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Passing the Torch: Jazz in the Next Generation

Tom Greenland By

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As young jazzers mature, their listening becomes more focused, their musical vocabulary expands and their visions broaden.
The concept of jazz education is problematic, perhaps even oxymoronic. How do you teach someone to swing, to improvise creatively, to play with soul, to be him- or herself? In other words, Can jazz be taught? While some might argue to the contrary, numerous folks out there, on the scene, are making a difference, kindling and stoking the jazz flame, sharing their love and expertise with the music makers and listeners of the future.

Jazz education begins with listening. Those who are lucky enough to have been raised by parents with "curious ears or who have been exposed to sonically creative environments have had an early ("ear -ly?) peek at—and may have been piqued by—the possibilities of improvised music. Others catch the bug later on in life. Now a globe-spanning language, the ways of jazz are understandable at almost any age, in almost any culture. As early as preschool, children can learn to listen to and perform jazz.

Manhattan-based singer and educator Louise Rogers has accomplished amazing feats with her youngsters, some only two years-old! To develop their aural skills, Rogers uses call-and-response techniques: she'll play a background track or her husband Rick Strong will walk a bass line, then students echo her scat vocals or drummed improvisations; alternatively, she'll put on Ella Fitzgerald's "How High the Moon and have them transcribe the "doo-s , "dwee-bah's and other scat-icisms. To hone compositional instincts, she has students imagine a scenario about Charlie Parker, then compiles their ideas into an original lyric set to the tune of "Now's the Time, which they perform. She finds that connecting the musical ideas to a story line is especially effective for engaging and holding the attention of her youngest participants. To develop children's improvisational skills, Rogers has them pass a play-microphone around the circle with each student extemporizing a response to an open-ended prod such as, What did you have for breakfast? Interestingly, she reports that even kids from culturally diverse backgrounds, whose primary language may not be English, quickly become comfortable with the no-wrong-notes atmosphere of her classrooms; two children with a previous cultural and/or linguistic barrier can instantly open up a dialogue in scat-ese, producing a sense of confidence and camaraderie that transfers to other social activities.

Middle-school musicians face issues and challenges unique to their physical and mental maturity. One of under-sung miracle workers in this arena is pianist/composer Eli Yamin, the driving force behind an extremely successful series of jazz musicals staged at the Louis Armstrong Middle School in Corona, Queens. Can you imagine fifty-plus youngsters singing and dancing their hearts out to topical tunes steeped in blues, bebop and swing, including free-form interludes inspired by Sun Ra? Believe it. "Message From Saturn is one of five original jazz musicals composed by Yamin for the Jazz Drama Program; "Nora's Ark , the first in the series, is now available as a score, script and demo-CD for schools wishing to immerse their student body in jazz's cultural aesthetics.


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