How Teachers can Swing in the Classroom

Douglas Groothuis By

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Third, jazz is, according to the master jazz writer Whitney Balliett, "the sound of surprise." A well-played piece of jazz music—even the most well-known standard—summons new ideas from jazz performers. The well-known need not be the well-worn, since the musical form—tied to the discipline of the musicians—can always yield something fresh and inspiring—or disastrous. There are no guaranteed results. This "sound of surprise" flows from the inherently improvisational nature of jazz, which requires the creativity of both the individual soloist and the ensemble as a unit. The difference between the two types of improvisation is vanishingly small if not artificial in a tight jazz group, since each musician is so highly attuned to the playing of the other musicians. A jazz musician who listens to and responds appropriately to fellow musicians is said to have big ears. Drummer Elvin Jones claimed that he and the other members of the classic John Coltrane Quartet (Coltrane accompanied by Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums, 1961-65) performed nearly telepathically, given their ability to anticipate, complement, and inspire each other musically. Sheet music was not necessary, since so much had been imprinted on their collective soul. The individual and group improvisation of jazz makes jazz an aesthetic high wire act—and one without a net. True jazz is never canned or routinized, as is "smooth jazz" (as with the abysmal Kenny G). Jazz performers compose in public. Jazz critic, Ted Gioia, calls jazz improvisation "the imperfect art" in a book of the same name. Things can go wrong at these high altitudes and there are no parachutes. One may be in for a rough ride on the unpredictable currents of creativity. Yet the possibilities are enticing and elevating. A book by Eric Nisenson, which is dedicated to the improvisational artistry of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, is appropriately entitled Open Sky. Even jazz musicians less known for their improvisational prowess may stun audiences and even themselves in moments of spontaneity, as did tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves when he soloed for twenty-seven choruses during "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. After this epiphany, Gonsalvas claimed the role of a key soloist in the Ellington unit.

Philosophy in the classroom should allow for and encourage the kind of serendipity celebrated by jazz. The professor (rooted in the tradition) along with the students (who are more recently initiated into the tradition) work to comprehend the great ideas in a structured but also free collaboration. With enough woodshed time, the toughest concepts and arguments can be performed winningly through lecture, discussion, and testing. The class readings become the musical score, the professor is the band leader, and the students learn to play the score and improvise on it. The professor needs big ears to read the students' responses and to inspire them to jam hard on the chord changes (that is, concepts). The whole (students and professor) is greater than the sum of the parts, just as in jazz. And if "don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

When the chemistry is right, I generate new ideas and experiment before the students. Thinking aloud in public is an intellectual performance. Students do it as well. They sometimes surprise me with their chops. I then try—in the spirit of jazz—to let them take ideas in new directions. A few years ago, a student in my introduction to philosophy class raised an earnest question about the relationship between faith and reason that triggered an unplanned and very fruitful discussion. This kind of improvisation can be exhilarating; it can also fall flat. Yet even then, rescue is possible, as in jazz. Pianist Herbie Hancock said he once played the wrong note while in a highly improving band lead by trumpet master, Miles Davis. However, Hancock reported that Davis responded by playing a note that made Hancock's mistake "right." Many times while leading a free-flowing but focused discussion on a philosophical theme, a student will offer something out of tune. But when at my best, I can find something worthwhile in the comment or take it into a more fruitful direction. In the realm of studied risk lies the promise of new flights into "the open sky" of rational argument. The idea of jazz pedagogy came to me while jamming in a lecture, and I have been in the woodshed with it ever since.

Swinging in the Classroom


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