Good for: 10-18 year olds.
Estimated Time: Give yourself some time! You'll probably want to take time to practice.
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Join Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz, in this podcast as he explains the basics of jazz music and how the art form works. Along with his band—Kimberly Thompson on drums; Casey Benjamin on saxophone, keytar, and vocoder; and Vicente Archer on bass—Jason will show you how jazz is more like skateboarding and football than you would think, play some original pieces, and play a few of the classic jazz standards.
In The Studio
Jason introduces himself and shares his thoughts on innovation and creativity through the lens of skateboarding and jazz.
“Ringing My Phone”
Words and Music
Jason talks about the musicality of language, and then plays his original composition, “Ringing My Phone.”
Speaking with Melody
While listening to a recording of a financial report, Jason creates a new composition using the sound of the reporter’s voice as his inspiration.
Harold and the Purple Crayon
Using the metaphor of “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” Jason explains what jazz means and how it works.
Running the Play
Jason explains “hits” in jazz—and how players know how to navigate the music. The band then plays “Evidence” by Thelonious Monk to illustrate the point.
Jason and the band improvise and vamp using the classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Fats Waller. Make sure to pay attention to Jason’s new headwear.
Jason explains what jazz “standards” are, and how musicians all over the globe know how to play these pieces.
Jason and the band improvise the standard “Summertime.”
“What Jazz Means to Me”
Jason describes jazz as a “sense of freedom." He, and other jazz artists, use a technique called improvisation (or improv, for short). Improv means creating music or songs spontaneously, and it’s a technique that requires great musical skill and creativity. First listen to how Jason describes improvisation in the videos called “Skateboarding” and “Improvisation.” In the performance videos, listen closely and see if you can hear when Jason or the band improvs around the piece of music.
Where else could you see improvisation happening in art? Movies, TV, pop music, and even visual art use elements of improv to create.
Jazz standards refer to popular musical compositions that are widely known and performed; so much so that they have become a standard part of the jazz music repertoire, also known as the “Great American Songbook.” While there is no official list of jazz standards, most of these classic songs were created between the 1920s and 60s for Broadway musicals and films. Since then, each standard has been performed and recorded countless times by a variety of artists. Jason and the band play classic standards “Summertime” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with a modern twist.
How Did Jazz Start?
Jazz is truly an American musical form—and many people consider it one of America’s best contributions to the world of music. Jazz first emerged about 100 years ago in the American south, most distinctly in New Orleans, Louisiana. This seaport city served as home to people of African, French, English, Caribbean, and other backgrounds. It became a melting pot for music from these many traditions. African American musicians fused elements of ragtime, blues, classical, and big brass band sounds to create this distinct new type of music.
Watch “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Can you identify some of the instruments that saxophonist Casey Benjamin uses? The thing that is strapped around his neck is called a “keytar,” an instrument not even invented in the 1970s. And the reason his voice sounds like a robot is because he is singing through what’s called a “vocoder.” It’s a piece of electronic equipment used to give the human voice synthetic qualities. Musicians like Jason and Casey use modern instruments to create new and different ways of interpreting these classic songs.
- Pay attention to how the musicians interact with one another throughout a song. How do they respond to each other when improvising? When they take turns soloing?
- Try to identify the melody of the piece being played. Listen for how instruments play variations of the melody.
For The Educator
Jazz Through the Decades
After the first jazz recordings were made in 1917, jazz spread across the nation. It evolved over the decades, helped along by influential musicians. Among them, trumpeter Louis Armstrong (1920s) introduced improvised solos; Duke Ellington (1920s) popularized big band jazz; Benny Goodman and Count Basie (1930s and 40s) started people dancing to the upbeat sounds of swing; Charlie Parker (1940s) broke ground with a faster style called bebop; Miles Davis (1950s) influenced jazz first with his softer, complex “cool” style and then later in the 1960s with fusion jazz; and John Coltrane (1960s) helped pioneer jazz using sounds derived from half–steps called modal jazz.
Since then, artists like Jason Moran have continued to explore and expand the musical genre.
Here are some terms your students should know
fusion The blending of jazz with other musical styles
improvisation Making up music in the moment, either by performing completely original music or by modifying or changing music that already exists
soloing When a musician performs alone
syncopation Emphasizing a normally weak note in an unexpected place in a musical rhythm
Jason’s website. Learn more about the Artistic Advisor to Jazz’s background, and listen to more of his work.
A comprehensive list of jazz standards. Find out the history and origination behind these classics.
This site features content about the art form; from history and journalism, to a jazz encyclopedia.