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Professor Tim Wolfe: From Bebop to Hip Hop

Check out professor Wolfe's example of using hip hop in the classroom.

Jazz music is Tim Wolfe’s passion.

One of his favorite childhood photographs depicts him blowing into his father’s tenor saxophone. He started playing the clarinet in second grade. As a sixth-grader he got an alto saxophone, which he calls “the best Christmas present I think I’ve ever had.” He played in several bands throughout high school. Shortly after coming to the Mount he joined the faculty band, and currently plays various venues in the area as the lead in the Tim Wolfe Trio, a band he founded with two of his four sons. Dr. Wolfe also chooses all of the acts for the Wednesdays at the Fountain music series — a highlight of the Mount Summer program.

You might think Dr. Wolfe is a music professor – but he’s not. He’s a sociology professor. He’s also the creator of one of the Mount’s most unusual courses – SOC 320: From Bebop to Hip Hop: Sociology of Modern American Music. Students in the course examine several musical genres from a sociological perspective.

He believes music and sociology make the perfect combination for a class.

"Sociologists are really interested in differences — different groups, people from different backgrounds,” Dr. Wolfe says. “Jazz is really about blending different elements — European elements, West African rhythms, influences from all over the world, so there’s that kind of overlap and connection."

“Music is a great window into a culture’s way of life and the lyrics reveal a lot about what’s important to us,” he explains. “What’s popular at the time reveals a lot about the economy. People wonder how rap became so popular — poor people from inner-cities might not have any band instruments, but they might have a turntable, so it was really economics and technology that really gave rise to this music. Who would think a record player could become an instrument?”

His class included a service-learning component — a project to provide band instruments to children who couldn’t afford them.

“The research is clear on this — kids who play an instrument have all kinds of advantages — academic advantages, advantages in terms of self-esteem, staying out of trouble,” Dr. Wolfe says. “It’s not a magic wand, but it’s one thing that helps kids be more grounded, more confident."

His students collected about two dozen musical instruments which were donated to a nearby public elementary school, and the feedback from his students was very positive.

“A number of them commented on how much they loved music but were unaware of its power, and how it could be a really useful way to get kids to do better academically,” he says.

Dr. Wolfe’s research focuses on college students majoring in jazz studies. During a recent sabbatical he interviewed more than 70 students at eight different colleges and universities to determine the type of person who pursues jazz studies in a formal setting. He went to classes, rehearsals, performances and jam sessions, learning everything he could about the students. He plans to routinely check in with them to see whether they are achieving their goals.

“It’s very gratifying to meet people who are passionate about music,” he says with a smile.

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