Why is jazz taking a back seat to band in school?

As I frequently do, I was searching yesterday for high school jazz band directors with whom I can share some of the jazz educational resources I produce. In my search, I stumbled across something disturbing.

On the about page for the North Carolina chapter of the American School Band Directors Association was their mission statement which read in part:

Band directors should always keep their program in focus and remember that the concert band is the core for their curriculum. Other performing groups such as the marching band and the jazz band are essential in providing services and as an opportunity to expose high school performers to other media of performance. They should not, however, be allowed to assume a role of more importance to that of the concert band. If this occurs the band program loses its viability as an element in the system’s curricula.

Maybe this nonsense was exclusive to the North Carolina chapter website, but front and center of the national website for the ASBDA, after giving lip service to jazz is, “ASBDA feels strongly, however, that the latter are of secondary importance to the former and should remain that way in the total band curriculum”. 

Thankfully, I am not a public school teacher, so maybe I’m missing something. But why is jazz band to assume secondary importance to concert band?

Now, one could claim that, of course they are advocating for concert band – after all, they are a concert band association. But you can advocate for band without denigrating jazz. In fact, by advocating for band, one should be a proponent of the additional music and instrumental skills gained through learning jazz. 

I think if the people in charge of the American School Band Directors Association opened their minds a bit, they might realize that playing and improvising jazz is actually an elevated aspect of musical performance, certainly once students reach a high school level of musical proficiency.

My interpretation of their guidelines is that reading the dots on a page is more important than the ability to hear music at a deeper level and using that heightened perception to spontaneously compose music, i.e. jazz improvisation 

Yes, one must learn the fundamentals before improvising jazz, but to explicitly state that school music instructors “not be allowed” to hold jazz at equal footing to concert band is close-minded and further evidence that K-12 education must be wrestled away from state and federal bureaucrats now more than ever.

Thankfully, the deterioration of government education had not reached its current lows back when I was in high school where my Arizona school enjoyed not one, but two full big band ensembles and one full-time jazz instructor to whom I owe a great deal of my musical abilities.

I was by no means an accomplished improviser back then, but I was at least developing the skills to create music spontaneously as apposed to my fellow band students who were hopelessly and forever locked into the dots on the printed page.

Let’s remind our educational overlords that the musical values learned in jazz are not of less importance than those learned in band. In fact, after a certain level of instrumental proficiency, they might be of more importance!

3 thoughts on “Why is jazz taking a back seat to band in school?”

  1. Oh man! “Jazz should always be of secondary importance to the concert band.“?! Those are fighting words. They are very sad and even tragic words because they confirm in copper plate clarity the lack of respect for America’s greatest contribution to the world of music!! Jazz is a wonderful inclusive art form that should be taught the world-over.

    These arrogant morons are sending a terrible and hurtful message to the teachers who are unfortunately guided by their direction to give the concert bands preferential treatment over jazz bandsI

    I have lived in Germany for over 20 years and I can tell you with certainty that jazz music is loved here as a great iconic form of American-originated music. I taught as a professor of jazz piano in the Felix Mendlesohn school in Leipzig for 15 great years. This is one of the state-supported jazz universities spread out in every major city in Germany: Munich, Hamburg, Berlin, Essen, etc. that teaches and supports jazz.

    Is that because there is more respect, appreciation, and love for jazz in Germany than in the USA where it all began? Yes! And that is tragic, and the roots of that tragedy are perpetuated by directives from an American association for teachers that is demanding jazz be considered a secondary musical form unworthy of being taught on equal footing as concert band.

    Whichever moron wrote that directive that Mike Lake brings so well to our attention should be fired! They are doing a disservice to the very music students for which they claim to support. Jazz is an international global music that anyone from anywhere with the skill, talent, dedication, and love can learn and then rise to the top of the jazz world, but it begins with these components:

    1 Rhythmic contributions from Africa that based around the triplet feel

    2 European harmony and melody from Bach until the present time

    3 American popular songs, the blues, and early solo piano players in various whorehouses in the south like Louisiana

    The broad tent of Jazz covers, of course, a wide diversity of musical styles, absorbing Latin, Cuban, Brazilian music, and rock, resulting in an amalgam called fusion jazz. And of course there is the big band jazz music of the 30’s 40’s 50’s up until the present time.

    In conclusion, learning to play jazz should not be put in a subservient position below concert band. By doing so, you perpetuate the diminishing American appreciation for our great native musical art form. Shame on you!!

  2. When music educators incorporate unhealthy biases in a teaching philosophy, mission statement, or curriculum, it is the students who may be denied opportunities to learn music in a comprehensive fashion. Certainly, people on both sides of the “aisle” have denigrated a genre of music; classical musicians have claimed that jazz is destructive or less worthy and some jazz musicians failed to recognize the importance of classical music.

    Mission statements are more effective when staying within the positive perspective. The problem with ASBDA’s philosophy is that it is not long enough to flesh out its negative claims. If the organization truly believes that jazz has less educational value than making music in concert band, it should substantiate the claim with cogent reasoning.

    In my personal experience as primarily a jazz musician, there is no doubt that classical music greatly enhanced my abilities to compose, arrange, and orchestrate. I was fortunate to be in a high school that had an excellent, well-rounded program. I played drums in the jazz band, played French horn in the concert band and orchestra, played trumpet in the marching band, and sang in the choir. I also studied piano privately – playing Bach Two-Part Inventions and a Beethoven Sonata. All of these experiences helped me to develop a comprehensive approach to making music and appreciate its many styles.

