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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Jazz in Education

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Jazz in Education

I was recently commissioned to write a short article on Jazz in Education.  Here are my mutterings…

When I was 15 I asked my school music teacher if he could teach me jazz.  I was a piano and saxophone student and after learning a blues scale in year 7, I was desperate to learn more and delve into this magical world of jazz.  My school music teacher was pretty cool but was almost completely burnt out and often clattered about the small music classroom and practise rooms/windowless cupboards, shouting “Cretins!”  He had clearly lost the passion for teaching music and for spending any time whatsoever with young people!  On one rare opportunity to corner the poor bloke, I asked the question and he promptly showed me that piano players often voiced their chords in 7ths.


“Instead of playing C,E,G, play just C & B” he informed me


This, unfortunately,  was the pinnacle of his advice and no matter how hard I tried to push for further information he was unable to provide.  It wasn’t his fault; he was actually a very forward thinking musician but he had been trained classically and although this had given him theoretical knowledge and technique he did not have the sporadic, improvisatory flair of a jazz musician.


It’s strange how moments like these stick in your mind and how they shape your development.  I guess there were many factors to me resigning to the fact that I was just going to figure it out by myself but this occasion was definitely a contributor.  In fact, I took an extreme view from that moment and I stubbornly refused to ask anyone else for advice.


It wasn’t until (ironically) I finished my degree course at music college that I started to really learn the concepts, theory and ethos of jazz and it really transformed my life.  It’s how I started my career as a professional musician.  It’s been fun learning about ii, v, i’s and tritone substitutions but I’ve always felt like I’ve been playing catch up.  Especially as some of the musicians I work with have had bebop etched into their souls from an early age.


I vowed to myself that I would teach my students all the things I missed out on.  I would show them theories I had learnt and sift out all the rubbish that modern musicians do not need to prioritise.  I would give them the skills to be a modern, flexible professional and give them confidence in all situations, be it reading a chart or improvising over chord progressions.  This became a real mission of mine and then I realised that I wasn’t alone.  The growth of jazz in education is common and it’s importance in the modern world has migrated from the US to the rest of the world.  The UK, Europe, Japan, China, Australia have all embraced Jazz in education and are producing some amazing improvising musicians.


You see, Jazz music isn’t just about men in straw boaters playing ‘won’t you come home Bill Bailey’    or (as laugh out loud as it is) a scene from the Fast Show’s Jazz Club, its actually about the freedom to evolve and to fuse your influences.  In fact, Miles Davis didn’t like to be described as a jazz musician; he believed that jazz was just a term for creating music from your own experiences.  It’s often record labels and music journalists who coin these phrases to try to communicate with the public; jazz artists speak with the music!


I digress.  Lets look at the rise of jazz in education and the benefits.  Before c.1980, almost all music education in the UK was classically based.  British jazz musicians were forced to study the art by listening to records and possibly visiting the US from time to time.  Post 1980, a new breed of musician was able to access courses at the London music colleges and the contemporary jazz course at Leeds.  Since the late 1990’s a range of jazz courses have appeared in both the national conservatoires and universities.  The more traditional musical training avenues started to utilised Jazz modules to cater for this growing need.  Even the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music introduced a jazz grade syllabus to captivate students wishing to study a non-classical alternative.


Fast forward to the present day and you will find that most schools, colleges, universities and conservatoires have Jazz teaching modules.


This, in my humble opinion, is for the following reasons:


  • Jazz theory is as in-depth and academically challenging as classical music.  Harmony is complex, melodies create huge tensions and unpredictable resolutions.  The texture can be incredibly simple or can be layered to have polyphonic movements very similar to Bach, Beethoven or more 20th century classical composers.
  • Improvisation is paramount in jazz and it happens to be a current buzz word in education.  The ability to think independently, draw from influences and create original work through process and theoretical method is a ‘big deal’ for any scholar.
  • Cultural links have always played a huge part in the evolution of jazz.  The subtle differences between East Coast, West Coast and European styles.  Equal rights between men and women, black and white, rich and poor; all of these issues have been portrayed through jazz music.
  • The history of jazz and the conditions in which black workers were kept is a lesson as important to us humans as the holocaust.  It also teaches us that from a time so tragic and cruel, beauty can arise.
  • The expectations of a modern musician are to be able to perform to a high level in a multitude of scenarios.  Be it reading a part in an orchestra or big band, improvising a solo or listening to a demo and recording ad-hoc in someones bedroom (with equipment which far exceeds the standard of multi-million pound studios of yesteryear).
  • A high percentage of professional session players also play jazz.  One of my good friends has recently landed a gig with The Drifters and many of the musicians backing them are also jazz musicians.  Jazz gives musicians the flexibly and the technique to play other styles … and perhaps slightly larger pay cheques too!


Jazz also gives us the ability to challenge, reflect and change direction.  Through the process of instrumental technique, ear training, creative thinking and improvisation methods a musician is able to adapt to any situation.


“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

Albert Einstein


I believe that Jazz in education is crucial to the developing musician to open his or her eyes to a mindset of forward movement and creativity.  The focus on improvisation is hugely important to instill confidence in the modern musician.


Let me know if you agree/disagree – post a comment below


3 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Roger Hughes
    October 1, 2015

    Hi Jay, very interesting and I can see how your school experiences have shaped you as a teacher/mentor. And as a one of your students (albeit late to the music education party!), I appreciate the thirst you had, and still have for learning all the stuff you were never taught in your early years, are learning now, and passing on to the likes of me!

    I think your humble opinion is very valid, and akin to what we were discussing on Monday, jazz, in all its forms, is a very inclusive music genre. You don’t have to have achieved grade 5 before you can consider yourself worthy of joining an orchestra! If you can play a note or two, then there will be something you can play along to, a group that you could join in with. It also allows the musicians to include the audience and feed of their engagement with the piece being played, and use that feedback to colour a solo being played And I think it is this inclusive feel that so appeals to children today, I saw it through the experiences of my own son at KES and which I’m now experiencing myself. So keep up the good word and spreading the gospel!

  2. frank langley
    October 1, 2015

    Hi Jay very interesting a fascinating and never ending learning curve

  3. Jenny Mason
    October 3, 2015

    Hi Jay,
    I read your article with great interest. Music when I went to school way back in the 70′s was a grumpy old music teacher who put a record on and went to sleep. I kid you not! There was no passion, pleasure or attempt to seek out potential or interest. Thankfully things have changed and as with sport, kids have the opportunities to try all ranges of music, change their minds and go on to something else if it doesn’t suit but there are at least choices.
    As you know I have just started learning the piano having waited until my 50′s to ever attempt playing anything. I don’t regret not starting before, it wasn’t the right time but it is now. It is by far the most enjoyable, satisfying pastime that I have ever had and play every day.
    Inspire all your students by instilling some of your passion of music to them and you can be proud of what you do.
    Here’s to Christmas around the piano! Love Jenny

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