“Jazz does not belong to one race or culture, but is a gift that America has given the world.”- Ahmad Alaadeen

Jazz music is such an important genre and art form in today’s society. It is very important that our students are exposed to and given the opportunity to both play and listen to jazz music. It is our job as music educators to bring jazz to our students. While at PMEA 2011 one of my favorite sessions that I attended was entitled Basic Jazz Tips for Music Educators. This was an extremely beneficial workshop where the presenters gave basic tips for successfully teaching and exposing our students to jazz music. Many music teachers are thrown to the wolves when it comes to teaching jazz because they aren’t exposed to it during their undergraduate careers or do not immerse themselves in the jazz literature. It is our responsibility as music teachers to become familiar and comfortable with teaching jazz music. Below are some basic tips on teaching jazz that all music educators should know before teaching jazz.

Where to Begin: 

One of the hardest parts of teaching jazz, according to the presenters at the workshop, is knowing where and how to begin. Below are some suggestions for beginning to teach students jazz. 

  • We must start by teaching and providing the students with the necessary jazz vocabulary first in order for them to succeed. This can happen in either the general music class or ensemble setting.
  • After teaching the vocabulary we must show students how to apply the vocabulary. They need to know how to apply what they know not just have a head knowledge about jazz.
  • In order to get the students to understand this new language we must we need to immerse them in jazz music. We can do this by having them both play and listen to jazz music.
  • Playing jazz music is all about responding to what the other musicians are doing. We must teach our students to quickly notice and respond to what others around them are doing. This is even more important in jazz than in the traditional ensemble setting.
  • A good technique to introduce students to playing jazz is to have them take an etude they can play and have them play it in a certain jazz style. For example for trumpet players have them play a Clarke study in a certain key and jazz style. This gets them playing in a jazz style, but makes it easier for them because the study is already familiar.

Dealing With the Rhythm Section:

  • The rhythm section is a band within itself so we need to treat it in that way.
  • All music educators should have the opportunity to play in the rhythm section of a jazz band so that we can better teach them. Playing in the rhythm section of a jazz ensemble is completely different from playing in one of the other sections.
  • A universal function of the rhythm section is to play the correct style. The entire rhythm section must be in a tight groove and playing in the same style. It is important for all music educators to be familiar with the different styles so we can help the rhythm section find the correct style for each piece of music.
  • Each player in the rhythm section has a different role so as the educator we need to know those roles so we can help the students fulfill the duties of each role.
  • Each role in the rhythm section changes depending on the style of the piece.


Improvisation is one of the most challenging aspects of change both to do and teach successfully, but is also one of the most important aspects of jazz music. Below are some tips for how to successfully teach jazz improvisation.

  • When teaching students improvisation, especially younger students, we want to make sue that we approach it in a way that we are setting them up for success not failure.
  • Improvisation is NOT making things up as you go along. Instead, it is using existing vocabulary that you already know and applying it very quickly on the spot.
  • If you are teaching someone to improvise who never has before start with simple rhythms and only a few notes of a scale.
  • Get the students to take a melody they love and have them try to play it on their instrument. This gets the students used to using their ear in a fun way. Students have to know how and be able to use their ear to improvise successfully.
  • Do a call and response with your ensemble which will help them to build confidence. Base the call and response from a scale and encourage the students to play something, even if it is only a few notes and then pass it down the ensemble.
  • A good way to teach improvisation is to include it in your ensemble’s warm-up routine. This makes improvisation much less threatening for the students.
  • Teaching jazz and improvisation makes the students more musically aware in all areas. It doesn’t just make them better at jazz.
  • Improvising may be difficult at first, but with practice everyone can improvise to some extent.
  • Worse piece of advice that you can give to a young jazz musician when improvising is, “just stand up and blow.”

Other Tips for Teaching Jazz:

  • Any instrument can play jazz music. You don’t always have to have the traditional jazz ensemble and instrumentation. Make it work for your students and community.
  • There is some published jazz literature for limited instrumentation, but many times you need to arrange your own pieces to best fit your needs and students.
  • There are charts available just in different keys so that any instrument and any instrumentation can play.
  • Many music educators have problems with beginning jazz trumpet students. The number one problem is range and endurance. Always address these issues first and a lot of your problems will probably be solved.

All music educators need to get comfortable with jazz because chances are at some point in our careers we will end up teaching either a jazz history course or jazz ensemble. For me jazz is an area where I have had some experience, but definitely is not an area of expertise for me. I found the above tips to be very informative and I hope you also find some valuable tips for teaching jazz music. Feel free to comment and leave more basic tips that all music educators should know when teaching jazz music.