Art Talk: Gold Coast Jazz Society and Mari Mennel-Bell, founder of JazzSLAM

Gold Coast Jazz Society

Founded in 1992 to bring more jazz to the “Gold Coast” area of South Florida, the Gold Coast Jazz Society presents a seven-concert jazz series in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts each year from November through May.

Gold Coast Jazz Society has a rich history of community outreach and over the years has expanded its outreach and education programs. For those who cannot attend mainstage concerts, free outreach concerts are provided throughout the area allowing access to cultural arts programs to economically disadvantaged residents. The Jeanette M. Russell Jazz Scholarship Program has provided over $450,000 in scholarship support to qualified and aspiring young jazz students to study jazz in college or to attend summer jazz camps over the past fourteen years.

In 2010, the Society began presenting the jazz education program, JazzSLAM, at no cost, to area public schools. This program, which includes a live jazz quartet, helps students improve their reading, math and test taking skills through jazz.  In addition, Gold Coast Jazz has presented several other jazz education presentations in local elementary schools.  Gold Coast Jazz also provides the free First Friday Jazz Jam program, where local students can jam, before a live audience, with a professional jazz quartet led by local jazz musician and educator Nicole Yarling.

 JazzSLAM (Jazz Supports Language Arts and Math)

JazzSLAM 1

Designed by musician and educator, Mari Mennel-Bell, JazzSLAM is a free in-school jazz education program targeted to 4th and 5th grade students and includes a one-hour, live and interactive jazz presentation with a professional jazz quartet. The program integrates the music of jazz with elements of Language Arts, Math, and Social Studies to help students with critical thinking skills and strategies for test taking.  The program is designed to support teachers’ efforts to raise students’ test scores, motivate students to learn how to express themselves within the confines of a given form, and supports teaching with the Aural, Visual & Tactile benefits of music.  Students learn how musical forms relate to concepts such as essay writing forms, how musical rhythmic patterns relate to mathematical concepts such as percentages and how the ethnic origins of jazz relate to the geography and social studies.

We chatted with Mari Mennel-Bell to learn more about her long career in Florida and what inspired her to create JazzSLAM.

Division of Cultural Affairs (DCA): How long have you lived and worked in Florida? 

Mari: I grew up from age 11 on in Palm Beach County. There’s something so different about being in elementary school in Florida- it was just so fun! I attended college in New York and stayed in NY after graduating. In 1998, when our kids were in elementary and middle school, my husband and I decided to relocate to Broward County and we have lived and worked here ever since.

DCA: What inspired you to create JazzSLAM?

Mari:  I started JazzSLAM almost immediately after moving to Broward County. I had been doing a jazz program while working in the Hudson Valley, but one of the things that really gave me direction was seeing my sons just sitting at desks doing busy work. They were totally disengaged; they just did not want to be in school. I saw so many connections between academics and music and was inspired to really start developing the program. So, I went back to my roots. When I was in graduate school at New York University, I worked for the Children’s Television Workshop on a program which was using music to teach reading. After I graduated, I worked in a Title I school in the South Bronx that was doing the same thing- using music to teach students that were way behind in reading. I wanted to develop a program in Broward County that taught academics through jazz. I am so grateful to the Gold Coast Jazz Society for their funding and organizational support and the teachers in Broward County, who have, over the years provided wonderful feedback and suggestions that have helped me continue to develop the program.

DCA: What is the best part about your job?

Mari: Without a doubt, working with the students is the best part. Just seeing them make connections and seeing light bulbs go off in their heads is so cool. It’s always surprising, too, which students are the first to make connections. Oftentimes, it is a student with special needs that will allow the connections to become physically apparent by standing up and dancing or clapping to the music. I love to use this as an opportunity to put students that are handicapped or have special needs– students who are usually being bullied– in a leadership role. It is just super cool to be able to do this.

Teaching academics through the arts is such a powerful way to reach students. Students come in and don’t know what they’re coming to and aren’t sure they are going to like it and then we get rolling, and the fact that there’s so much music involved, it just captivates them and captures their attention in a way that straight academics don’t.

JazzSLAM 4

DCA: What are some examples of how JazzSLAM integrates musical concepts with academics to enrich learning?

Mari: Our programs focus on language arts, math, and social studies concepts. For example, we use AABA song form as a parallel learning device for narrative essays. Students learn how narrative essays tell a story. Fairy tales are a perfect example: the first paragraph introduces “who, what, when, where, why”, the second develops the story, the third adds a problem, and the fourth resolves the problem. The lyrics and structure of AABA song form do the same thing.

The song “I Got Rhythm” is a great example of this. I describe it to the students as a “gratitude laundry list of good feelings that you can have”. The A sections introduce free things to be grateful for. The B section presents a problem: we are all going to have troubled times in our lives. The last A section resolves this by revisiting our gratitude list, which we can pull out when we are down in the dumps and remember all of the things that are good in life.

