Wesley Watkins Uses Jazz to Teach Democracy

Oakland native illustrates the workings of society with music.


Wesley J. Watkins IV uses jazz to teach kids about democracy.

Chris Duffey


Back in 2009, at a White House music series event, Michelle Obama reiterated an old idea when she told guests, "There is no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble." Oakland native Wesley J. Watkins IV turned the idea into a new way to educate students.

What began by teaching U.S. history to fifth graders has grown into The Jazz & Democracy Project.
"J&D is different from ‘let me play you the music they listened to from the revolutionary war.’ I’m using the aesthetic of jazz, the process of jazz, to teach children how to be productive members of our society," he said.

This isn’t as simple as remembering vocabulary words by converting them into a song. Watkins teaches the core concepts and principles of jazz to help young people understand how society works best. He uses the genius of jazz legends, and the brilliance of their work, to inspire students to maximize their talent. He lets the intricacies and complexities of a band illustrate the balance of community and self-realization.

Think about it. What are the elements that make a bass player, a drummer, a saxophonist, and a pianist work in harmony on stage? What kind of work ethic does it take to master an instrument so that you can follow the lead of another on the fly without rehearsal? How inspiring are the stories of humble beginnings and real-life struggles many jazz greats overcame to become staples of American music? How valuable is time spent with geniuses by digesting their work?

"The complexities of jazz mirrors the complexities of democracy," Watkins said.

Music as a teaching tool is hardly new. But Watkins believed a curriculum centered on music properly linked to other subject areas could lead to great strides in academic engagement and overall academic access.
He developed this idea during undergrad studies at Stanford, where he fell in love with jazz. Watkins can still vividly recall the life-changing moment he heard "My Funny Valentine" by Sarah Vaughan on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz-which he had to listen to for a class.

"It was on Disc 4," he said. "I remember brushing my teeth and thinking, ‘Wait. I need to hear that again.’ Something happened in my soul."

Watkins did his honors thesis research at Oxford University and eventually got his Ph.D. in Music Education from the University of Reading in England.

Armed with knowledge from across the globe, a burning passion for jazz, and a heart to help inner-city children, Watkins came back to the Bay Area with a plan. He organized the first jazz and democracy collaboration at Thornhill Elementary in Oakland in 2007.

Fast forward: He has a curriculum that works-a 12-lesson program suitable for classrooms, afterschool programs, and community centers. He consults on art education at the district, school, and classroom levels, working with leaders and agenda-setters. He spends thousands of dollars a year hiring local musicians to demonstrate in class.

And he gets the benefit of seeing it really click in the minds of students.

"I had one student who wrote in the comments of the evaluation form that my class was almost as good as PE," Watkins said, unable to contain his laugh. "That was the single greatest comment I’ve ever received."

To learn more about the Jazz & Democracy Project, visit www.JazzAndDemocracy.com.

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