    I will use my rebuttal to ASBDA’s philosophy to substantiate the importance of the jazz ensemble as a separate but equal musical experience. The jazz band (also known as a big band) is actually a chamber ensemble. Why? Because there is only one player on each part. In the concert band, how many players are on 1st trumpet? Probably three and perhaps more. The flute and clarinet sections also have numerous players on one part as do most of the instrumental parts within the ensemble. This allows weaker students to hide and not take full responsibility for making an optimal musical statement. Certainly, in the finest wind ensembles, every player performs at a very high level. (It’s not easy for multiple players to play in unison with pristine intonation.) Unfortunately, the concert band in public schools is not always ideal. I’ve seen situations where the ensemble becomes a “come-one, come-all” type of group; in some instances, the school principal may be more impressed by numbers of players rather than the quality of a music performance. The same can be said for marching band. For brass and wind players, the orchestra is a bit better as it requires more individual responsibility. There is one person assigned to each chair: Tpt 1, Tpt 2, Tpt 3, etc. There are certainly less places for weak players to hide or rely upon stronger players to cover their weaknesses.

    Why don’t more public schools place an importance on chamber ensembles? The woodwind quintet, the brass quintet, the string quartet? These groups expose the players who must learn to take maximum responsibility to uphold their role within the performance of a composition. For a student who plays French horn, the contexts of a woodwind quintet versus a brass quintet require a very different perspective. Within the brass quintet at the forte level, the horn is moderately exposed as it is enveloped by the girth of the tuba and somewhat dulled in comparison to the brighter trumpet and trombone. In the woodwind quintet, the horn can easily overtake the more delicate flute and clarinet and it can even occlude the sound of the bassoon when playing at the forte level. Consequently, the horn player learns how to adjust the instrument’s dynamic level in accordance within the context of an ensemble.

    The jazz band requires individual responsibility on every chair; this is why it can be considered a large chamber group. When arrangers assign a voiced chord to a section (saxes, trombones, or trumpets), each player needs to broadcast the sound so the individual voices within the harmony are balanced. For brass players, they learn how to perform with a variety of mutes: harmon, cup, bucket, plunger, in addition to the commonly used straight mute in orchestra. Trumpet players also learn how to switch quickly from trumpet to flugelhorn which presents its own challenges regarding intonation. Sax players are often required to play flute, clarinet, and sometimes bass clarinet. In the profession, this is called “doubling”. It is an expected skill in jazz today and in theater music. Aspiring student saxophonists who wish to work in the jazz field and especially in theater productions, or studio recording, must play these instruments at the excellent level. How many orchestral wind players (or ones in a professional concert band) are required to “double” on saxophone? The answer is “none”.

    What about percussionists? The world of percussion in a concert band and orchestra is vastly different from playing a drumset in a jazz band. Percussionists who have the opportunity to do so may ultimately have a fulfilling career as a percussionist/drummer in a Broadway theater production or in studio recording, or playing in pops orchestra concerts.

    What about bassists? Classically-trained bassists are virtuosic players with arco technique. Jazz bass players must be virtuosic with pizzicato technique. The best jazz bass players today have undoubtedly studied classical technique. This helps them control intonation and also produce a quality timbre when arco is required. It is not uncommon for a bassist in a jazz band to be requested to play arco.

    What about pianists and guitarists? Aside from the occasional piano concerto, or if a concert band composer writes for piano, these instruments are not frequently used. Furthermore, their sound is easily absorbed into the concert band sound. The jazz band features these instruments and, as part of the rhythm section, they become the “engine” for the ensemble. The players also learn how to use electric instruments to broaden the timbral palette. Another very important aspect is the nature of the written parts. In orchestral and concert band music, every note is written. In jazz, the players read written parts but are also called upon to interpret chord symbols. To do so, they must know, for instance, that a C13-9 is a dominant (V) chord. The guitarist in particular cannot play all of those notes; he/she must know which notes to choose (bottom to top: E-Bb-Db-A is a viable choice). If you think that this one chord is complex to understand and manage, imagine the actual context of a chord progression: Ami9 to D7+5+9 to Gmi7-5 to C13-9 to E7+9/F to F69. The players must find voicings for each chord symbol and then voice-lead them! Sometimes the chords progress quickly – each within two beats at a fast tempo! We understand that most high school players would not be able to do this. But the most talented ones can learn to do so and these players are likely the ones who will go into the music profession. Regardless, this skill is not required for performance in an orchestra or concert band.

    What about ear training? Do players in a concert band or orchestra need to understand harmony the way jazz musicians do? The answer again is “no”. Will students who perform in a jazz band (and understand the application of scales and harmony at the fundamental level) do better in ear-training and theory as a music major in college? The answer is likely to be “yes”.

    The huge element that remains is, of course, the aspect of improvisation; it occurs abundantly in the jazz ensemble and rarely, if at all, in orchestra or concert band. To improvise effectively, students must have a basic knowledge of at least a scale. The Orff Teaching Method incorporates improvisation in its curriculum where typically a pentatonic scale is used. Basic jazz improvisation can utilize a similar process. Regardless of musical style, to participate, the student must first trust the teacher and then muster a personal sense of courage. Gratifying musical results will continue to increase the student’s confidence and ultimately foster a creative process that leads to an increased sense of imagination.

    As dedicated music educators, let us please keep the endeavors of music-making open, without subjective biases, so our students can be encouraged to learn about the many wonderful ways music is made with the same twelve notes.

    Respectfully,
    Professor Richard DeRosa, University of North Texas.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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