NEA grant supports use of WTJU jazz history show in classrooms

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Trumpet player John D'earth and a collection of Charlottesville jazz artists play for WTJU's 2019 Jazz Marathon.

The University of Virginia’s community radio station has received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create an online jazz history curriculum aimed at high school and early college students. 

WTJU in Charlottesville will develop the curriculum using content from Jazz at 100, a jazz history show that the station aired from 2017 to 2019. The show celebrated the centennial of the first jazz recording with 100 hourlong episodes featuring recordings going back to 1917, interspersed with narration by host and creator Russell Perry. 

Jazz is “a window into a lot of the creative history of the United States,” said Perry, who now hosts Jazz at 100 Today!, a successor show exploring modern-day jazz. “It has aspects of the Great Migration from the South to the North, the urbanization of America. It can be used as a way to illustrate so much about American history.”

The NEA grant was announced in May, along with dozens of other grants to public broadcasters. It is the first NEA grant ever awarded to WTJU, which has just six full-time staffers.

WTJU will partner with two UVA departments, the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, to develop a multimedia curriculum with around 15 weeks of material, said General Manager Nathan Moore. WTJU will bring in a dedicated consultant to work on the curriculum design, which will feature both audio and video elements. 

“I think we can play to the strengths of online education while also conveying this really compelling story about what makes jazz cool,” Moore said.

Moore said 26 stations around the country have picked up some episodes of Jazz at 100, and at least 14 have aired the show in its entirety. The show’s success led Moore to consider ways to get the jazz history content out to broader audiences. After looking online for a publicly available, comprehensive jazz history class and coming up empty, he submitted a proposal to the NEA.

“The power and influence that you can have with a curriculum, just to open eyes, open ears to new musical experiences was something I was really excited to pursue,” Moore said. “This puts the ‘educational’ in ‘noncommercial educational radio.’”

Moore said he plans to meet with WTJU producer and education director Lewis Reining and UVA colleagues from the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities toward the end of June. They aim to have the curriculum ready for students by fall 2022.

Reining said he plans to work closely with Perry to compress the Jazz at 100 series into a semester-long course. “I know enough about high school students to know that very few of them are interested in 100 hours of anything,” Perry said.

Perry added that he wants the curriculum to teach students about major jazz musicians while also including influential but lesser-known musicians and the events that shaped their experiences. 

The curriculum will seek to balance historical information about the racial and socioeconomic factors that influenced jazz musicians with analysis of the music itself, Reining said. 

“You have a lot of opportunities to to talk about the context in which some of this music came up, the context in which these players found themselves in, and then to actually give the students an opportunity to really listen to that music and see how it makes them feel, see how those connections between the music and the space in which it was created start to intersect,” he said.

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