All That Jazz

Using music to teach civics.

May 2024

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Illustration of a man playing a saxophone in front of sheet music that says "We the People"

Illustration: DaVidRo

Sixteen years ago, Wesley Watkins, ’97, was teaching Oakland fifth graders how playing jazz is like participating in a democracy, when he came to a realization.

“We had learned that the musicians are trying to swing, which is a kind of buoyant effect in the music,” Watkins recalls. It’s achieved from a balance—of timing, of dynamics, of voice—across a musical ensemble. He asked the students what musicians might do that ruins the swing. They answered: rushing, dragging, playing too loud. “I said, ‘Give me an example in society of someone playing too loud.’” One girl said, “‘Oh, that’s like monarchy—it’s always the king’s voice that matters more.’ It was in that moment I decided: I’m doing this for the rest of my life.”

Since then, Watkins has brought the Jazz & Democracy Project—a curriculum that uses jazz to help students understand history, government, and civics—to students and teachers in places such as the Bay Area; Sydney, Australia, where he now lives; and New Orleans, the birthplace of the art form.

‘What would happen if you centered a curriculum around music?’

As an undergrad in African and African American studies, Watkins got to thinking about how to solve the problem of why, the further he went in education, the fewer Black students there were. And if music is central to African American culture, “what would happen if you centered a curriculum around music?” He explored that idea for his undergraduate thesis, then earned his PhD in education from the University of Reading, in England.

Watkins often gives students long, colorful tubes called Boomwhackers to demonstrate the effects of contributing a single note in a chord progression—usually the 12-bar blues—and how it’s like playing your role in government. “If this chord is out of place, then we have discord and dissonance in music, just as in society,” says Zack Pitt-Smith, music director at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, who has collaborated on Jazz & Democracy with Watkins.

Carol Lee Tolbert used the Jazz & Democracy curriculum a few years ago to teach middle schoolers in Hayward, Calif., about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. They discussed overlapping concepts: improvisation, listening, visioning, and negotiating. But the value, Tolbert recalls, was more than conceptual. “It connects with their soul, with their spirit,” she says. “It resonates with them on multiple levels.”

Jill Patton, ’03, MA ’04, is the senior editor of Stanford. Email her at

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