America the Bebop

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Why you should care

Because it turns out music not only soothes the savage soul, it also does a pretty good job of teaching teens the essential tenets of the democractic process.

Can a government swing? You know, the way a great jazz band does? Is it possible to find that magical balance between individual freedom and what’s good for the group? Dr. Wesley Watkins has a unique view of democracy — that at its best it’s got the tone and timbre of the best jazz ensembles, where there’s structure but there’s also plenty of room to solo.

That’s the idea behind The Jazz & Democracy Project, a music and humanities program he created five years ago. Over the course of a semester, Watkins delivers a curriculum on democracy and the democratic process that uses jazz music and its creation as an analog. He draws deeply from the tall and short of jazz — name check Ahmad Jamal, Terence Blanchard and Marcus Shelby — and invites local musicians to soundtrack his lesson plan. Eleventh-graders, for instance, analyze significant ideas such as the philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence and also learn to analyze and assess performances, compositions and improvisations.

At its best, democracy has the tone and timbre of the best jazz ensembles, where there’s structure but there’s also plenty of room to solo.

A son of Oakland, Calif., Watkins has the highbrow cred to make these connections: Stanford University undergrad, an honor’s thesis penned while at Oxford and a Ph.D. from the International Centre for Research in Music Education at the University of Reading, England. Back this up with a deep and abiding sense that there had to be a better way to teach, and a program was born. 

While high-flown, big-ticket solutions take up a lot of the oxygen when the talk turns to education in D.C.., Watkins has a strictly local take. For him, it’s all about helping 30 kids at a time, and that’s a thing of beauty.

But don’t take our word for it. Just ask your eyes.


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