History of Jazz Education

History of Jazz Education:
The Journey from Informal Learning to Jazz College Programs

United States Navy Band from Washington, D.C., USA
United States Navy Band from Washington, D.C., USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons WARSAW, IN. (November 08, 2015) Musician 1st Class Kristine Hsia, of Holbrook, N.Y., performs a solo on a concert at Lakeview Middle School with the Commodores jazz ensemble. The Commodores are currently on an 18-day concert tour of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. (U.S. Navy Photo by Master Chief Musician Aaron Porter/Released)

Jazz education has grown into a significant field in music education. From its informal roots in New Orleans, it has evolved into a structured curriculum offered by countless schools and colleges worldwide. In this article, we will uncover the fascinating journey of jazz education, focusing on how it has shaped the jazz college programs we see today.

The Genesis of Jazz Education

The origins of jazz education were far from formal. During the early 20th century, jazz was largely an aural tradition, learned and passed on by listening rather than through structured teaching. Young musicians would often apprentice with more experienced players, absorbing their techniques, improvisations, and musical styles.

Early jazz education was predominantly characterized by a reliance on aural skills and group improvisation. Musicians in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, often lacked formal music education. Instead, they learned jazz by playing together in bands and by listening to and imitating their peers and mentors. This resulted in a rich exchange of ideas and styles, contributing to the diverse and vibrant jazz scene.

The Migration of Jazz and The Birth of Big Band

Jazz began migrating north to cities like Chicago and New York City in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Drawn by larger audiences and proximity to recording studios, jazz musicians flocked to these urban centers. This migration marked a pivotal shift in jazz education as a new style of jazz, known as the Big Band era (→ wikipedia.org/Big_band), emerged.

The City Jazz Big Band performs at the John W. Gallivan Utah Center
Ben P L from Provo, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons The City Jazz Big Band performs at the John W. Gallivan Utah Center.

Big band music played a crucial role in jazz education. It introduced more structured arrangements, necessitating a new level of musical literacy among jazz musicians. This era also saw the rise of after-hours jam sessions, where musicians honed their improvisation skills, often leading to the development of new arrangements and tunes.

The Advent of University Jazz Programs

Jazz education took a significant leap forward when universities started offering jazz programs. These programs initially emerged as extracurricular ensembles attached to larger concert or marching bands. However, they soon started gaining academic recognition.

In 1941, the New School for Social Research in Manhattan offered a jazz history course, marking one of the first instances of jazz being included in a formal academic curriculum. Shortly after, in 1945, the Schillinger House opened in Boston (→ wikipedia.org/…/Schillinger_House), offering a two-year curriculum and awarding an artist diploma.

The first-ever jazz degree was offered by the University of North Texas (→ Jazz at UNT) in 1947. Over the next few decades, jazz programs sprouted up in schools across the country and around the globe, reflecting the increasing acceptance and recognition of jazz as a legitimate field of study.

United States Navy Band from Washington, D.C., USA
United States Navy Band from Washington, D.C., USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons February 23, 2012 (WASHINGTON D.C.) The director of the Herndon High School jazz band conducts his band during their visit to the Commodores jazz ensemble’s rehearsal spaces at the Washington Navy Yard. The Navy Band “Music in the Schools” program, designed to bring concerts and demonstrations to school aged children, introduces students to live music performances by professional Navy musicians. (U.S. Navy Photo by MUCM Aaron Porter /Released)

The Evolution of Jazz Curriculum

The development of a standardized jazz curriculum was a critical and controversial step in institutionalizing jazz education. The main challenge was to formalize a genre that traditionally thrived on improvisation and personal expression.

Educators began publishing method books that attempted to explain jazz in a formal manner. However, these books did not have a universal impact and quickly became obsolete. It was not until educators like Jamey Aebersold, David Baker, and Jerry Coker started laying the groundwork for a more universal educational practice that a standardized jazz curriculum began to take shape.

The Role of Educational Jazz Ensembles

The decline of big bands post-World War II was offset by the rise of jazz programs in colleges. The influx of students brought about by formalized jazz education suddenly provided academic institutions with the numbers necessary to create their own big bands. These bands not only kept the big band tradition alive but also served an important educational purpose, enabling educators to teach a large number of students simultaneously.

Controversies Surrounding Jazz Education

Despite its growth and acceptance, jazz education has not been without controversy. Critics argue that formalizing jazz education removes the emotion and spontaneity from the music. They believe that the emphasis on learning music from sheet music instead of by ear hampers the development of a true jazz musician.

On the other hand, proponents of formal jazz education point to the revitalized interest in jazz and the high quality of musicians now playing jazz music as evidence of its benefits.

United States Navy Band from Washington, D.C., USA
United States Navy Band from Washington, D.C., USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Louisvile, Ky. (Jan. 8, 2016) Guest artist Ingrid Jensen solos with the U.S. Navy Band Commodores jazz ensemble at the Jazz Education Network’s annual conference. JEN is an organization dedicated to promoting jazz education and performance. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Musician Melissa Bishop/Released)

The Rise of Jazz Education Organizations

With the rise of institutionalized jazz education, several organizations have emerged to represent and promote jazz education. One of the largest of these was the International Association for Jazz Education (→ International Association for Jazz Education), which held regular conferences worldwide. Despite declaring bankruptcy in 2008, its legacy lives on through other organizations like the Jazz Education Network (→ Jazzednet.org/).

Jazz Education Today: The Age of the Jazz College

Today, jazz education has become an industry unto itself. Institutions of higher learning, including high schools, summer camps, and university-level programs, dominate formal jazz pedagogy. Jazz colleges, in particular, have become integral to the development of jazz musicians, offering structured curricula that provide comprehensive training in various aspects of jazz.

Nick Navarro, a trombonist in the Marine Corps All Star Jazz Band, plays with band students
English: Sgt. Jimmy D. Shea, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Cpl. Nick Navarro, a trombonist in the Marine Corps All Star Jazz Band, plays with band students to his left and his right at Marquette High School, Marquette, Mich., during a clinic, April 14, 2011. The All Star Jazz Band is made up of the best 18 Marine jazz musicians, chosen through a audition based selection process, and tours to increase recruiting in the specific Marine Corps District they perform in. The band holds concerts and clinics at high schools and colleges as they travel. Navarro is the youngest musician on the the All-Star ensemble.

From the informal apprenticeships of early jazz musicians to the structured programs of contemporary jazz colleges, jazz education has undergone a remarkable transformation. The journey reflects the enduring appeal of jazz, its adaptability, and its ability to inspire and educate musicians across generations. The evolution of jazz education serves as a testament to the genre’s enduring appeal and its profound impact on the world of music.

Jazz – a documentary by Ken Burns

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