the university level and credited his high school jazz education for getting him there.

In my career, I focus much of my time on students at the secondary level because of how influential those years are in establishing an individual’s future direction. I am positive my own children will have more significant life experiences as they continue their jazz studies. I am equally confident that JEN’s new chapter program will be an asset to our young musicians around the world. As it grows, I expect to see more parents, teachers, and administrators realizing and appreciating the unique benefits of jazz education!

If you love jazz music, view options for early jazz standards, big band standards and Latin jazz here.

For more information on the history of jazz, view these resources.

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