Bobby Selvaggio

Saxophonist - Composer - Educator - Band Leader

How to Make Jazz Studies Curriculum Viable for Jazz Performance and Music Education Majors

If there’s one comment I hear above all others about jazz music in academia is that it’s making jazz performers sound too much like they are playing out of a book. Another way of looking at that is the concept of “head” versus “heart”; performing too technical or theoretical versus playing from the soul or with emotion. Jazz was always a music that was learned in the clubs or at jam sessions, places where musicians would gather and hang out, talk about music, and play together. Jazz traditionally was an environment where young and upcoming musicians would learn things from a mentor, go practice all day, and then perform all night. Now that colleges have been offering programs in Jazz Studies for many years, too often that environment has encouraged taking out a fake book, learn some licks over some tunes, and perform those at a jury to pass your class. We have lost sight of the basic fundamental aspect of jazz music in general, that it is an improvisational driven music.

Another big difference with young jazz students today versus years’ past is they are not growing up listening to jazz music on a regular basis, if at all. I have seen too often students come into college wanting to be a jazz musician or teach High School Jazz Bands and they don’t have any extensive idea of what jazz sounds like. They played in a Big Band in High School, liked that a lot, and think they want to play or teach jazz. Besides the fact that jazz music is not even a little part of everyday society, so they come in having no real understanding of what jazz really is. Let’s start with a process to build jazz education curriculum around and then deal with how that applies to music education.

As I have developed, as an educator in particular, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what the concept of improvisational driven is. I feel it breaks down into four main elements; Ear Training, Theory, Technique, and Style. This might be slightly old school of me, but learning tunes out of a fake book is very counterproductive. Developing the ear is essential in jazz, let alone all music. If we always use a fake book to learn jazz repertoire, we have taken an essential element of jazz development out of the equation. Do melodic and harmonic ear training with your students. Make them learn tunes off of a record, not from a book. This way they not only learn the music, but they are learning the sounds of jazz through repetitious listening. This also helps develop the concept of selective listening versus casual listening. Making them focus on the chords or just the bass line to figure out the harmony, or the interpretation of the melody, or the interaction of all the musicians during improvisations. Ear training is at the forefront of all we do in music.

As important as ear training is, theory is an essential element of performing music and to be able to understand and explain the things you play. I talk with students a lot about being effortless and immediate with everything you do. As improvising musicians, jazz players have to make instantaneous decisions, manipulations, and developments to the music we play all the time. In essence, jazz improvisation is spontaneous composition. Since we compose in real time, our ability to apply theory instantaneously is always important. This is essentially the same for technique. The immediacy of every we do from a facility standpoint. When I’ve transcribed and analyzed the most complex solos (i.e. John Coltranes solo on India), the one thing I’ve come to notice is how fairly fundamental all of the ideas being played are. It comes back to the same thing, time after time; know your scales, intervals, triads, and arpeggios effortlessly. And don’t always use a book to practice those things. There’s no need to use a book to practice all of that. We use a book because it makes it easy to have it in front of us to read. Make it harder on yourself being creative coming up with ways to practice this stuff. I tell my students all the time to create their own book.

The biggest comment I get from non-musicians when I’m performing modern original jazz is “what kind of music are you playing?”. People don’t in general understand there are many styles of jazz. They always say how much they like and have enjoyed the music, but they don’t realize it’s jazz. Young jazz students and music education majors need to be educated that jazz continued to evolve after the 1930’s. To put it simply, when it comes to style, you need to imitate, assimilate, and innovate. In this way, you are learning the tradition while moving the music forward with an individualistic voice.

When I went to OMEA last year in Cincinnati, I gave a clinic on improvisation. I started the clinic with a series of questions to the High School Jazz Band directors in particular. Of the 20 or so directors there, this is how it went. “How many of you played in a High School Jazz Band?”. They all raised their hands. “How many of you played in a College Jazz Band?”. Half raised their hands. “How many of you took a Jazz Techniques class at the college level?”. Three raised their hands. Music educations majors are expected to teach jazz bands with little or no jazz training. They have no idea of the process I’ve explained above for teaching jazz and improvisation. They have no real idea of what jazz sounds like or any understanding of what it is. If we look at jazz curriculum and how it should be taught at the college level, we will see a domino effect in the understanding, appreciation, and proficiency of jazz.

- Edited by Liz Carney