Jazz Communication

jazz communicationLiteracy is, among other things, about communication. Writers write, readers read, and ideas and experiences are shared. Then I started thinking about communication in all its glorious forms. What about jazz music? Specifically, improvisational, free form, impromptu jams in which the musicians carry on entire musical conversations with their instrument voices. How exactly does that work? What cues are the musicians using? How do they know when to start? When to stop?

My search for answers led me to the very talented Dr. Karen Zumbrunn, jazz pianist extraordinaire, who was thrilled to bring some jazz communication to our library.

karen zumbrunnAt the program, Karen was joined by Brian Glassman on double bass and Tom Sayek on drums. All I can say is…wow. I can’t believe what they packed into that 60 minute performance.

jazz trioKaren explained accents, beats, syncopation, melody, tone, changes, coda, chords, tags, and pitch. Interspersed with her instruction were jazz pieces that not only demonstrated the concepts she was explaining, it also got the kids singing, clapping, and dancing along!

dancingAt the end of the program, the kids were invited to come up and meet the musicians and the instruments.

meet the pianoThe drum set was an absolute mob scene.

meet the drumsBut, as a former bass player, I made a beeline for the double bass. It was made in Concord, New Hampshire by Abraham Prescott circa 1820. Love. Loooove.

meet the double bassLater, I caught up with Karen to ask her a little more about jazz communication.

Please tell us a little about yourself!

My parents related they could not keep me away from the piano when I was growing up. I began lessons age 5 (a wonderful neighborhood teacher who was a big influence and friend). By my teen years I wanted to play jazz and began playing professionally at age 16. With the money I saved I went to Paris for a year and, in addition to studies at the Sorbonne and  L’Ecole Normale de Musique, I performed at the Blue Note, a famous jazz club there. This led to many things including my first recording in Rome with the “International Stars of Jazz.”

Upon my return from Paris I entered the MA program at Ohio State University and my master’s thesis, “12 Blues of Charlie Parker” was the first one at OSU on jazz. My other love is teaching so I got a second Masters in Education. I completed my Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, incorporating jazz into part of my dissertation.

My life has been filled with my love of jazz and of teaching. I was an Associate Professor of music at Bergen Community College and also taught at Rutgers, Middlesex Community College, and Mercer Community College.

How did you decide to present jazz communication to kids?

Libraries are all about communication – through the written word and illustration. I was aware of some of the many fine programs Dr. Dana had offered in the past – from the Japanese storytelling to other activities. In discussion with Dr. Dana, we explored the idea of presenting jazz as another form of communication. We wanted to present pieces that were in a fairly bright  tempo. Dancing, clapping, moving around was encouraged. There is no jazz experience without with players and an audience in communication. Jazz is fun!

There was a bit of singing (and dancing!) during the program. Why did you decide to add a singing component?

I have performed in many library and school situations. I like to have the audience sing a folk song that is not too complicated – then they can follow the improvisations and creations the jazz musicians present. Our goal is always to make jazz less of a mystery so even children will not be afraid of the word “jazz” and will open their ears.

Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?

There are so many fine jazz musicians, past and present, on every instrument – too many to mention. From the piano sounds of a Les McCann, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, McCoy Tyner, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan to the smooth cornet of a Bobby Hackett or   swinging sax of a Cannonball Adderley, the list of talented artists would take several pages. There are fewer places to hear and perform jazz now than some years ago – so the library did a major service to the community by offering this free program.

Gold Fever

gold fever

It sparkles and shimmers. Could it be gold? Well, you might strike gold and get rich…or you might be fooled by some glittery pyrite! We made some awesome geology connections at To Be Continued, our story time for 6-8 year-olds, including rocks that sing!

We read Missing on Superstition Mountain by Elise Broach (Henry Holt, 2011). Brothers Simon, Henry, and Jack have moved from Chicago to Superstition, Arizona. The sleepy little town is shadowed by the looming and unforgiving Superstition Mountain, which has a history that none of the adults seem to want to share. The boys have been forbidden to go into the mountains, but when Josie the cat runs away, they follow her and soon uncover a mystery that involves three human skulls, a lost gold mine, and the strange, seemingly supernatural, power of the mountain. Can the boys and their friend Delilah survive Superstition?

In addition to a secret gold mine (which is totally awesome), Missing on Superstition Mountain has quite a bit about rocks, landscapes, and geology. When we finished the book, I thought it would be cool to do some rock-based activities. And Princeton University have some fantastic resources when it comes to geology.

department of geosciencesFirst, we took a walk across campus to Guyot Hall, home of the Department of Geosciences. Their central office space is lined with display cases full of rocks, gems, fossils, and minerals.

case 1The kids oohed and aahed over some of the precious stones…

case 2But were equally impressed by the gigantic mineral specimens!

case 3We visited a Allosaurus skeleton and a T. Rex skull on our way out of the building. Yes!

dinosaur skeletonBack at the library, I had samples of pyrite for the kids to look at (courtesy of Laurel Goodell, manager of the undergraduate labs in geosciences). Pyrite is called “Fool’s Gold” because of its sparkly gold appearance, but it’s actually a mineral.

