Exactly one year ago I was in Mexico in front of a classroom of twenty-five-plus 9th graders, talking about the importance of celebrating the International Jazz Day and how the history of Jazz was directly related to our next topic, the Civil Rights Movement.
My kids were everything but excited about the idea of spending the next month working on a huge project focused on what they identified as “slow instrumental music that can be heard in supermarkets and elevators”, but considering that perception and stereotypes played a major role in our project, I felt we were on the right track, so I started asking:
What’s the big deal about Jazz? Why does Jazz deserve an official celebration?
Why is UNESCO involved? Does Jazz matter? What is Jazz in the first place?
Why are we talking about music in our World History class?
Answering these question meant finding an effective way of teaching Jazz to young non musicians, with very little familiarity with this music, and somehow to spark their interest on this obscure topic. What excited me the most was the very jazzy nature of the project itself:I was experimenting and improvising on the World History curriculum. I was taking risks, breaking the rules, bringing my personal experience into it. Just like taking a solo over some hard chord changes, I could have crashed miserably or made a triumphant statement that moved the crowd.
It was undeniably challenging but, at the same time, high school students proved to be a perfect audience and there are many reasons behind it.
Jazz is about freedom, self expression, developing an identity, finding your own personal voice. Basically it’s what being an adolescent is all about. Some of them know what it feels like when this process of self development takes place in a hostile environment.
Teenagers understand emotional struggle and are very sensitive to injustice. They are extremely empathetic and have a strong sense of community, resorting to peers groups to protect and support each other.
We talked about the implications of being a Jazz musician during segregation, how Jazz embodied the ethics of the Civil Rights Movement and how the movement itself embraced the Jazz concept of Improvising on the Changes, reacting to social changes in a creative way in order to achieve their goals.
By looking at improvisation through the the lens of humanity we discovered how Jazz musicians used their creative force to turn oppression into beauty.
Living in Mexico in the Trump era, we had an immediate understanding of what it means to be defined by stereotypes, labeled and misjudged by other communities and soon we started acknowledging the issues that contribute to create obstacles and to divide our own community, like colorism and the unequal distribution of wealth.
Once these emotions were triggered, the connection between feelings and artistic expression came quite naturally, especially for adolescents. They realized they already knew a lot on the matter, that in a city of millions opportunities are not the same for everybody and the destiny of too many kids is shaped by their postcode. They knew gun violence, they experienced loss. They renewed their interest in music as a vehicle to channel emotional distress and activism.
We also discovered that Jazz was dealing with police brutality way before Hip-Hop, Jazz heroes have much in common with their favorite rappers (and almost nothing to do with elevator music) and trap is based on the same poly-rhythms played in Congo Square.
New icons of women’s empowerment emerged, Billie Holiday before Beyonce, Elizabeth Eckford before Malala, reinforcing the message of contemporary role models like Esperanza Spalding and Yara Shaidi, inspiring young girls to follow (literally) their message and initiatives.
The International Jazz Day celebration turned out to be an excellent opportunity to broaden my students’ perspective on music, integration gender equality and social justice.
Improvising on the Changes has been created with the spirit of sharing this discovery journey, bringing our experience to other classrooms around the world, to raise awareness and spread the values that Jazz, Hip Hop and every other form of social music represent.