Some questions in jazz music, such as why Charles Mingus named a song “All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother,” may never be answered.
Officials with eclectic local radio station WTJU are hoping that a module-based jazz curriculum they are developing will answer many of the others.
The University of Virginia-owned station has nestled into the jazzy 91.1 niche of the local FM airwaves for decades. From 2017 to 2019, Rus Perry, a jazz expert at the station, developed, produced and aired 100 hour-long episodes of jazz history, called Jazz at 100, in celebration of the art form’s century of sound.
Thanks to a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the education factor behind the Jazz at 100 series soon will be available in high school and college curricula.
“I’ve often thought that Rus’ show was highly educational in a very big way, and we’re doing more educational programming in general at the station, so this would fit right in,” said Nathan Moore, WTJU’s general manager.
From early Dixieland jazz to the diaspora of Southern black jazz musicians in the face of Jim Crow laws, the Jazz at 100 series moved from Kid Ory and Jelly Roll Morton to Thelonious Monk and Max Roach, with stops at Mingus, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins along the way.
That, Moore said, is how they want the course to travel.
“Very, very rarely and almost never does an artist do something that has never been done before. Artists expand on what others did before them. There are great leaps forward but it is an evolutionary process and it’s impacted by what is happening in society,” Moore said.
“The gist on this is that it’s a jazz history course and there’s a lot about musicality and how players created something new in the music. But it’s also about how this music interfaces with society at large and how the story of jazz is a part of the story of America,” he said.
Moore said the NEA funds will go toward developing the programming, platform and modules for the curriculum, as well as to reaching out to educators to let them know it’s available. The station will work with the UVa Center for Excellence in Teaching to develop the course.
“We didn’t want to do anything that had already been done,” Moore said. “There are jazz courses online, but I looked around and couldn’t find anything comparable that was also modular and could be used in a high school or first-year college course, either in part or as a full course.”
Currently, Moore and others at the station are defining what they want the course to impart and students to achieve.
“We just received the grant last month so we’re at the early stage where we’re figuring out the goals for the class,” he said. “We’re looking at exactly what we want a student of this content to take away from it and the mission of the whole thing. We’re putting pen to paper about exactly what that is.”
The intended audience is students ages 16 to 19, but Moore said they hope to make the course relevant to anyone interested in the music or the history.
“The idea is that history teachers, music teachers, teachers in social science all can find something, even if it’s not the whole curriculum,” Moore said. “When you look at the state’s [Standards of Learning], there are episodes and learning modules in the course that could be great to help with a time frame or moment in history.”
For the radio station, getting into the education game is a natural part of the broadcast mission, Moore said.
“Jazz, and music and arts in general, are such a core part of the human experience. A lot of radio stations out there say, ‘we play great music and we entertain people and we sell ads,’ or whatever, and that’s great. Entertain people and have fun, too,” he said.
“But WTJU’s mission is to bring people together through music and conversation and connect people with the community and make them feel at home. Those core human needs, to be heard and understand and feel a sense of belonging and experience beauty, are things that radio can do very well and WTJU can do especially well,” Moore said. “This course will be an extension of that. Sure, it’s not on air, but it’s another way we bring our mission to people through music.”