Why Jazz?

  • “I quit school. I quit because education always seemed to vacuum you, to close you up and to indoctrinate you. Education should open you up, draw things out of you so that you realize they’re in you.”
    - Don Cherry*
  • “[Billy Eckstine’s band] was like a school for me, and that’s when I realized that we had to have bands for young black musicians— big bands, little bands, a whole lot of bands—because this music is an experience. It’s a school, and they can train to become musicians and learn how to act like musicians.”
    - Art Blakey*

The benefits of arts education—music education, in particular—have been studied for decades. The following is a list of benefits uncovered over the first five years of The Jazz & Democracy Project®. It contains contextual observations that are seldom the subject of study, but which stand out when the J&D curriculum meets youth and pop culture in today’s schools.


Young people need models of people engaged in a process of becoming.
The field of education and popular culture value products, e.g., test scores or downloads sold. Young people are influenced by this trend and as a result they focus on having the right answer or being a star, as opposed to valuing the thinking that leads to a right answer or the hard work it takes to become a star—let alone an artist. Contrarily, because jazz is a collectively improvised art, process is key. How well I am prepared to work with others and how well we work together are the greatest determinants of outcome. Moreover, the art is not merely the product, but also the on-going negotiation that takes place while the music is unfolding in real time. In this way, jazz showcases the tremendous individual and collective effort required to create anything of wide and lasting value. Both the individual’s search and the selfless collaboration required in jazz provide a stark contrast and much needed alternative to the allure of pre-packaged stardom or the educational idea that one simply is or is not smart. The effort and process of becoming is far more important, realistic and rewarding.


Young people need models of people who confront risk and grow as a result.
“What do you want me to write here?” Unfortunately, some form of this question—once again, driven by a focus on product—is all too common from students who know that the right answer is prized over thinking skills. We stopped teaching children how to think. What is more, we’ve made the risk of being incorrect a price too many are unwilling to pay. In jazz, the musicians live perpetually on the edge of failure; a jazz performance could fall apart at any moment if someone in the band loses focuses. In a collectively improvised process each passing second is a risk because I don’t know exactly what you are going to do, or how I will respond. We must wait and see, listen and respond, try, fail and recover over and over again. Success is not guaranteed, and yet the jazz musician pushes forth courageously into uncharted territory. The jazz master thrives under the pressure of incredible risk, and they learn to rely on themselves and others to navigate the unknown. Imagine how much content our students could absorb if this was commonplace in the learning environment, let alone the skills they would acquire learning to manage risk.


Young people need exposure to a wide emotional spectrum.
If the music provided to our young people substitutes pornography for romance and violence for conviction, then youth will reflect these attributes to the detriment of society. Jazz encompasses a broad emotional spectrum, from rage to tenderness, from devastating blues to spiritual exaltation. Young males, especially, need to know that some of the most masculine, intense and well respected jazz musicians were also some of the most tender-hearted spirits. And all of us would do well to embody such depth of character, let alone expect it from our young men and women.


Young people need an example of finding their unique voice within history and tradition.
It is perhaps the nature of youth to eschew their parents’ traditions out of a desire to find their own way. Jazz encourages—even requires—musicians to locate their own unique style or voice. Yet, this quest is reconciled with the notion that in order to know who you are, you must know from whence you came. It is the musician who knows most about the jazz tradition who truly extends or innovates within the art form. And this tradition is one that embraces the free spirit of discovery, while never losing sight of the clear cultural tradition that initiated such freedom in the first place.


Young people need models of genius and craft excellence who look like them.
There is no mistaking the impact that witnessing undeniable genius can have upon a person—particularly when that genius resembles oneself. Jazz history is replete with examples of genius in all hues, sexualities and both genders. Given the state of education today, young African American students in particular may benefit from exposure to bona fide genius embodied in so many jazz legends, both living and departed.

* Quotations taken from Arthur Taylor’s Notes & Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews, Expanded Edition, Da Capo Press, 1993.