Art Works Blog

From the Archives: Jazz in the Schools in NEA Arts

In 2008 we dedicated our first NEA Arts issue of the year to celebrating the new class of NEA Jazz Masters. In that issue, we also spotlighted our Jazz in the Schools (JITS) curriculum, which had just celebrated its third birthday.

Bringing Jazz to a New Generation: NEA Jazz in the Schools Reaches Millions of New Students

Eli Yamin presenting the NEA Jazz in the Schools toolkit at a workshop during the International Associaton of Jazz Educators conference in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Tom Pich

Eli Yamin is a professional advocate for jazz education. Under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), Yamin trains teachers to use the NEA Jazz in the Schools toolkit and website, a curriculum jointly developed by Jazz at Lincoln Center and the National Endowment for the Arts, with support from the Verizon Foundation. Since its release in November of 2005, more than 11,000 educators have requested copies of the curriculum, potentially bringing the music of jazz to some 5.6 million students. With a newly revised version of the curriculum toolkit now available, and an effort from Jazz at Lincoln Center to interest more teachers in using the materials, the NEA hopes to get more jazz into more schools.

About 60 teachers attended Yamin's workshop at the annual International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference in Toronto in January. With enthusiasm, he demonstrated how the curriculum---which includes nearly 100 music samples, lesson plans, an interactive timeline, and a DVD---can complement subjects from band lab to history.

"It's flexible, and that's one of the things that I love about the NEA curriculum," Yamin said. "Other curricula are more prescriptive. They are dry, and they don't feel like jazz."

The NEA Jazz in the Schools toolkit contains a five-lesson plan that juxtaposes the history of jazz with the timeline of American history. Teachers often use it to spotlight particular cultural connections, like the role of ragtime in the Jazz Age or The Great Migration, when African Americans moved north, taking jazz and blues with them. Erika Floreska, director of education for Jazz at Lincoln Center, said the organization partnered with the NEA on NEA Jazz in the Schools in order to reach more students, kids who do not play instruments or have general music education. "Our real dream and hope is that our band directors will walk down the hall and give the curriculum to a social studies teacher," Floreska said.

In 2007, Floreska hired Yamin to train teachers in the creative use of the curriculum. Advocating jazz education was a natural extension of the work Yamin was already doing for JALC. A jazz pianist and educator, he leads Jazz at Lincoln Center's Middle School Jazz Academy and has toured abroad with The Rhythm Road, a partnership between the U.S. State Department and JALC. He made his first NEA Jazz in the Schools presentation last summer at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Band Director Academy---he had teachers "oohing" and "ahhing" over the flashy timelines and historical recordings. This spring, he intends to use the curriculum when he and his jazz trio present assemblies at ten New York City high schools through JALC's own Jazz in the Schools tours.

"Eli has an amazing talent for translating his passion for the music to his audience," Floreska said. "He also has the teaching skills that equal his musicianship skills, and that's a rare find."

Yamin also can have confidence in the curriculum that he's promoting. After formalizing a partnership with the NEA, JALC assembled a team of preeminent jazz and arts education experts to prepare the materials. Music historian Dan Morgenstern, a 2007 NEA Jazz Master, selected the music for the accompanying two-CD set and online playlist, while the team of essay writers included jazz journalist and social commentator Stanley Crouch and historian and screenwriter Geoffrey C.Ward (of Ken Burns' Jazz). The task of compiling lesson plans fell to Rob Horowitz, a nationally recognized arts education consultant and jazz guitarist.

As associate director of Columbia University's Center for Arts Education Research at Teachers College, Horowitz was cognizant not only of what would make engaging lessons for high school students but what would make the curriculum appealing to school administrators. "For better or worse, we are in a time of accountability and standards," Horowitz said.

He created exercises, essay questions, and assessments that allow teachers to prove students meet learning objectives while studying jazz. But he emphasizes that the curriculum is only as good as the teachers who sit down and discover how they can best use it in their classrooms.

"This isn't a movie that someone just puts on and the kids sit there and watch," Horowitz said. "It's not a show; it's interactive."

A survey of teachers using the curriculum shows that many educators are successfully integrating NEA Jazz in the Schools into their music, history, and even literature lessons. Of the 503 people who responded, 92 percent said they were able to use the curriculum, and 98 percent of them planned to use it again. Teachers were particularly impressed with the photos and music clips available in the toolkit and on the website. Several teachers noted that the curriculum augments other resources like Ken Burns's Jazz documentary.

Perhaps most telling was this statistic: less than half the teachers who responded had jazz bands at their schools. In fact, the majority of the teachers who used the toolkits taught English/language arts, followed by art and history/social studies teachers. That means the NEA Jazz in the Schools is fulfilling its goal to spread the story of jazz where students might not otherwise have a chance to hear it.

That's not a problem at Highland Park High School in suburban Chicago, where incoming IAJE president Mary Jo Papich teaches jazz lab and chairs the fine and applied arts program. Each semester, her colleagues invite her to teach a jazz unit in the U.S. history classrooms.

"They know I'm a jazzer and that I'm passionate about the music," Papich said. "Using the NEA Jazz in the Schools Web site and talking about jazz makes history more fun, and more memorable."

Jazz in the Schools is still going strong, and you can visit the website here. And don't forget to join us on Tuesday, January 9 as we celebrate the 2012 class of NEA Jazz Masters and 30 years of the NEA Jazz Masters Lifetime Honors! Find details at


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