Jazz education returns to Eagle County elementary schools
The Vail Jazz Goes to School program began its 25th year of jazz education for 4th and 5th graders this week
The Vail Jazz Goes to School program returned to in-person learning this week to begin its 25th anniversary of jazz programming for elementary school students. Founded by Program Director Tony Gulizia, known as “Tony G”, and Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone, the program teaches fourth and fifth graders in Eagle County about the sound, history and instruments of jazz music.
“It’s at that time in their life that they should learn more about America’s music – jazz music,” Gulizia said. “That’s going to be what keeps this alive. Jazz is not a number one seller, as you know, but we want to educate these kids so that they can learn to appreciate America’s gift to the music world.”
Over the course of the school year, Gulizia and his fellow instructors will visit 11 elementary schools in the county to deliver four educational jazz sessions, culminating in a live performance at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in May. The program was delivered to students virtually during the pandemic, but the sessions are designed to be an in-person experience, inviting students to absorb the sound and atmosphere of jazz music to inspire a new generation of fans and musicians in the genre.
Return to in-person learning
This week marked the first time that the Vail Jazz instructors were in front of the students since 2019, and they are as happy to be back as the students are to have them.
”I’m just so thrilled to be able to get back into the schools and keep it going,” Gulizia said. “I was saddened to not be in-person during the pandemic, but we’re doing it now. These are kids that have been off for two years, and kids are coming up telling us, ‘oh that was fantastic, I learned so much today’.”
The first session of the year was led by Gulizia and his longtime co-instructors Michael Pujado and Mike Marlier, both percussionists who accompany Gulizia on the piano during the many musical demonstrations of the session, as well as directly teach the children about their instruments and techniques. The program only received the go-ahead to teach in-person a couple of weeks ago, but when Marlier got the call he rearranged his schedule to ensure he could make it out to Eagle County for the first session.
“It was my honor to do it, this is a higher calling,” Marlier said. “I mean, there’s no guarantee that jazz will continue if you don’t talk about it and educate kids. So I couldn’t be more pleased to be part of this.”
An interactive introduction to jazz music
This Thursday, just before lunchtime at St. Clare of Assisi school in Edwards, around 40 students filed into the bleachers of the gym to begin their very first jazz lesson of the year. Gulizia and his team had set up a piano and a variety of percussion instruments in front of them, and opened the session by playing an upbeat tune that had the kids dancing in their seats right from the start.
The lesson then covered a number of distinguishing elements that set jazz music apart from other genres, such as syncopation and polyrhythms. While these are terms that many adults don’t understand, the Vail Jazz instructors explain them in accessible ways through demonstrations and interactive activities for the students.
When describing syncopation, or the off-beat notes that disrupt a consistent rhythmic pattern and are one of the most recognizable attributes of a jazz performance, Gulizia took to the piano to play a distinctly jazzy version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. By playing a clean and on-beat version first, followed by a syncopated jazz rendition of the song everyone knows so well, the students could instinctually grasp a musical concept that can be difficult to explain in technical terms.
To teach the students about polyrhythms, or the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms, Marlier combined three different rhythms on his drum set to create a whole new sound. Then he asked the students to try rubbing their stomachs and patting their heads at the same time.
“That’s about what it feels like to make a polyrhythm,” Marlier told them.
Advancing the challenge, he then asked them to try rubbing their heads and patting their stomachs at the same time. The kids were attempting the challenge with everything they had, giggling at the difficulty, and starting to understand the mental acuity that creating jazz music requires.
While general education and exposure to jazz music is the main goal of the program, the instructors do hold out hopes that a few of the students sitting in the class will be inspired to pick up an instrument and make their own contributions to the jazz world. Marlier said that the fun and interactive design of the courses is necessary for peaking the students’ interest.
“It’s got to be fun, because if it’s not fun they’re going to go play soccer,” Marlier said. “Maybe only a couple will start to play from this, but the ones who end up doing it will remember this like it was yesterday. There are always one or two that are just sitting there transfixed, and you see that little light going on, and you know that kid will probably be joining the band.”
Marlier’s desire to teach stems from his own childhood experience, when iconic jazz drummer Joe Morello came to his elementary school and played for his class when he was only six or seven years old.
“That afternoon, I said that’s what I’m going to do,” Marlier said. “He gave me some drumsticks, they’re still at my home, and that settled that. It shaped the course of my life.”
Remembering the roots
In addition to teaching about the music, Gulizia also places a strong emphasis on the historical and geographical foundations of jazz. During the first session, he talked about how the fundamental elements of jazz music originated in West Africa, and arrived in the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, on slave ships.
“When you think of jazz as America’s gift to the music world, it didn’t really start there, so I like to trace it back and say how it happened,” Gulizia said. “I don’t do it at a high school level, we keep it at a level that they can relate to what was going on.”
By tracing slave routes through South America and the Caribbean, Gulizia explained how different styles of jazz came into existence, and how music genres from other parts of the world have become incorporated into the broader genre of jazz. The program does not shy away from the reality of its origins, and instead uses them to increase the richness and historical significance of America’s greatest gift to the music world.
Gulizia will return to the schools in January for the second session of the program, accompanied by a new arrangement of instruments and instructors, to continue his mission of sharing a love of jazz music with the next generation. Now 25 years into Jazz Goes to School programming, educating has become one of the most significant contributions of Gulizia’s life, and he is able to reflect on the successes of the program while continuing to provide impactful lessons for years to come.
“I can tell you, though I won’t name names, a dozen students from Eagle County that are now making their livelihood in New York City – on Broadway, at Columbia University, studying jazz music as Julliard – taking it to the next level,” Gulizia said. “And that makes this old man feel good.”
Vail Jazz is a nonprofit organization that relies on the support of the community to bring music education to schools. Those interested in supporting the Vail Jazz Goes to School program can donate at vailjazz.org/donate.