Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 4, Engaging Students Through Jazz

Table of Contents


Keith Waters, University of Colorado–Boulder

A former colleague once described to me a project he devised for a freshman aural skills class. He provided his students with the published sheet music to the Rodgers and Hart standard “Blue Moon” and the Ella Fitzgerald recording, and asked them to create a vocal transcription that took into account Fitzgerald’s embellishments. They could invent whatever notation suited them to indicate the vocal scoops, slides, delays, anticipations, and other elaborations that they heard. Many of the students did very well on the project, he told me. One, however, seemed to miss the point. Turning the project in on the due date, the student proudly informed my colleague that they had been able to indicate and notate all the “mistakes” performed by the singer.

My intent is not to ridicule one student’s naiveté, but to underscore a point: that introducing jazz in a theory curriculum devoted to common-practice era (CPE) music often requires some degree of translation. Even with significant similarities between theories of CPE music and jazz, there also remain significant differences—differences in cultures, assumptions, ideologies, pedagogies, and expectations.

Some authors underscore such differences through binary distinctions: written vs. oral, Eurological vs. Afrological, and an analytical focus on product vs. process. But dichotomies such as written vs. oral, if heuristically useful, also seem unnecessarily rigid. Performances of CPE music usually require temporal (and other) interventions not clearly identified on a written score: student pianists working on Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata may not change its pitch content, but they learn strategies for manipulating time, articulation, and dynamics, often gained through oral traditions of teacher-student interactions and listening/modeling. On the other hand, jazz traditions (including its theory pedagogies) frequently rely on written codes of transmission for learning new music, for efficiently coordinating ensemble performances, and for codifying and disseminating information.

Perhaps a more nuanced understanding resides in distinctions between scripts and plans. For the freshman student discovering Ella Fitzgerald’s “mistakes,” the notated pitches and rhythms of the score provided a predetermined script, not a flexible plan. Understanding that difference—the translation—did not occur to the student before the transcription project was completed.

In this issue of Engaging Students, ten committed and experienced pedagogues negotiate and facilitate the translations required for introducing jazz into CPE theory curricula. And they engage the many cognate similarities that would motivate a teacher to introduce it in the first place. The essays here discuss phrase, rhythm, meter, hypermeter, form, voice-leading, linear pathways, harmony and harmonic function, schemata, mode, dictation and transcription, harmonic nomenclature, figured bass, text/music relationships, and contrapuntal organization derived from bass/melody relations.

Although many theory teachers are envisioning innovative directions for twenty-first-century theory pedagogies, it’s true that those not conversant with jazz often are understandably reluctant to use it in their classroom. The essays in this issue outline specific pedagogical strategies that rely on interactive and engaged learning that teachers can easily adopt. The essays introduce multivalent approaches—some apply the same techniques to CPE music and to jazz, some use jazz pieces to supplement and reinforce ideas central to CPE theory pedagogy, and some apply jazz nomenclature to CPE music. While certain essays may be more suited to aural skills courses, and others to more traditional harmony/voice-leading courses, many are equally suited to both.

The essays ponder CPE/jazz translations in resonant ways. Three of them stress the links between rhythm, meter, and form. Margaret Thomas’s essay, “On Using Jazz to Strengthen the Teaching of Rhythm and Meter in the Music Theory Classroom,” provides methods for students to enact meter—initially without a score—in order to create deeper understandings of metric displacement, hemiola, meter, hypermeter, and form, and it offers suggestions for addressing temporal discrepancies between notated and recorded versions of jazz compositions. Richard Pellegrin’s “Stable Norms and Salient Deviations: Multilayered Listening in Jazz and Common Practice Music” includes a wealth of examples and in-class activities, drawing upon both jazz and CPE music in order to hear syncopation, meter, hypermeter, and form. He indicates four categories, each further slotted into easy, intermediate, or difficult: 1) jazz excerpts with four-bar improvisational trading (trading fours); 2) complete jazz performances; 3) excerpts and complete CPE compositions using syncopation and consistent hypermeter; 4) openings of CPE compositions with inconsistent hypermeter. Rory Stuart’s contribution, “Multi-Part Group Exercises,” describes a method for creating rhythmic exercises, demonstrated with four contrapuntal rhythmic ostinato exercises in four and five parts. Stuart offers numerous suggestions for developing additional exercises that take into account varying degrees of classroom ability.

Two essays explore canonic jazz works and schemata. Garrett Michaelsen’s “Rhythm Changes, Improvisation, and Chromaticism: Who Could Ask for Anything More?” addresses George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” one of the most pervasive and central designs of the jazz tradition. It affords an opportunity to examine voice-leading, secondary dominant chains, reharmonization, and harmonic substitution, and it gives specific methods for students to learn to improvise on the composition. Shersten Johnson’s “Coalescing Learning Around a Coltrane Classic” shows how guided listening of John Coltrane’s 1963 performance of “Afro-Blue” may introduce or reinforce notions of simple meter, compound meter, cross-rhythms, triads, seventh chords, and modes. The essay also proposes methods for melodic and rhythmic transcription.

Transcription (and its analysis) as a prompt for composition and improvisation runs through another pair of essays. Ben Britton’s “Transcription-Application Pedagogy: Learning Theory Through Performance” uses the 12-bar blues schema (from the jazz tradition) and the cadential 6/4 schema (from the CPE tradition) as springboards for composition and improvisation, further underwritten through techniques of segmentation, memorization, and transposition. Timothy Chenette focuses on the transcription and consideration of motives, providing specific methods for improvisation and interaction in (and out of) the classroom in “Bringing Jazz Repertoire, Improvisation, and Active Thinking into the Study of Motives.”

Finally, three essays focus on harmony and harmonic nomenclature. Joon Park’s “Figured Bass as ‘Hollowed Out’ Lead Sheet Chord Symbols” advocates the introduction of figured bass notation prior to chord root and chord quality. After showing how figured bass may eliminate some of the labeling problems created by ambiguous harmonies in jazz compositions, the essay then suggests methods for improvising over baroque-era figured basses. In “Fin de Siècle Harmony – A Jazz Perspective” Dariusz Terefenko reveals how the harmonic nomenclature of jazz helps regard extended tertian structures in the music of Brahms, Strauss, Ravel, and Messiaen. And Chris Stover’s “Strange Changes” indicates techniques for reharmonizing jazz standards of the American Popular Songbook. The methodology italicizes structural harmonic pillars and recipes for syntactic harmonic alterations, allowing flexible reworkings of jazz standards as a means to understand harmonic direction, function, and color.

For those teaching music theory in colleges and universities, what will or should a twenty-first-century music theory pedagogy look like? What further translations should we be making? These are crucial questions many are asking. They are also broad questions, since they likely involve rethinking aims and outcomes, repertories and canons, techniques and nomenclatures. The essays contained within this volume of Engaging Students provide a potent addition to this larger conversation.