pyriteThe kids couldn’t take home the big samples of pyrite, but I did find some smaller pieces on Amazon. I bought three, 0.2 ounce boxes of pyrite nuggets for $5.79 a box. They arrived powdered with black grit, so be prepared to do some major rinsing, and maybe a little scrubbing, before you given them to kids. But as you can see below, they cleaned up nicely and there were some pretty good sized pieces in there.

pyrite nuggetsThe kids took their stash home in a cotton drawstring bag (left over from this event). I also tucked a little information sheet inside the bag too (here’s the template if you’re interested). But I saved the best geology connection for last. Did you know that some rocks can produce musical notes?

lithophoneThis is a lithophone. It’s a xylophone with tone bars that are made out of stone (as opposed to wood or metal). When you strike the stones with a mallet, they produce a musical tone. But not all rocks sing! It takes a lot of trial and error, as well as a lot of chipping and grinding to make rock tone bars. The stones you see above are limestone, sandstone, and granite.

The lithophone was made by Tom Kaufman, owner of Tinkertunes Music Studio in Michigan. I commissioned him to build it for a Journey to the Centre of the Earth event in 2013. After the event, the lithophone went to its new home in the geosciences lab.

Ready for a little rock concert?


If you think that’s cool, you should check out Tom’s lithophone fence. It plays “Row Row Row Your Boat” as you run around it with a mallet! The fence was installed at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan for ArtPrize, an annual art contest.


Many thanks to Laurel Goodell and the Department of Geosciences for the pyrite and lithophone loan! 

Sneak Peek: Giant Floor Maze

giant floor mazeYou’ve been getting little hints on our Instagram, but here’s an exclusive first look at something big on our horizon. This month, my library is hosting a major math event. It’s called A Day at Digitopolis (named, of course, after the famed city in The Phantom Tollbooth). Today, you’re going to get a sneak peek at one of the activities – a giant 16′ x 16′ floor maze. But this is no ordinary maze! You have to get from start to finish without taking a single right-hand turn. Want to build one of your own? Read on!

I first encountered this puzzle at the Manhattan Museum of Math (home of the famous square-wheeled trike!). Their version, however, is a no left-hand turn maze that’s digitally projected on a big section of their exhibit floor. A floor projection wasn’t an option for us, nor was a vinyl mat, nor cardboard. The answer? $30 worth of green contact paper and a maze design by Robert Abott.

robot abott's maze

©2009 by Robert Abbott

I did have to make a couple tweaks to Robert’s original maze. In his version, there are a couple of sections where the path goes right to the edge of the maze (specifically, on the left, right, and top sides). I added a border of green boxes to keep the pathway entirely enclosed.

added boundriesOnce I finalized the maze design and decided that it was going to be 16′ x 16′, I had to calculate how much contact paper we needed. The rolls I found on Amazon were a standard width of 18″, so I just had to determine the length. I work best with models, so I crafted a little maze, in which 1″ = 1 foot.

dr. dana's modelOnce I added up the lengths of all the pink pieces, I had a rough estimate of how much contact paper we would need (112.25′). I ordered two, 75′ rolls, which left plenty of extra paper for mistakes. The task of actually building the maze fell on Marissa and Casandra Monroe. Casandra is a Princeton University student and super math whiz!

casandraCasandra sketched the maze on graph paper, in which 1 square = 1 square foot. Then she drew a 16 x 16 square and sketched the various pieces inside it. To make the calculations nice and simple, she made path through the maze 1′ wide.

casandra's diagramThen, Marissa and Casandra headed to the library’s cavernous main lobby and started building. They laid down the outer walls of the maze first:

arranging the exteriorAnd then cut and placed the internal pieces of the maze.

arranging the interiorWhile they were filling in the pieces, they used a measuring tape to keep the path as close to 1′ as possible (even though there were some areas where the path was wider).

measuring the pathwayMarissa and Casandra kept the backing on the contact paper. But to keep the pieces from curling up, they used masking tape loops to temporarily adhere it to the floor.

tape loop expertThey also used permanent marker to label the backs of all the pieces and match them to a diagram of the maze.

writing the lettersThe morning of the event, we’ll be able to glance at the diagram, check the backs of the pieces, and peel and stick the maze quickly (we’ll have a measuring tape on hand to remeasure the pathways too).

set-up diagramAll in all, the maze took about 3 hours to put together. Cue “Eye of the Tiger!”

eye of the tigerThree important things: 1) Don’t forget to mark the start and finish of your maze (we’re using extra pieces of contact paper with “start” and “finish” written on them in permanent marker); 2) At the event, make sure to have the solution posted somewhere nearby (or available as a handheld map); and 3) Test the maze!

Ian, our faithful maze tester, went through the maze and soon discovered that one of the green blocks was, if fact, making a necessary turn impossible. So Marissa and Casandra adjusted it, and sent Ian through again. No problems after that!

ian tests it outThe real test, of course, will be at the event. There might be some last minute tweaks or unforeseen problems when crowds of kids are introduced into the equation. I’ll dutifully update this post if there are!

This isn’t the first time I’ve used contact paper to make large-scale event activities. Check out our most popular toddler activity ever, right here.