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The Jazz & Democracy Project® (J&D) is rooted in a hypothesis formulated by J&D Founder, Wesley J. Watkins, IV, Ph.D.: a music-centered curriculum with genuine links to the other subject areas can increase student identification with school, impact academic engagement, and have a subsequent positive effect on overall academic success among students who have an affinity for music. “Dr. Wes,” as his students now call him, first proposed such a curriculum as part of the Stanford University School of Education Undergraduate Honors Program. The key ingredient, Dr. Wes hypothesized, is genuine connections to the other subject areas. That is, having students create a rap to memorize certain historical information is one way to integrate music, but integration can occur at much deeper levels—at the level of craft—when the arts content mirrors or demonstrates core concepts from social studies, literature, science, or mathematics. Such is the depth of integration found in The Jazz & Democracy Project®: to learn about the jazz process is to learn about American democratic ideals.
Dr. Wes investigated this initial line of inquiry as a doctoral candidate at the International Centre for Research in Music Education, University of Reading, England. After completing his studies, he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area where he began working as an independent arts education consultant. This work included a jazz-democracy unit in two Oakland 5th Grade classrooms where Dr. Wes acted as an arts specialist or teaching artist working in collaboration with classroom teachers and a music teacher. Dr. Wes was so thrilled with this exploration into the jazz-as-democracy metaphor and the impact it had on students that he set his sights on creating what is now The Jazz & Democracy Project®.
The very first J&D residency began in November of 2009 at Rosa Parks Elementary, located in San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District. It was one of four residencies that school year which utilized the 12-lesson, 80+ page curriculum devised by Dr. Wes. The following school year J&D more than doubled its reach by presenting to ten groups of students domestically, and going on its first international tour to Chile with the U.S. Department of State. Since then, J&D increased its annual reach locally, nationally and internationally, reaching a high-water mark of approximately 1,000 students per year between 2012 and 2017. The majority of those students were local to the San Francisco Bay Area, but over time J&D has presented in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, at The National Archives in Washington, D.C., at The Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, and even to an audience in rural Hope, Arkansas. And, in addition to the first international trip to Chile, J&D has inspired students in West Africa, Haiti, Guatemala and Brazil in conjunction with the U.S. State Department.
After a decade in schools, colleges and organizations around the world, it was time to train other teachers to utilize J&D materials, including exclusive interviews with today’s established and emerging jazz masters. The first J&D Curriculum Think Tank (CTT) was held during Summer, 2020, despite the COVID pandemic. The online training proved just how much could be accomplished with simultaneous instruction via Zoom, and yet the engaging classroom activities which are a hallmark of J&D had to be postponed.
That experience prompted Dr. Wes to commit the key J&D classroom activities to video, creating on-line training modules that allow him to now provide professional develop to teachers the world over. The timing of this malleable training platform couldn’t have been better, as Dr. Wes relocated to Sydney, Australia, in July of 2022, where he aims to bring J&D to yet another continent, while continuing to work with teachers in America.