Getting to the “Why”

In these times when American society is re-examining its history through the lens of the experiences of people of color, how does a band director in Iowa honor the roots of jazz as music created in response to discrimination and repression, while also teaching notes and rhythms?

A simple way to begin may be as easy as examining the charts you program.

That was one suggestion that came out in JEI’s “Honoring the Roots of Jazz – Teaching Best Practices,” an online discussion held on January 5. 

JEI president Dennis Green moderated the panel, which consisted of Dana Hall, Associate Professor of Jazz and Ethnomusicology at DePaul University (and who also will direct the 4A band at this year’s Jazz All-State); Damani Phillips, Associate Professor of Jazz Studies and African American Studies at the University of Iowa; Camille Thurman, Professor of Jazz Saxophone at the University of Northern Colorado; and Jerry Tolson, Professor of Music Education and Jazz Studies at the University of Louisville, and a former band director in Sigourney, Iowa.

“We have privileged certain composers, certain arrangers and marginalized many others simply by not being fully invested and being intentional in our choices,” said Hall. “If we choose Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, because we believe that those are rich pieces; and in doing so, we marginalize Lunsford and Ellington and Mary Lou Williams, then we are derelict in our responsibilities as educators and as band directors.”

The term “teaching with intention” came up again and again during the discussion. This is much more than just examining repertoire. It means taking a critical look at every aspect of our programs and teaching, from how we pivot students to certain instruments, to recognizing that in jazz, aural training is just as important as learning notes on a page.

Historically, jazz was taught on the bandstand, with younger musicians “apprenticing” with veterans and learning the music from their elders. It’s not impossible to incorporate aspects of that model into teaching today, and when you do, you may find that students connect to the music at a deeper level.

Thurman observed that its important for students to learn from teachers other than their band director. “When we’re in the real world, the music world… it’s so small, but it’s so big too at the same time, because we’re all interconnected. And how we learn as musicians individually is from a community of people.”

Tolson said that incorporating more listening and ear training can pay measurable dividends in performance. “You can always tell the groups that have spent a lot of time on the notes and rhythms, but not so much on the style and the feel. And so I think that time is time well spent.”

Phillips noted that while the apprenticeship model has “gone the way of the Dodo,” it’s still incumbent on today’s directors to replicate that model of learning as much as possible. “The teacher, AKA the band leader, (has to) take the place of Art Blakey or Miles Davis at the front of the band and transfer the knowledge that way. It’s getting past the ‘what’ of what we do and getting into the ‘why’ of what we do.”

Tolson, who well remembers the emphasis on competitions like the Iowa Jazz Championships from his days as a school band director, said that while it’s easy to blame competition for the lack of time to focus on other aspects of learning, competing has also made all the bands in Iowa better.

“Trust me. The bands in Iowa are as good as they are anywhere in the country.”

“I like the competitive element,” Damani admitted. “I think that’s part of the tradition of the music. You know, cats have been trying to cut each other since the twenties and thirties; see who was the baddest cat. I don’t mind that so much, as long as we don’t go overboard.”

The panelists also recommended a variety of books and other resources (see sidebar). The entire discussion is available for viewing by any teacher or student, whether you are a JEI member or not, at

Published by Dennis Green

Middle-aged public radio manager, occasional writer and stage performer. You can find me at the Washington H.S. pool many mornings at 5:30am.

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