Jazz Education Returns to Elementary Schools in Eagle County

Program Director Tony Gulizia, known as “Tony G,” leads elementary students at St. Clair School of Assisi in an interactive rhythmic exercise during their first jazz education session of the year .
Madison Rahhal / Vail Daily

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 Eagle County fourth and fifth graders about sound, history and instruments of jazz music.

“It’s at this point in their lives that they should learn more about American music – jazz music,” Gulizia said. “That’ll be what keeps it 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.

During the school year, Gulizia and her fellow instructors will visit 11 elementary schools in the county to give four jazz educational sessions, culminating in a live performance at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in May. The program was offered to students virtually during the pandemic, but the sessions are designed to be an in-person experience, inviting students to soak up the sound and atmosphere of jazz music to inspire a new generation of fans and musicians of the genre.

Return to in-person learning

This week marked the first time Vail Jazz instructors have been in front of the students since 2019, and they’re as happy to be back as the students are to have them.

“I’m so thrilled to be able to go back to schools and continue,” said Gulizia. “I was saddened not to be in person during the pandemic, but we are doing it now. These are children who have been away for two years, and the children come and say, “Oh, that was fantastic, I learned so much today”.

Gulizia and her longtime co-instructors Michael Pujado (center) and Mike Marlier (right) together led the first piano and percussion session.
Madison Rahhal / Vail Daily

The first session of the year was moderated by Gulizia and her longtime co-instructors Michael Pujado and Mike Marlier, both percussionists who accompany Gulizia on the piano during the session’s many musical demonstrations, as well as teach directly to the children. their instruments and technique. The program only got the green light to teach in person a few weeks ago, but when Marlier got the call he reorganized his schedule to make sure he could make it to Eagle County. for the first session.

“It was my honor to do it, it’s a higher calling,” said Marlier. “I mean, there’s no guarantee that jazz will continue if you don’t talk about it and educate the kids. So I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this.

An interactive introduction to jazz music

This Thursday, just before lunchtime at the Sainte Claire d’Assise school in Edwards, around 40 students gathered in the gymnasium bleachers to begin their very first jazz class of the year. Gulizia and her team had set up a piano and a variety of percussion instruments in front of them, and opened the session by playing a catchy tune that had the kids dancing in their seats from the start.

The lesson then covered a number of distinctive elements that distinguish jazz music from other genres, such as syncope and polyrhythms. While these are terms many adults don’t understand, Vail Jazz instructors explain them in an accessible way through demonstrations and interactive student activities.

When describing syncope, or the shifted notes that disrupt a cohesive 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 first playing a clean, rhythmic version, followed by a syncopated jazz interpretation of the song that everyone knows so well, the students were able to instinctively grasp a musical concept that can be difficult to explain in technical terms.

To teach students about polyrhythms, or the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms, Marlier combined three different rhythms on his drums 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 is to polyrhythm,” Marlier told them.

Taking the challenge forward, he then asked them to try rubbing their heads and patting their stomachs at the same time. The kids would try the challenge with everything they had, laugh at the difficulty, and begin to understand the mental acuity required to create jazz music.

Gulizia plays a jazzy version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to demonstrate the meaning of syncope.
Madison Rahhal / Vail Daily

While general education and exposure to jazz music is the primary focus of the program, instructors hope that a few of the students seated in the class will be inspired to pick up an instrument and make their own contribution to the world of jazz. . Marlier said fun and interactive course design is necessary to engage students.

“It must be fun, because if it’s not fun, they’re going to play soccer,” Marlier said. “Maybe only a few will start playing from this, but those who do will remember it like it was yesterday. There’s always one or two that just sit there, numb. , and you see that little light go on, and you know this kid will probably join the group.

Marlier’s desire to teach stems from his own childhood experiences, when iconic jazz drummer Joe Morello came to his elementary school and performed for his class when he was only six or seven years old.

“This afternoon I said that’s what I’m going to do,” said Marlier. “He gave me chopsticks, they’re still in my house, and that sorted that out.” It shaped the course of my life. “

Remember the roots

In addition to teaching music, Gulizia also emphasizes the historical and geographic foundations of jazz. In the first session, he explained how the fundamentals 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 a gift from America to the music world, it didn’t really start there, so I like to trace it back and say how it went,” Gulizia said. “I don’t do it at the high school level, we keep it at a level that allows them to understand what is going on.”

Tracing slave routes across South America and the Caribbean, Gulizia explained how different styles of jazz came into being and how musical genres from other parts of the world have integrated into the larger genre of jazz. The program doesn’t 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.

Vail Jazz Goes to School returns to elementary schools in Eagle County in January for the second semester.
Madison Rahhal / Vail Daily

Gulizia will return to schools in January for the second session of the program, accompanied by a new arrangement of instruments and instructors, to continue her mission of sharing the love of jazz with the next generation. Now 25 years in Jazz programming goes to school, education has become one of the most important contributions in Gulizia’s life, and he is able to reflect on the successes of the program while continuing to provide lessons. impactful for years to come.

“I can tell you, although I won’t name names, a dozen Eagle County students who are now making a living in New York – on Broadway, at Columbia University, studying jazz music under the name de Julliard – taking it to the next level, ”Gulizia said. “And that makes this old man feel good.”

Vail Jazz is a non-profit organization that relies on community support to bring music education to schools. Those interested in supporting the Vail Jazz Goes to School program can donate at vailjazz.org/donate.

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