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Observing Trends in Opportunities for Youth Involvement in Jazz

By Eugene Uman on April 09, 2018 hst Print

Frida plays the trombone in her school’s jazz workshop, an extracurricular ensemble that meets on Thursdays for two hours and enjoys the camaraderie that comes with playing an instrument in a group setting.

“Jazz improvisation has helped me practice going outside my comfort zone and being more confident,” she said. “I like how each song is a collaboration. There are times when the trombones play as a section and times when each person gets to try out their own thing. The rest of us are listening and learning and mentally cheering them on. It’s really nice because we all share the song and the experience of practicing it together – we become a sort of team.”

Currently a jazz-loving high school sophomore, Frida potentially has more opportunities as a high school-aged, proactive jazz musician.

In a 2013 article in High School Today, Steffen Parker voiced his concern that the demise of the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) in 2008 might limit opportunities for middle school and high school students. Statistics are available that support the presence of music in the schools, as well as the federal government and the private sector’s commitments to the arts – not to mention observations from teachers in the trenches.

Certainly, there is support in our country for having music in our schools, with the belief it has the power to enhance well-being. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, 95 percent of Americans believe that music is a key component in a child’s well-rounded education; three-fourths of those surveyed believe that schools should mandate music education.

Information on the Childrens’ Music Workshop website shows that students’ involvement in music significantly enhances their attendance and graduation rates while also reducing aggressive tendencies and levels of substance abuse. The College Board tells us that SAT scores of music performance students were 53/39 points higher than their non-musician counterparts.

Federal funds in support of jazz studies (and the arts in general) are trending downward. According to a report by CNN Politics last year, the current proposed budget seeks to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts and to reduce federal educational funding by 13.5 percent. In addition, according to the National Association of Music Merchants, budget cuts will also eliminate the $40 million Arts in Education (AIE) program.

An article published by Education Funding Partners last year noted the following: “When budget cuts hit, as they have in over 80 percent of U.S. school districts since 2008, arts programs are often the first to go simply because their impact is not measured by standardized tests.”

Not all news regarding trends in access to jazz education is discouraging. The private sector has demonstrated its support by funding foundations and contributing to the missions of arts-focused nonprofits. Some of the more visible organizations include Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian and the National Association for Music Education.

The existence of hundreds of smaller non-profit jazz schools, jazz societies and performance spaces – most of which have youth programs as a key part of their mission – is also highly encouraging. Summer jazz workshops have proven an invaluable resource for young people to fine-tune their musical skills, encounter like-minded friends and dig deeper into their studies. Downbeat magazine lists 72 workshops, but there are numerous local programs as well.

When the IAJE went bankrupt, the Jazz Education Network (JEN) was founded in its place. From the start, JEN emerged as a model for success. Its annual conference welcomes approximately 3,500 attendees each year while concurrently hosting the JENerations Jazz Festival.

JENerations is a non-competitive festival that provides three days of student ensemble performances and clinics earmarked specifically for youth; its seriousness is further enhanced by JEN’s Young Composers Workshop and Mentorship Program and has been supported by $56,000 in scholarships.

“I can tell you that with the implementation of the JENerations Jazz Festival during the JEN Conference, the number of middle school, high school and college students has increased tremendously,” said Sharon Burch, managing director of JEN. “Our mission is to keep that trend moving forward.”

Dr. Lou Fischer, co-founder and past president of JEN and professor of music at Capitol University, when asked about the trend in youth involvement in jazz, said “Youth attendance is not diminishing in any way, shape or form. In fact, it is increasing here at the JEN conference and all the festivals that I attend as a clinician, director and performer.”

Fischer mentioned multi-day festivals that support adjudication and clinics for middle school and high school bands including Elmhurst Intercollegiate Jazz Festival, Greely Jazz Festival at UNC, the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Next Generations Festival and the Reno Jazz Festival.

Bruce Diehl, senior performance lecturer at Amherst College, when asked for his thoughts on how jazz has changed for young people, noted that access to smartphone technology has changed the way that students listen to and analyze music.

“The iPhone has apps designed to assist musical development including immediate access to a tuner, a metronome, even a slowdown app for transcriptions,” Diehl said. “Students now acquire most of their music through YouTube.”

Gone are the days of reading liner notes and learning who the sidemen are on each album. High school band leader and jazz improvisation instructor Bruce Sklar observed that, in his 20-plus years of teaching at Harwood High School in Vermont, the number of after-school activities available in general have been expanding.

Sklar said that within the last 10 years, his students are feeling more compelled to take on vast loads of non-music projects in order to diversify their resumes and appear competitive for college. Sklar remarked that, during his tenure, the quality time he has been able to share with students has steadily decreased. Because of this, he has been unable to achieve deeper levels of learning, even with his more talented and proactive students simply because of time constraints.

Despite bumps in the road, jazz continues to gain ground with our nation’s youth. It is important that jazz remains a music of the people rather than an elitist skill set. It is crucial that youth like Frida continue to have access to jazz regardless of their financial means. Jazz will continue to evolve thanks to the discipline, creativity and marketing skills of those who pour their souls into teaching it. The future of this music, however, is in the hands of the innovators. The innovators of today are our youth – adding hip-hop beats and meshing the rhythms of their diverse cultures with the sounds of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Herbie Hancock.

Yes, jazz is in good hands and will always remain the original, resounding voice of the American people.