Musical taste must be cultivated, like any other taste. And when we consider introducing children to good music, we should consider jazz. Jazz is the original American art form. The story of jazz is one of the stories of our country. My undergraduate degree is in music and I also hold a juris doctorate. After my in depth study of music history, as a music major, and my study of law, I am completely convinced that music did far more to end segregation than the law did. Music is powerful. But that is another post, for another time. I recently posted about some great ways to introduce kids to opera that just might have them begging for more. Now it is time to introduce your kids to jazz classics that kids can’t help but love, like Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts.
Jazz appreciation is a matter of finding what you like. The best place to start is New Orleans jazz. After all, it is the birthplace of jazz. Every kid should know Louis Armstrong’s When the Saints Go Marching In. Jazz musicians have covered lots of folk songs that kids should be familiar with like Patty Cake, Patty Cake by Fats Waller, The Muffin Man by Ella Fitzgerald, When You Wish Upon a Star by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and Children’s Song (That Old Man) by Thelonious Monk. There are some fun activities to go with jazz listening here by Des Moines Performing Arts.
I like to start with a visual of the most common instruments played in jazz music. There are some great coloring sheets out there that identify instruments. We keep one handy and try to identify the instruments we hear in each piece. I love to show kids the fusion of classical and jazz in George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. You can even watch the animated Fantasia 2000 section featuring this famous piece. They can also view the dance scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas after listening to Linus and Lucy by the Vince Guiraldi Trio. If this piece isn’t familiar to you, you may have been raised by wolves. Bet you didn’t even realize it was some great jazz.
To discover what makes jazz different, other than instrumentation, first discuss dynamics. Drums are sometimes played with brushes and mutes are often used with trumpets and trombones. A video of Wynton Marsalis playing The Way I Ride will help them understand how musicians make different sounds with brass instruments. These sounds were developed by and fairly unique to jazz.
Next discuss syncopated rhythm. Listen to something familiar like the beginning of Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven or Prelude in C Major by J. S. Bach. Clap along to demonstrate that the accent is on beats 1 and 3. Then listen to Good Time Blues by Count Basie and clap along, pointing out the accent is on the 2 and 4 or sometimes completely off (between) the beats. Now is the time to listen to Salt Peanuts or some Charlie Parker bebop.
Finally, if you can, play any major scale on the piano. This is the scale your ear is most familiar with in western music. Now play a blues scale like this: C, Eb, F, F#, G, B. Sounds jazzy, right? Listen to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis or Take the A Train by Duke Ellington. See if the kids can identify those outlying, but oh so satisfying blue notes. In the Mood by Glenn Miller is a good introduction to the swing era of jazz. You simply must dance to swing music!
Be sure to listen to some great modern jazz. Listen for the rock and roll fused into it. I recommend Hurricane Season by Trombone Shorty.
Jazz vocals are often very unique. Scat belongs entirely to jazz. The queen of scat is Ella Fitzgerald. Watch a her perform a scat solo on YouTube. She was amazing! Listen to Billie Holliday and debate who is your favorite jazz lady. Take some time to listen to John Coltrane who did lots of jazz improvisation. Point out each instrument as they get a minute in the spotlight, taking turns showing off with inspiring solos.
If clear favorites emerge, search out more music by that artist and in that style. As Sebastian says of jazz in La La Land, “It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s just…it’s new every time.”
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