The Jazz & Democracy Project® (J&D) is rooted in a hypothesis that J&D Founder, Wesley J. Watkins, IV, Ph.D., began investigating as an undergraduate: a music-centered curriculum with genuine links to the other subject areas can increase student identification with school, impact academic engagement, and have a subsequent positive effect on overall academic success among students who have an affinity for music. “Dr. Wes,” as his students now call him, first proposed such a curriculum as part of the Stanford University School of Education Undergraduate Honors Program. The key ingredient, Dr. Wes hypothesized, is genuine connections to the other subject areas. That is, having students create a rap to memorize their history lesson is one way to integrate music, but integration can occur at much deeper levels—at the level of craft—when the arts content mirrors or demonstrates core concepts from social studies, literature, science, or mathematics. Such is the depth of integration found in The Jazz & Democracy Project®: to learn about the jazz process is to learn about American democratic ideals.

Dr. Wes continued his initial line of inquiry as a doctoral candidate at the International Centre for Research in Music Education, University of Reading, England. After completing his studies, Dr. Wes returned to the San Francisco Bay Area where he began working as an independent arts education consultant. This work included a jazz-democracy unit in two Oakland 5th Grade classrooms where Dr. Wes acted as an arts specialist or teaching artist working in collaboration with classroom teachers and a music teacher. Dr. Wes was so thrilled with this exploration into the jazz-as-democracy metaphor and the impact it had on students that he set his sights on creating what is now The Jazz & Democracy Project®.

The very first J&D residency began in November of 2009 at Rosa Parks Elementary, located in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. It was one of four residencies that school year which utilized the 12-lesson, 80+ page curriculum devised by Dr. Wes. The following school year J&D more than doubled its reach by presenting to ten groups of students domestically, and going on its first international tour to Chile with the U.S. Department of State. Since then, J&D has increased its local, national and international reach. J&D now presents to nearly 1,000 domestic students per school year, most of whom reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also including students in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and as part of former President Bill Clinton’s birthday celebration in Hope, Arkansas. J&D has also inspired students in West Africa as well as Haiti in conjunction with the U.S. State Department, bringing the total continents reached to three.

After its first five years, Dr. Wes decided the best way to grow J&D was to train teachers across the country and even the world to make use of the curricular materials he developed, including exclusive interviews with today’s emerging and established jazz masters. Therefore, Fall of 2014 marks the availability of the J&D Curriculum Think Tank, where teachers receive materials and training on how to adapt the J&D approach for their students. Like good jazz itself, this training will provide teachers both a vital structure and the freedom to explore who they are in the context of the J&D approach. In this way, teachers will be empowered to utilize their individual expertise and nuances of their particular context to spread an appreciation for this music called jazz, this experiment in democracy called America, and this fundamental idea that a more perfect union will only result from purposeful participation from we the people.