Beginners play the blues
I t's a long way from Basin Street, New Orleans to Turnfurlong Lane, Buckinghamshire but music has the power to annihilate distances and build lasting bridges out of ephemeral sound. Turnfurlong Junior School in Aylesbury has a jazz band whose players can make the Home Counties shake and roll like the Deep South. Their record of achievement is an enviable one. Over the years, the band has won many deserved honours in national competition. They have raised thousands of pounds for homeless charities and performed at dozens of venues, from local fetes to the Royal Albert Hall (most recently last month for the Junior Proms) and the Millennium Dome.
The band started 12 years ago and three adults have been vital components in its success, although they all pay tribute to one another's contributions, as well as to those of other colleagues and parents.
David Dodds, the school's headteacher, is a music lover. Although he is not a performer, his inspiration and dynamism have made the school - from which he retires this summer - a home for many ensembles, including an orchestra and a choir. Sue Hird first came to Turnfurlong as a parent, helping with lunchtime music sessions. Formerly a secondary school biology teacher, she now teaches music there three days a week, as well as many hours of voluntary time. Nick Care is assistant director of the Aylesbury Music Centre and an inspirational band director.
The band has 21 members, with a good representation of saxophones, trumpets and trombones, and a fine rhythm section. Pupils rehearse on Thursday lunch-times; this week they are building on one of Nick's own compositions, Jazz Burger, which they play with flair, accuracy and animation. The piece was originally devised for a beginners' two-player ensemble, but it sounds wonderful with fuller forces. Soloists improvise, earning whoops and applause. Rimini Dick-Carr experiments with a quieter sound on her drum kit so as not to drown the saxophones. Florence Moore picks out a mean line on bass guitar. Normally a keyboard and accordion player, she's learned bass especially to support the band.
Playing as good as this doesn't arrive from nowhere. There is a well-established pattern of instrumental teaching in the school, with several peripatetic teachers visiting regularly. A small termly fee is charged for lessons, but no child who wants to play is turned away for financial reasons. The band can earn good fees from public gigs and these are used to pay for transport and other expenses. Sue often takes beginner players through their paces and the incentive of being in the band is usually enough to ensure that practice is voluntary. Some families have supplied players over two school generations.
The value to the school of a high-quality jazz band is incalculable. David speaks of the reward of seeing children's faces when they realise that they have inspired audiences' pleasure and applause. The experience of taking part in a true ensemble, where every member relies on the others, teaches lessons that extend well beyond the music room.
Sue refers to the part played by improvisation in every jazz lesson: "The children can devise rhythms well beyond their reading skills." Memory, assurance, inventiveness and creative satisfaction can all grow from a successful riff.
Nick Care calls out to the band: "Don't have a frayed edge here, ladies and gentlemen, make the sound last to the end."
His respect for the children is palpable, as is his respect for the music they make. He listens attentively for the moment that shows that the band has got it right and then gets them to hear what they have done, reflecting their achievement in eloquent and keenly analytical language. By treating them as professionals capable of self-criticism, he ensures that the band sounds slightly different each time, with the fresh gloss and cool shade on the notes that the best jazz needs.
Trumpeter Joshua Kilburn muses on the elegant grace notes he flicked into his improvised solo: "I just feel happy when I know I've done it well."
Fellow trumpeter Hope Batchelor adds: "I enjoy the harder pieces. Sometimes you feel you can do anything with them." Her tone of confident pleasure, free from any taint of complacency, should be the one every child has the chance to sound.
Without a saxophone in sight, you can make rudimentary jazz part of your pupils' musical experience. The basic features of jazz have assumed many different forms during its rich 100-year history. These ideas use traditional approaches to start work in the classroom.
Rhythm is an essential quality of jazz. The pulse - the music's heartbeat - underlies what we hear, and syncopated patterns are built above it, making use of deviations from the regular pulse by playing on the off-beat. Make a 4 x 4 grid and put blobs in some but not all of the cells. Set up a quiet regular pulse on a drum that plays the entire 16-beat cycle, and use other instruments, such as wood-blocks and scrapers, to play the blobs. If some blobs are in the "weaker" second and fourth columns, you will produce syncopated rhythm patterns. Then speed them up or let them linger lazily - trust your ears.
Early jazz avoided the semitones in music of European origin by slightly flattening the third and seventh notes of the scale - E and B on a keyboard. You can't imitate this directly on a keyboard, but you can approximate it by playing E and E-flat, or B and B-flat at the same time.
You can explore the "note between the notes" on other instruments where you aren't limited to set keys. Slide your finger along a guitar or violin string as it plays to make the note sound "blue" and, of course, use voices as jazz singers do to create this "major-minor" mixed sound.
Improvising on simple tunes
Jazz involves improvisation (composing a new version of a tune while playing it). Learn a simple tune such as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" on an instrument, then use some of the devices mentioned above to vary it. As you play it in a repeated cycle:
* alter the rhythm to syncopate some of the notes or repeat some of them in a faster syncopated pattern
* make a little excursion from one note to the next via a blue note, fitted in between lask some children to sing variants of this kind while others play, or blow a set of kazoos or paper-and-combs to sound like a trumpet or saxophone section.
The blues sequence of chords that underlies much traditional jazz is often found in rock 'n' roll also. On a keyboard or xylophone, play C, repeated in four sets of four, then two sets of F, followed by two more sets of C.
Then play a set of Gs, a single set of Fs, another set of Cs and - to continue the cycle - a set of Gs. Now you can vary the rhythm to include some syncopation (see above) and add more notes. To the Cs, add some Es and Gs to make a chord. To the Fs, add some As and Cs. To the Gs, add some Bs and Ds, with the odd F. Then experiment with a similar pattern based on G and D.