This article is copyright 2016 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the Jazz Education Network Newsletter, January 2017. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Jazz Improvisation Grading

by Antonio J. García

          What are the objectives in a Jazz Improvisation course, and how can they be graded? Is it appropriate to evaluate students’ creativity, their expressiveness in soloing? Is that defendable against potential student appeals? Or is it better to restrict the grading to students’ more technical skills, their ability to re-create the required chord/scale relationships? Does that de-emphasize the importance of creativity in the students’ work and in their solos? Do students often focus most on what will get them the best grade? Should the grading process be concrete or abstract? What is the philosophy of an educator who includes grading the creative expressiveness of the student—and of the educator who does not?
            If grading music in general in any creative, credit-bearing course is any challenge at all, how much more daunting is it to grade something as personal, even as amorphous, as jazz improvisation? Yet with credit-bearing curriculum comes the responsibility for assessment and grading. Now that Improv courses for credit are common at universities and colleges—with an increasing number for credit at high schools as well—many educators are required to issue grades for their students regarding this pursuit of improvised art.
            Is it fair to model the improvisatory learning process as being one in which students cannot be expected to be creative or expressive until they have mastered a basic vocabulary? Or, in the same way we nurture infants, can we expect to nurture and therefore assess creative expression even before a basic vocabulary is evident? At the most non-art level, is attendance a factor in the grade? Its use within grading many curricula is widespread, yet in some schools or states it is actually illegal to include that factor in the grade.
            I began exploring Improvisation-grading in 1996 by direct-mailing questionnaires to nearly 200 jazz educators, followed by distributing surveys at the 1997 International Association for Jazz Education Conference. In March 1998 the IAJE Jazz Educators Journal published my article, “Grading Jazz Improvisation: On What Basis?”; and at the IAJE 2000 conference I presented a panel discussion to a room packed with educators—even at 9 a.m. in New Orleans! Clearly this is an area of intense interest.
            It is also not without its own controversy and passion. Said one respondent: “You seem to be asking us to draw a line in the sand between the development of artistic content and the development of the ability to express it. Anyone who would answer such a question in this form shouldn’t teach this music. The whole point of our existence as artists is the communication of ideas so complex and/or refined that they defy simple conversation and must be articulated in some more poignant fashion.”
            And I would agree with that last sentence, if not necessarily with the ones preceding. That said, if we were all to agree that jazz improvisation is too complex to allow for simple delineations, how then do we grade our students’ efforts in a class for academic credit—and be able to defend our grading policies against appeal?
            We—as a jazz-educating collective over recent decades, standing on the shoulders of those before us—campaigned mightly to get jazz education into the schools as an extra-curricular, co-curricular, and finally curricular option for our students. The academic system has already forced us to make a grading decision; so what are we doing with it? My position is simply that since academia demands that we grade the credited courses we teach, Improv instructors must (a) assess where that line in the sand falls between the development of artistic content and the development of the tools and/or ability to express it and (b) decide what portion of which elements we are willing to grade within that course (and find defensible doing so). Furthermore, schools typically require us to then publish that decision in our syllabi (as best we can), despite the fact that our collective goal for our students is indeed a complex, high level of musical communication that defies definition.
            The survey responses I received shed light on a range of challenges. First of all, does an emphasis on grading the more technical side of the students’ work motivate those students to spend more time on that aspect rather than balancing any exploration of creative expression? And what if the class time is actually devoted much more to the creative aspects but the grading is weighted more heavily on the technical? Does this provide the students with an ideally mixed message or a confused one?
            One result was clear. These educators’ thoughts present variety, not an edict. In fact, there is not one aspect of the survey responses on which all participants agreed—not even whether their Improv course is an “easy A” or not, not even as to whether they feel their own grading policy is defendable against a student appeal, and certainly not as to whether creativity in any form should be included within the student’s grade. But there is so much to learn from digesting the different, effective means by which any number of successful jazz educators address the art of grading Jazz Improvisation courses.
            The instructors whose responses are listed within my study represent over 700 years of combined experience and service teaching Jazz Improvisation, over 400 of those years teaching Improvisation for credit. However, since many of them have been teaching Improv for a good decade since their original responses, their input is actually even more weighted by experience.
            By focusing on the potential dichotomy and intersection between the teachable and unteachable elements of improvisation, plus the concrete and the abstract, as well as the technical and the creative, we will be better equipped to address and reconcile these factors in our own teaching and grading. To ignore these contrasting and interwoven factors would in my view be a disservice to our students and to our profession. Dialogue is preferable to avoidance.
            Let’s explore the possibilities and learn from one another!

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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