Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jazz in the Classroom

What teachers and students can learn from Miles Davis and John Coltrane 

One of the many great Miles Davis units was made up of Miles, Ron Carter (bass), a very young Tony Williams on drums, Herbie Hancock on piano, and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. While listening to the complete "Live at the Plugged Nichol" is was again obvious that these musicians listened intently to each other. The give and take of the playing is uncanny. This does not come naturally. One jazz virtue is developing and keeping "big ears" or being keenly aware of what your bandmates are playing and responding accordingly. Of course, this is improvisation; but it is group improvisation, not solos per se.

The same is noted in Coltrane's "classic quartet," which took on the world from 1961-1965. Trane, of course, played tenor and, later, soprano saxophone, along with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. Elvin told an interviewer that they relationship was "almost telepathic." They, like all good jazz groups, never played the same tune the same way twice. Rather, each piece provided some form for their collective freedom.

Take this into the classroom. Students and teachers must develop big ears. What is the teacher saying and why? How are the students responding? How can teachers and students spur each other on, challenge each other to play better? A jazz performance is not distracted by people checking their watches or cell phones or sending text messages. The musicians focus; it is uni-tasking, not multi-tasking. The classroom should be the same. The center point, the reason for being is knowledge discovered through group improvisation: form and freedom. Technologies such as PowerPoint, and the use of most video clips, detract from this magical dynamic. As such, they should be eliminated. For some teachers (or presenters), when the PowerPoint fails, the class is over. Why is this? The teachers lack the chops to improvise within a theme with a class. They are beholden to the technology and become its servant (slave). Teacher and students with big ears are no thus hindered. They can swing.

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