Clapham Christian Classical School

Clapham Journal

Jazz and the Invitation to Know

By Zach Ward, Middle School Teacher


I didn’t used to much like jazz.

This sounds like a cliché to say, but jazz seemed to me too random and directionless. To my ear, it was about musicians of questionable skill meandering through unknowable territory – a musical landscape devoid of conventional rhythms and sounds. There were the odd bits and pieces to be recognized and appreciated, to be sure, but so many holes and gaps and vast expanses of ambiguity.

Wynton Marsalis


Musician and educator Wynton Marsalis helped open my ears to this art form through his musical and narrative contributions to Ken Burn’s film, Jazz. His reflections on the relationship between music and its audience would anticipate and reflect some of the very ideas which later drew me to Clapham. Speaking of some of the major transitions within jazz, through the styles of swing and bop, Marsalis addresses the role of the listener as necessarily engaged, stating,

I always say that swinging is willful participation with style, and in the groove. Now if you don’t want to participate, there’s nothing it can do. I mean, it’s not going to make you participate. If you listen to it and say, “Oh, that’s noise! I don’t want to participate in it…” But if you check it out, if you listen to what the musicians are saying, then it will invite you into it. It’s not telling you “Stay away!” It’s telling you, “Come in, come in!”[1]

He adds,

When an art form is created, the question is, “How do you come to it?” Not, “How does it come to you?” … Beethoven’s music won’t come to you. The art of Picasso won’t come to you… Shakespeare [won’t come to you]. You have to go to it. And when you go to it, you get the benefits of it.[2]

Consider the parallels to Charlotte Mason’s approach to education. She states of the student,

In proportion to the range of living relationships we put in his way, will he have wide and vital interests, fullness of joy in living. In proportion as he is made aware of the laws which rule every relationship, will his life be dutiful and serviceable: as he learns that no relation with persons or with things, animate or inanimate, can be maintained without strenuous effort, will he learn the laws of work and the joys of work.[3]

It strikes me that, at the core of Mr. Marsalis’ reflections on this musical art form, there are ideas that bear a strong resemblance to the core educational values of Clapham. At its heart, I hear in his statements a truth about the means by which a person forms a relationship with a rich idea, text or art form, and a proposal concerning the kind or caliber of those which are worthy of relational endeavor. Our pedagogical approach at Clapham is one of fostering student relationships with rich texts and ideas, and our curriculum finds a strong foundation in the classical tradition of rich, time-tested texts and fields of study.


The myriad ideas, texts, art forms, and fields of study in this world are inviting discovery and investigation. There is truth, beauty, and goodness to be found in the complexity of Beethoven’s music, Picasso’s art, and Shakespeare’s writing. There is depth and meaning to be found in the grammar and structure of the English and Latin languages, in the order of geometry and biology, and in the narrative landscape of American history. If we, overwhelmed by its daunting complexity, dismiss an idea, text or art form as “noise,” it will not make us participate. On the other hand, if we, in the words of Mr. Marsalis, “go to it,” nothing short of a deeper encounter with glory awaits us. The richness and complexity are an invitation to come in rather than an admonition to stay away.


This is work to be certain, but it is work of the best kind. There is joy and deep satisfaction to be found in the strenuous effort of working through a difficult geometric proof, understanding the intricacy of an organism’s anatomy, or listening, fully engaged, to the blues of a Thelonious Monk record. In doing so, we see through these avenues, as though through a lens dimly, reflections of the Author of the text that is this world. This is the crux of education. What’s more (and what a satisfying thought!), this is not the task of a short, finite period in a formal schooling context, but an endeavor that is continual. It is a discipline. It is a life.


[1] Marsalis, Wynton, Ken Burn’s Jazz, Episode 6: Swing the Velocity of Celebration
[2] Marsalis, Wynton, Ken Burn’s Jazz, Episode 7: Dedicated to Chaos
[3] Mason, Charlotte, School Education. 187-188

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