1. Read the Essay
Ask students to read the essay in print or online at www.neajazzinthe schools.org. Students should explore the online resources (introductory video, audio clips, and photos) as they read. Remind students that the dawn of the Jazz Age is thought of as a time of optimism. Why are some periods of time “optimistic” or “pessimistic”? Elicit historic examples, and consider the perspectives of different groups (such as whites and blacks after World War I, and blacks leaving for Chicago as part of the Great Migration as compared to blacks in the Deep South).
2. Music and Popular Culture
Ask students how innovative music, or music that is popular, reflects the times in which it is created. What music today is popular? Does it reflect our times? If so, how? What does it mean for music to be innovative? What are the musical characteristics of today’s innovative music? Is this music in some way influenced by the social or political events of our time? Does music, in turn, influence social events?
3. The Post–World War I Era
Elicit from students characteristics of American political and social culture after World War I. Review the movement toward urbanization, migration north and west, the Progressive Era and its social movements, segregation, and immigration. Discuss how America was emerging as a great world power. At home, America was also more diverse through immigration, yet much of American society was strictly segregated. As jazz continued to develop, it also became enormously popular and became a unifying force and a symbol of American identity and culture.
4. The Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and World War II
Through discussion, compare and contrast the opportunities and challenges for ordinary Americans in three periods: the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and World War II. (These broad topics could also be approached as an in-class discussion, or as a longer research and writing assignment.) How did Americans respond to the economic opportunities and challenges? Focus particularly on the movement north by African Americans, social and economic differences between the North and South, and the role of blacks in the segregated armed forces. What were the opportunities for personal expression and economic success for blacks? Compare the role and portrayal of blacks in the growing movie industry with the popularity of jazz musicians.
5. The Music
Familiarize students with significant jazz musicians of the 1920s and 1930s. Focus on Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman. Trace their evolution as significant innovators, bandleaders, or consolidators of popular musical taste. Review where they were born, where they lived, where they traveled, and how geography and local culture influenced their development (and, therefore, jazz history). For instance, Louis Armstrong’s music was rooted in New Orleans, but like many others he traveled north to Chicago, a center for various recent immigrant groups. There, Armstrong and others influenced a number of white musicians (such as Benny Goodman). Review the increasing flexibility and innovation by soloists and bandleaders, the development of the improvised solo, the growth of big bands, the change from a two-beat feel to an even four beats per bar, and the importance of bandleaders and arrangers. Explore how white musicians, such as Goodman, Gershwin, and Whiteman, increased the popularity of jazz. (This step can be effective as group research and presentation.)
6. Jazz and Desegregation
Remind students that the accomplishments of the civil rights movement were based upon other seminal historical and cultural events. Review how the efforts of Reconstruction ended with oppressive Jim Crow laws, voting restrictions, and economic hardship. By the 1920s, however, there were growing black populations in northern cities. Black jazz musicians and singers were also achieving significant fame. Black and white musicians increasingly played together, but not publicly. Ask students what events helped break down racial barriers and stereotypes. Discuss how exceptional it was at the time for Benny Goodman to perform with an integrated combo. Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 presented an integrated program, as did the Carnegie Hall concerts produced by John Hammond in 1938 and 1939. African-American bandleaders, such as Ellington and Basie, were popular with both black and white audiences. Later, during World War II, African Americans served with distinction in the segregated armed forces. Soon afterward, the armed forces were desegregated and Jackie Robinson left baseball’s Negro American League for the National League Brooklyn Dodgers. The stage was set for the desegregation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. (One way to approach this step would be for students—individually or in groups—to research and report on Jim Crow laws, integration, racial stereotypes in music and film, the first integrated jazz bands, and desegregation of the armed forces and baseball.) View this lesson plan at www.neajazzinthe schools.org for a related activity on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
The invention and widespread use of radio and recordings had an enormous influence on American culture. Ask students how today’s technology affects the way we listen to music, how music is distributed, and the kinds of music we have access to. Discuss new technologies, such as digital media and the Internet, and how they are changing the ways we listen to music. Refer back to the growth of radio and recording and emphasize that these inventions were a comparable revolution in access to music. Discuss regional differences in America (food, speech, accents) and how these differences tend to diminish through our access to national media. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, radio and recording helped spread regional musical styles and consolidated them into an overall jazz identity. For instance, the solo voices of Louis Armstrong on “West End Blues” and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on “Body and Soul” changed the language of jazz and inspired countless imitators. Similarly, the propulsive swing of Kansas City—listen to Bennie Moten’s “Moten Swing” and Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”—changed the rhythmic feel of jazz.