What I (think I) Learned Teaching at Jazz Camp

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After teaching jazz history to a bunch of high school kids at a university jazz camp this past week there are a bunch of things I learned.  Most of which are pretty serious, others are more amusing and tongue-in-cheek.  So in no particular order, here are some things that I observed and learned after hanging out with a bunch of teenagers who are at various stages in their engagement with jazz:

– Just to get this one out of the way: “jazz hats” are crucial to performing jazz, especially in a combo setting – but not so much in a big band.

– High schoolers often have way more open minds as to what kinds of music is viable as “jazz.”  I can’t tell you how many times in college I’ve had college music students tell me that Albert Ayler, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and other avant-garde musicians were utter crap and not worthy of study or even listening to.  In the three years of teaching at this camp I’ve found quite often that the strongest, more positive and enthusiastic responses were to music that is more current, often more experimental, and on the fringes of what people would to be jazz.  Which leads me to my next item…

– For the most part, it seems like students find the classic and canonical performances from jazz masters like Johnny Hodges, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, etc. to be less engaging than things recorded in the last 10 years or so.  This makes me wonder about the recent discussions going on in the jazz blogosphere about how to build a jazz audience.  I’ve seen comments before that are somewhere along the lines of “maybe we shouldn’t just give folks interested in jazz Kind of Blue and say ‘ok, here is jazz, have fun.'”  There are so many different manifestations of jazz, especially in the last 10 years, that there are a lot more avenues through which we can introduce people to jazz than recordings that are over 50 years old that more than likely will not sound relevant to someone born in the mid ’90s.

-Definitions about genre lines don’t really matter, or labels of any kind other than “good/bad” or “I like it/I don’t like it.”  I heard this numerous times while listening to music this week.  The same students were just as enthusiastic about the newest Esperanza Spalding album as they were the Art Ensemble of Chicago as they were about Cuong Vu.

– Seasoned professionals can mess up the form just like 14 year olds who have never improvised before.

– Everything is connected.  Just for kicks I played a track from Flying Lotus’ Pattern + Grid World, which the students loved.  They were even more blown away when I told them he is Coltrane’s nephew.  Even though Flying Lotus isn’t jazz, one bright student (she sported a fetching jazz hat during the camp’s student combo performance) pointed out the pentatonic scales and scoops and other tonal/timbral manipulations in the Flying Lotus track were  also in the blues, Louis Armstrong and other things we heard earlier in the week.  I’d never even thought about it that way.

– Student descriptions of music, whether they like it or not, can be just down right hee-larious.  (See my last post on Anthony Braxton).

Ok, that might  be it for now, if anything else comes to mind I will definitely let you know.

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