The day before the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, JazzSLAM gave a presentation at Silver Lakes Elementary. The school went to a “Code Red” lockdown, which turned out to be a staged, practice drill, however, the students were very frightened and lacked focus when they came in for our presentation. I used the “I Got Rhythm” lyrics to show them how to write a gratitude list to help themselves in times of stress.

After the presentation, Ms. Cline, a fourth-grade teacher, wrote, “Students learned that music can provide you with focus. That you can calm yourself with music.” Music offers logic and predictable patterns that bring us great solace in an increasingly complex world.

DCA: And how about using music to teach math?

Mari: One of the students’ favorite things is when we do a “rhythm orchestra”. Along with our drummer, Orlando Machado, I divide the room into five groups. Each group is responsible for one of five divisions of the beat: whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, and sixteenth note. Orlando demonstrates the divisions and I stand in front of the class.  Each group is given different directions and kinesthetic movements for each division of the beat, eventually all clapping together to hear how the half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes & 16th notes fit into the whole note pizza. Then, the students are asked to analyze the divisions of the beat while I show them a pie chart, i.e. “How many half notes are in the whole note pizza pie?”,  “Which fraction is each half note called?”,  “What percentage would each half note be?” Other concepts like finding the common denominator to add fractions are covered. It is purely academic and the kids are having so much fun that they don’t even realize that they are learning valuable math concepts! I think every kid in America should have the opportunity to learn this way.

DCA: How has the program grown over the years?

Mari: The first year, we probably did four or five schools with fifty students each. When we started getting grants for the program, we were able to expand. I initially thought that I could do the program for 300 students at a time, but that turned out to be overwhelming, so we limited it to groups of up to 150 to ensure that each student receives equal opportunity to participate. At one point, JazzSLAM was serving 30 schools a year. Now, we are serving about 20 schools a year and I am also focused on growing our eLearning programs.

JazzSLAM 5

DCA: Tell us more about your eLearning programs.

Mari: An educator saw me do a web learning presentation for Broward County (through Broward County Board of Education TV) and encouraged me to develop a way to present JazzSLAM nationally. Now, through the Center for Innovative Learning and Collaboration (cilc.org), we offer three eLearning programs nationwide, all of which are available for free to Title I schools. It has been really cool to hear from educators in tiny towns without supermarkets across the nation that they are using and loving JazzSLAM in their classrooms. It is one of my main goals for the future of JazzSLAM to continue to develop these programs so that JazzSLAM can reach even more students nationwide.

DCA: Which counties have participating schools? How many children participate each year?

Mari: The program mainly serves Broward County, though we have on occasion travelled to North Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties. In the past 16 years, the program has served around 60,000 students in South Florida.

DCA: In your opinion, what is the greatest contribution that JazzSLAM makes to your community?

Mari: It exposes students to the incredible musical heritage of our nation, which is jazz, while allowing more interactive academic experiences. Oftentimes jazz organizations have difficulty getting into school systems, but because our program is academically focused, that has opened doors.

JazzSLAM 2

DCA: What do you think the future holds for JazzSLAM?

Mari: I want to know that when I leave the planet that JazzSLAM won’t leave the planet with me. I think the future for us is in continuing to give live presentations and develop the eLearning programs, so that we can reach students throughout the state of Florida and the nation. I would also love to partner with a college or university to train future teachers in the JazzSLAM methodology. I’d love to find a doctoral student who would want to research the significance of JazzSLAM concepts and using music to teach academics.  I always want JazzSLAM to be part of Gold Coast Jazz Society and for GCJS to continue serving Broward County, but I also want the program to be able to spread. When you see how much the kids love to do it and how grateful the teachers are for this whole new approach to academics, it’s like a no brainer. I have to figure out a way to get this to more teachers– to everybody!

DCA: What do you think of when you hear “Culture Builds Florida”? Why are the arts and culture important to our state?

Mari: Certainly here in South Florida, we see that arts and culture are a huge draw for snowbirds and tourists. When I was growing up in Palm Beach County, there was close to nothing to go to. There were no opportunities to hear live music other than if you went to a private party or a club or community center. There is certainly a much more vibrant arts community in South Florida than when I was a kid. The more we have for visitors and year-round residents to do, the happier everybody is with Florida!

The DCA thanks Pam Dearden, executive director of Gold Coast Jazz Society, and Mari Mennel-Bell for their participation in this post. To learn more about JazzSLAM, visit: http://jazzslam.com/. To learn more about Gold Coast Jazz Society, visit: http://www.goldcoastjazz.org.

One thought on “Art Talk: Gold Coast Jazz Society and Mari Mennel-Bell, founder of JazzSLAM

  1. Excellent synopsis and explanation of a unique initiative and a dynamic successful program. It demonstates exactly how the power of learning can be derived and achieved from a variety of sources. This innovative program provides an outstanding example of that. I hope Culture Florida can agressively spread the word and the message. Thank You.

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