Join 19,000 Others who have taken EDX's Free Online Jazz Appreciation Course with Jeffrey Hellmer
December 30, 2015 by Ellen Dostal

Jeffrey Hellmer

Which of these statements sounds most like you?

-- I love the idea of jazz but don’t really know what it’s all about.

-- I’m a lifelong jazz enthusiast and can’t get enough of it.

-- I love a specific kind of jazz but am curious what else is out there.

-- I know nothing about jazz but wish I did.

Well, we’ve got you covered. Beginning January 19th, edX will be offering a Jazz Appreciation course developed and taught by Jeff Hellmer, Dir. of Jazz Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. If you aren’t already familiar with edX, it is a massive open online course (MOOC) provider that offers classes on just about any topic that anyone in the world can take – for FREE.

I know Jeff from the University of Northern Iowa where we both did our undergraduate work and he’s excellent at what he does, extremely passionate about jazz, and is an all-around stand-up guy. If you want to increase your knowledge of jazz, this one’s for you.

Jazz Appreciation
is a 10-week online course where you’ll learn how to listen, think, and speak intelligently about music, particularly jazz. You’ll learn to recognize and describe the differences between various jazz styles like cool, modal, hard bop, bebop, early jazz, and swing, plus see how it relates to American history and culture. You’ll also listen to many of the musical greats who defined the different eras and styles of jazz.

I asked Jeff to tell us a little more about it and here's what he had to say. 

Jeff, edX is a big platform for free education. What made you decide to put together your first Jazz Appreciation course?

When edX was starting, the vast majority of the courses were in STEM subject areas (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This continues to be the case today. One of my goals throughout my teaching career has been to increase the public’s awareness and appreciation of jazz. The edX platform seemed a natural place to expand the Jazz Appreciation course I’ve taught at the University of Texas at Austin for almost 30 years, and allowed me to expand the student audience beyond the confines of the university to learners around the world.

How many times have you taught the course?

I’ve taught the course over 50 times in the classroom at UT/Austin. January 2016 is the third time the course will be taught on edX. Each of the first two runs of the course had over 10,000 students enrolled.

What did you learn teaching it previously and are you changing anything for the 2016 course?

In the edX versions of the course, I initially underestimated the powerful connections that jazz and the edX platform can bring between jazz lovers from around the world (including myself as the instructor). The course includes “Twitter Office Hours” and discussion boards where there’s great interaction between all parties. It’s very gratifying to be in, for example, a four-way discussion of jazz (albeit 140 characters at a time) with a music teacher from Europe, a young drummer from Venezuela, and a jazz-loving engineer from the United States. It’s also been gratifying to meet students that have taken the course when I travel around the world. This “personal” nature of the course wasn’t something that I expected from the MOOC platform, as one of its main criticisms is the impersonal nature of the educational experience.

Why do you think it’s important for people to have an understanding of jazz?

Jazz is a unique, American-born art form. Many of the principles involved in jazz—freedom, democracy, and teamwork—mirror cornerstones of American society. The art form is an important part of America’s cultural heritage.

Do you have a favorite era or style of jazz?

There are so many great eras of jazz, and as a performer I’ve been lucky enough to embrace them all in my collaborations with other musicians (again, part of the teamwork that is central to the music). I think the Hard Bop era from the late 1950s (featuring Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Miles Davis’ 1950s bands) is a great place for those new to the music to begin learning about jazz. That’s why the EdX course begins with that area rather than starting at the beginnings of jazz (though those eras are covered later in the course).

Where did your own love of jazz come from and who are some of the teachers and mentors who have shaped your path as a jazz pianist and educator?

My love of jazz came from the recordings of jazz greats, and from the freedom that the music provided when I began to play it. Ron Battani, my high school jazz band director, was a big influence, as well as the great jazz programs at the University of Northern Iowa and at the Eastman School of Music. I continue to learn from my students, as you’re never finished learning about music.

For more information and to register for Jeff's course, go to Jazz Appreciation.

Jazz Appreciation weekly topics:
  Week 1 Introduction/How Jazz Works/Jazz History Overview
  Week 2 Developing Listening Skills: Hard Bop
  Week 3 Refining Listening Skills: Cool Jazz and Bebop
  Week 4 Bebop and Swing: The Classic Jazz Eras
  Week 5 Ellington and the Beginnings
  Week 6 Louis and Miles
  Week 7 Miles and ‘trane
  Week 8 ‘trane, Free Jazz, and Mingus
  Week 9 Keyboard Giants: Monk, Evans, Hancock, and Corea
  Week 10 Fusion and Stars of Today

About Jazz Appreciation:
Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker. John Coltrane. You’ve heard their names, but do you know what makes them great? In Jazz Appreciation, you will learn what these artists and many others contributed to America’s great original art form, revered the world over for its innovation and creativity. Jazz emerged during a time of tremendous change and upheaval in American society; this course will also discuss how its evolution both reflected and contributed to those changes. Much more than a lecture series, Jazz Appreciation weaves in musical performances and examples that will deepen your understanding of the musical process and develop your ability to identify and analyze different jazz eras and great jazz soloists. It also incorporates cutting-edge adaptive learning technology that will allow you to practice your new knowledge and skills, at your own pace, until you reach mastery.

More Info and Registration

About Jeff Hellmer
As Director of Jazz Studies, University of Texas at Austin, Jeff maintains an extremely active performing and teaching profile, appearing frequently on the central Texas scene as well as throughout the United States at venues ranging from the Litchfield Jazz Festival to the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Twice named a finalist in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition, he has performed, taught and adjudicated jazz throughout the U.S. as well as in Russia and Taiwan. As the long-time director of the UT Jazz Orchestra, he has led performances of the band at the North Sea and Montreux Jazz Festivals, as well as appearances with jazz masters such as Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, John Clayton, and Kenny Garrett. His current and former jazz piano students have garnered impressive recognition for their creativity and individuality. He is co-author of the textbook Jazz Theory and Practice, published by Alfred, and his compositions for jazz ensemble are available through UNC Press and Concept Music.


Ellen Dostal is the Director of Arts and Communication for KJazz

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