This article is copyright 2017 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in Down Beat, Vol. 85, No. 1, January 2018. 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.

Making the Grade

by Antonio J. García


Tony teaching at the Titan Jazz & Arts Festival.

photo credit:
courtesy Trinity Episcopal School, Richmond VA


What if you—for a class—had to grade the record-reviews in this issue of Down Beat? A, B, C, D, or F: how would you do it? What if you were writing one of those reviews for a grade in the class: how would you know on what basis you’d be graded, how it would be evaluated as good or bad? If you didn’t like the grade, would you appeal it? Could the instructor defend that grade successfully?

After all, if writing effectively about improvisation may be an intangible skill defining an amorphous art—how artful would the grading of that writing have to be? And would the grading process then educationally inspire the writer to improve his or her craft in the future?

Stepping Out

How do you grade an English essay? Do you focus on the mechanics—the spelling and syntax—or the meaning behind the words—or both? Which can you teach? What can you quantify? This scenario parallels well what jazz-improvisation instructors face when teaching students of any age for academic credit, whether in a private lesson, an ensemble, or an improv class.

Jazz improv has long been a graded part of the academic scene in hundreds of colleges and universities and in many high schools around the world. Yet over the decades, jazz educators have barely spoken about how to grade improv effectively. Assess? Sure. You and I and our audiences assess our performances every day. But audiences don’t have to grade the work; they are not entrusted with educating the performer to improvise better; they are not subject to grade appeals from the students. Grading improv is such a different matter than assessing it.

Creative Accounting

We’ve been fairly creative, out of necessity, in inventing improv-grading policies. But as the saying goes, creative accounting will land you in jail. Our grading may focus on attendance, or completing assignments, or mastery of certain chord/scale relationships, or on the holistic artistry of the student soloist. But not being clear about what you’re seeking from a student leads the student not to know what to work on the most. If your grading system doesn’t emphasize the elements you actually believe to be the most important, then your students may allocate their practice time out of balance with your belief system.

Dr. David Coogan teaches Rhetorical Theory & Criticism at my university. What he says about grading creative writing certainly parallels the issues found in grading jazz improv, or painting, or so many other pursuits: “Grading creative writing is hard because creativity, itself, can't be taught. The essence of that drive to create with words and make beautiful and even terrifying meaning, can be coaxed out of a student. Techniques of writing can be broken down, analyzed, taught, assigned as homework in longer compositions, and graded. Students with natural talent can then develop, reach a new level, if they can take the time to learn, say, how to write a metaphor. Even students of lesser ability can achieve piecemeal the appearance of creative writing ability by following classroom instructions. They might even earn an A. But it might be for mediocre writing. Their performance might say more about their ability to follow classroom instructions than their ability to write creatively.”

Do our students’ improv performances sometimes say more about their ability to follow classroom instructions than to play creatively? Sometimes. Are we doing everything we can to lead our students to their most expressive improvisations? Perhaps yes, yet with one frequent exception: how we grade—and thus how in this significant way we communicate with and inspire our students.           


Across the globe, I’ve observed instructors’ policies for grading improv. I’ve closely examined many, and I’ve spoken with hundreds of jazz educators about their priorities in teaching. I don’t believe there is one right answer.

But this much I know. So many jazz educators have a student who entered the semester as a hot-shot player, never did the real work required by the course, yet received a high grade. Many teachers have vocalists, drummers, and horn-players—or jazz majors and non-jazz majors—in the same classroom with no policy as to how they might be graded differently; and yet sometimes they are being graded differently. Many mentors are conflicted about grading any creative element of a student’s improv yet strongly want their students to exit soloing creatively. Many instructors know what elements of novices’ improv annoy them the most in a performance but haven’t found the means to use a grading system to represent the course requirements as a path that would best prompt those students to grow in a healthier direction. As Coogan would say, “Their performance might say more about their ability to follow classroom instructions than their ability to write creatively.” And clearly a good number of educators have found out the hard way that their stated grading process—if there is a stated grading process—doesn’t hold up to a student grade-appeal.

The Charge

I believe it’s time jazz educators dialogue about their grading policies. Most jazz educators come from one or a mix of three streams: music education graduates, “street” jazz musicians, and jazz program graduates. The first lot rarely encounters a jazz improv class within in the music ed curriculum, much less explores how to grade it. The second lot “lives” jazz improv but very often prefers the grade of “bandstand hard knocks” to forming a clear academic policy. And the third lot often reflexively re-creates the policies of those with whom they’d studied.

It’s time. We stand on the shoulders of educators who won decades-long battles to make jazz an extracurricular activity in the schools, then a co-curricular one, and finally a curricular pursuit. That now accomplished, the elephant in the room is trumpeting a call to be recognized: let’s be sure to talk about how we can effectively grade jazz improvisation, thus strongly encouraging our students to grow in the paths that we model in our instruction and in our grading. When we grade jazz improvisation according to our educational priorities, we create additional opportunities to inspire our students towards greater knowledge, understanding, and performance of the art form.

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

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 and an Advisory Board member of the Brubeck Institute, 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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