In Appreciation of Jazz


Figure 1: Jazz Appreciation

I just completed the Jazz Appreciation MOOC at edX. It was fantastic! It’s like a whole new world has opened up for me!

I am a lifelong fan of rock and roll, so I wasn’t completely unaware of jazz. I’ve been to a Pat Metheny concert. I own a Miles Davis record. Rock and roll is a term which includes an awful lot of things. The intersection of rock and roll and jazz is not exactly empty (both include blues, for example).

But I knew there was a whole lot more to jazz that I didn’t get. Jazz made me feel stupid (“I mean, just play the right notes!”) and jazz fans have a (mostly deserved?) reputation for snobbery. So jazz had remained largely inaccessible to me. I didn’t get it and there seemed to be no good way to find out what others were getting.

Until now.

Jeff Hellmer and the folks at the University of Texas (that’s right, UT. In Austin. The indie rock mecca. Who knew they even had jazz there?) have made remarkably effective use of the MOOC platform to spread their encyclopedic knowledge and obvious love of jazz to anyone in the world who wants it. And it’s completely accessible. Hellmer is whatever the opposite of a snob is, generously sharing his vast knowledge without making anyone feel dumb. Ten weeks ago I knew hardly anything about jazz, really. Now, I’m so excited, I have to be careful that I don’t turn every conversation into a one-sided jazz lecture. It’s an amazing transformation!

And an it’s an amazing gift. Of course I haven’t learned everything. Not by a long shot. Jazz is a huge topic. But I feel that I now have the tools I need to explore on my own. I didn’t have that ten weeks ago. It’s much more than just listening and deciding if you like it or not. I can now listen and identify all sorts of things about a piece. I still might not like it, but now I know why.

This is the third MOOC I’ve taken. Last year, I took the Stanford database course and MongoDB for Developers. Both of those consisted of video lectures and programming assignments. Jazz Appreciation also had video lectures, but in lieu of programming assignments they used something called Cerego, which was sort of like flashcards, only multimedia. In addition to text, they could play music to quiz you with. Also, the questions weren’t just random; they used an algorithm to decide what you still needed to work on. It was kind of fun, if a bit repetitive. Some of the questions were subverted by the pictures. For example, one of the little icons for “Fusion” was a picture of Herbie Hancock. So if it was a question about Herbie Hancock and you already know what Herbie Hancock looks like, then you don’t really have to know the answer to the question. The task is reduced to “click on the picture of Herbie Hancock.”


Figure 2: Click on the picture of Herbie Hancock

Another difference with the previous MOOCs I’ve taken were the video lectures. Rather than speaking to slides or a white board, Hellmer lectured right from the piano. This enabled him to illustrate many points immediately on the keyboard.


Figure 3: Motivic Development

There are also other members of the UT faculty with different instruments in some of the videos. Most of the videos are just Hellmer at the piano, though. He’s very skilled and managed to get his point across even when he was talking about things that pianos can’t really do, such as scooping or growling.

Like the other MOOCs I’ve taken, this one had a discussion board. I don’t think this format scales up to thousands of users, but there were some nice discussions on there with interesting people from all over the world. I learned about Oscar Peterson, whose statue in Ottawa I have seen many times, but not given proper attention.


Figure 4: Oscar Peterson statue in Ottawa

This class also featured weekly “office hours” on Twitter (#jazzofficehour), where @UTJazzApp would answer questions real time. This also would not have scaled if everyone in the class had shown up, but in fact it turned out great. It seems just the right amount of people showed up each week to keep things lively without getting out of control.

I really can’t say enough good things about this course. There is talk of repeating it in January 2015. If you have any interest in jazz at all, you owe it to yourself to check it out!

In Appreciation of Jazz

3 thoughts on “In Appreciation of Jazz

  1. Vicente says:

    Hi, I have followed the class this January 2015 session and, just as you, I have been amazed by it. Did you by any chance archived the class videos? I have been archiving them since the beginning, but missed Week 7 – Miles and Trane (last week) due to business travel.

    If you did archive them (maybe DB, Google Drive, etc.), I would highly appreciate if you could share it with me.

    Thank you!

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