Blank Slates

My students have heard of jazz but tell me they have never heard a single jazz piece before. They are like blank slates. Recently, whilst teaching jazz improvisation, a student haughtily informed me that the violin is not an improvisational instrument and cannot be used as such. (I promptly jumped on YouTube and typed in, “jazz violin improvisation.”)

And I used to be a blank slate as well.

My grade 10s are doing a jazz unit at the moment. This, in itself is not amazing. What is amazing is that I’m enjoying teaching it. You see, until a few years ago, I really hated jazz. (How is it even possible for a music teacher, of all people, to hate jazz?!?!?)

When I was in my undergrad, my friends and I attended a jazz piano master class. It was my very first exposure to jazz – ever – and so I didn’t really know what to expect. Pianist after pianist sat down and played music that I could only describe as noise. It was like they’d taken their hands, slammed them down in dissonant, random manners, and played whichever rhythms fell on the keys. I sat in disbelief. Afterwards, the jazz adjudicator would stand up and say something cool and suave, like, “Yeah man. That was smooth. That was hip.” Again. I sat in disbelief. That unfortunate incident started my dislike of jazz, which unfortunately remained for almost 15 years. Then came my masters. I decided that enough was enough, I was a grown up and it was time to like jazz. I purposely took a course in jazz composition and arranging from Boston University. Then I filled my iTunes library with jazz and made it become my daily listening routine. I was working on the assumption that the more I listened to, the more it would become my new normal, and that one day I would even like it. In school, I started encouraging kids who seem to have music in their souls. I started throwing jazz lead sheets at these kids, recommending listening tracks, and giving them jazz performance gigs. Soon, the music department started to think that jazz was cool, and these kids started to get some street cred. Did my experiment work? I think it did. Last week, I was chill-axing to some music and quite enjoying it, and suddenly I realised that it was free jazz! It was that dissonant, chaotic mess that I used to hate! But now I was liking it! 

My Intro to Jazz Unit

My grade 10 jazz unit has a key concept of aesthetic, with related concepts of interpretation, play, and composition. (Do you see where I’m going with this?) 
Statement of Inquiry: Jazz is a polarising genre.
Factual Question: How can chaos be structured?
Conceptual Question: Who determines what sounds good?
Debatable Question: Why is it impossible to hate jazz?

(I like the last question, because I do think that it is impossible. Even when I professed to dislike it, people would say, “But what about Gershwin?” and I’d respond, “Well, obviously I’m not talking about Gershwin!!!!” LOL.)

I think I need to tweak my statement of inquiry. Now that I’ve read the booklet, “Evaluating MYP Unit Plans,” I see that it’s too specific. A good statement of inquiry should be based on transferable concepts. A better statement of inquiry might be, “Our aesthetics change with exposure to new experiences.) 

We’ve watched the PBS documentary on the history of jazz. We’ve played the 12 bar blues. We’ve studied the modes. We’ve played ImprovPathway’s improvisation exercises (the kids enjoyed that!). Now they are arranging jazz standards for small ensembles. They need to give me a lead horn, a second horn, a horn doing accents and ornaments, rhythm piano and guitar, bass, and drums. This needs to be done from a jazz fake book that comes with a straight melody (meaning, they’ve got to use anticipations, delays, and non-chord tones to turn it into a jazzy piece without losing the original melody line).