Children as young as eight are studying exam pieces by Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus as the popularity of blues, be-bop and boogie-woogie soars among music teachers and pupils. Nearly 1,300 children have taken piano exams at grade one to five after just one year of teaching, putting jazz on a par with classical courses, and sales of coursebooks have exceeded 100,000.
The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which administers school music exams, may now extend its pioneering jazz syllabus to a range of new instruments next year. Charlie Beale, professor of jazz piano at the Royal College of Music and co-ordinator of the new courses, said: "There is no hostility to jazz at all [from the classical music establishment]. Maybe it's because of the Blair generation of parents who were 17 to 25 in the late 1960s and have kids between 10 and 15. They have no problem with jazz. It has gained a respectability compared with rock, pop and dance music and has a Radio Three-ness about it."
Jazz courses are a far cry from the classical grades known to generations of schoolchildren. Learning to read music is optional, with children instead encouraged to learn in the time-honoured jazz fashion of listening to recordings by the greats.
Improvision is compulsory, even in the most basic grade one exams, where children have to perform five "solos" in their 10-minute rendition of tunes such as Miles Davis' Jean Pierre or Charles Mingus' O Lord Please Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me.
Other jazz greats on the syllabus include the saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the pianist McCoy Tyner.
Study aids include CD recordings of a backing band so children can get into the groove while practising their riffs. By contrast, traditional classical grades include sight reading and the theory of music. The introduction of the new courses followed a gradual move from traditional classical instrument teaching in schools.
A survey this year found more secondary schools were offering electric guitar lessons than teaching piano. Only 55 per cent of schools said they had an orchestra, down from 66 per cent six years ago. Professor Beale said: "The exciting thing is that people get off on the music. There are people buying CDs and listening to them.
"There's a revolution going on. There's no requirement to read stave notation, although people can if they want to; we advise everybody to learn this music from the CDs.
"When we started this, the assumption was that it would be a slow build- up as teachers got used to the music. But the books have been running out of music shops around the country. It's pretty clear there's something going on."
Cool Tunes For Children
Grade 1: Charles Mingus: O Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me. Miles Davis: Jean Pierre
Grade 2: Charlie Parker: Now's the time
Grade 3: Benny Goodman: A Smooth One. Dizzy Gillespie: Birk's Works
Grade 4: Duke Ellington: I'm Beginning to See The Light. Miles Davis: Freeloader
Grade 5: Miles Davis: All Blues. Sonny Rollins: Oleo. Billy Strayhorn: Take the A Train