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'Jazz From A-Z' writes soundtrack to history


February 21, 2013

In an effort to bring the pages of the past to life in the classroom, local Valley leaders have created "Jazz From A-Z," a workshop series at the Mesa Arts Center that unites teachers and students from around the Valley to examine the history of America with a jazz soundtrack.

The program is part of a collaboration between Arizona State University, Mesa Public Schools, the Mesa Arts Center (MAC) and Jazz at Lincoln Center to help Arizona teachers find new and innovative ways to enhance their curriculum using music.

Marcie Hutchinson, professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and one of the program’s creators, first realized the power of music as an American history teacher at Red Mountain High School. She brought the idea to Wynton Marsalis, artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center. With Marsalis’ backing, the "Jazz From A-Z" program was launched at the MAC.

“The question we were trying to answer is ‘how do we keep jazz alive?’ I used jazz in my curriculum for years and have personally seen that music enriches a child’s understanding of history. It is a very powerful change agent,” Hutchinson says.

Each year MAC hosts two workshops, an eight-hour course in January and a three-hour class in October. Teachers who specialize in music and history from around the Valley come together to participate. Topic themes vary with each event.  

One of the goals associated with "Jazz From A-Z" is to demonstrate music as a primary source. Hutchinson says that just like a letter or photograph, artists created music to be an agent of change and mobilize people to make a difference or join a movement.

“You can listen to jazz throughout the years and it sounds different because artists were influenced by their times. Music is a cultural mirror and a reflection of us,” Hutchinson says.

So far, the workshops have covered historical themes such as slavery, the 1920s, 1930s, World War II, the 1950s and the civil rights movement. Hutchinson says that students are sometimes surprised at the musical findings. For example, when studying the Great Depression, students were shocked to see that swing music was predominantly popular. Hutchinson says the reason for this is that the upbeat music lifted people’s spirits and kept them going during the harsh times.

To study the music of WWII, Hutchinson turned to artists such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie who used bebop music to sing about fighting racism and segregation. When discussing the 1950s, students looked at music that challenged conformity and communism like that of Charles Mingus.

The most important issue that the "Jazz From A-Z" program has examined is the civil right movement. Hutchinson says the group has tackled everything from non-violence within the movement, to gospel music and freedom songs, and even reactionary music.

On the history side, students learn about Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, the March on Washington and events such as the Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. The pages of history were brought to life with songs like John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”

And while some of the music used may not be specifically jazz, Hutchinson says elements of blues, gospel, spirituals and fusion are all found in the roots of jazz.

“This is just a really cool way to study history," she says. "We want kids to listen to this music and understand where their music of today comes from.” 

The response to the program has been stellar. Each year the workshops grow in size and more teachers seek to participate.

Up next for the program is a monthlong celebration of jazz in April titled JAM at MAC, in which a series of events will showcase music history and the people who made the music popular. The series runs from April 1-30. Those interested may purchase individual event tickets at MesaArtsCenter.com.