All That Jazz
Gordon Vernick, associate professor of music and coordinator of jazz studies, literally wrote the book on the history of jazz. Along with Georgia State jazz piano instructor Geoffrey Haydon, he is co-author of Jazz History Overview (Kendall/Hunt, 2002), a teaching text used at Georgia State and other universities around the country. But Vernick also is focused on the future of the genre, leading a jazz education program offered to Atlanta elementary and middle school students known as Rialto Jazz for Kids.
Georgia State Magazine recently talked with Vernick about why the future of jazz is important and precarious.
Q: One of the things you stress in your teaching is outreach to younger audiences. How do you get kids to "get" jazz?
A: We talk about jazz in terms that kids can understand. A solo or song is like a story: I'm the trumpet player, so I'm the storyteller.The pianist tells us the mood of the story: Is it a happy story or a sad story? The bassist tells us where the story takes place: Is it in a house? Is it outside? The drummer tells us how fast the story takes place. And then, when we get to take solos, we get to change the story, or come up with a different story.
Of course, you have to perform at a high level and you have to play music that is accessible to the kids, so we'll do it with a song like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
Q: Is it fair to say that today's kids haven't been exposed to jazz as much as previous generations?
Q: Is that an obstacle?
A: Well, it can be. Kids today, they don't know who Miles Davis is. Each successive generation, the further you get from the 1940s and 1950s which, to me, was the golden age of jazz the more they've lost touch with it. So were helping them rediscover it.
Q: Why is spreading the gospel of jazz to kids so important?
A: Jazz was the first really popular American music to be exported to the rest of the world and embraced. So it really is the centerpiece of American music. Music also tells us who we are as a people, and jazz borrows so easily from different cultures. It's representative of American society. As Americans, we are Spanish, black, Asian we're this and that, and that's what jazz music is.
Q: Do you consider jazz to be in danger as an art form?
A: Instead of people playing jazz in nightclubs, we've institutionalized it. So now people who are really interested can play jazz and learn about it in the universities or high schools. But I'm afraid we might "museum-ify" it that's a word I made up and I don't want us to museum-ify it because then you've turned it into something that's not living anymore. Music has to live, and I hope we can keep jazz alive.