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Jazzy lessons and activities for K-12 cats

"The Will to Play Together": Jazz Music and the Crisis Over School Desegregation

Estimated Time of Completion: 1 week of class time; in addition, a week or more of work time outside the classroom.


  • To learn about the Civil Rights movement with a focus on Little Rock, Arkansas
  • To appreciate Louis Armstrong's unparalleled contributions to American music.
  • To reflect on how jazz musicians expressed the zeitgeist of the Civil Rights era through their music.
  • To work in cooperative groups.
Materials Needed
  • The PBS documentary JAZZ. This lesson draws on sequences from many of the episodes.
    (Please note: Episode Nine contains the use of profanity. Be certain to screen the video before showing it to students.)
  • The PBS Web site for JAZZ, as well as other sites listed in the body of the lesson.
  • A tape recorder (optional but recommended).
  • Selections of jazz music, especially that of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and other jazz musicians recording in the late 1950s. Short excerpts from many of the great jazz artists will be available at the PBS JAZZ Web site. Or you may purchase CDs of the all-time most popular songs by the giants of jazz from Shop PBS.
  • Materials for writing scripts.


This lesson correlates to the National Standards for History, National Center for History in the Schools located online at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards/:

  • Explain the origins of the postwar civil rights movement and the role of the NAACP in the legal assault on segregation.
  • Evaluate the Warren Court's reasoning in Brown V. Board of Education and its significance in advancing civil rights.
  • Explain the resistance to civil rights in the South between 1954 and 1965.

    Procedures and Activities


    Explain to your students that they are going to produce a jazz radio program as the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas unfolds before the nation in early September of 1957. That fall, as children across the nation began school, nine African-American students stood at the gates of segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and were refused entry by Governor Orville Faubus. Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the children from entering, in a direct challenge to the federal government. Three years earlier in Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court had ruled that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional. Faubus was determined not to let Central High School be integrated. Not since the Civil War had a state so blatantly challenged the power of the federal government. In early September, no one knew what would happen next.

    Tell students that in their jazz radio broadcast they will interview many jazz musicians, legal scholars and writers, as well as play the jazz music of the 1950s. The most important guest on their show, however, will be Louis Armstrong. This is because in 1957 Armstrong risked his fame and fortune when he criticized President Eisenhower for failing to publicly support the Supreme Court decision and act forcefully in Little Rock. (Several weeks into the crisis Eisenhower did, in fact, send federal troops to Arkansas to ensure that Central High School would be integrated.) Additionally, Armstrong turned down a historic opportunity to go on goodwill tour of the Soviet Union for the State Department.

    Activity 1: Louis Armstrong Takes a Stand

    Hold a preliminary discussion to find out what the class knows about Louis Armstrong. They probably know that he was an African-American who played the trumpet. How famous do they think he was, and why? If they know of him, what images of him come to mind, and how would they describe him?

    Explain that while everyone acknowledged that Armstrong was the greatest jazz trumpet player of all time, some people (including many African-Americans) were put off by the image he projected. They felt he pandered to the tastes of his white audiences while projecting the image of the "happy Negro" which had been popular in turn-of-the-century minstrelsy. Did Armstrong deserve this image, especially now since he was the only jazz artist of his day to speak out against segregation with such force?

    You may want to review the events that unfolded in Little Rock before students watch "Ooftah" from Episode Nine of JAZZ. (This segment begins approximately 40 minutes into the film and ends 9 minutes later.) Alternatively, you can watch "Ooftah" to generate students' interest in learning about those events.

    After students have finished watching "Ooftah" hold a discussion. Divide the board into two sections: label one "positive views of Armstrong" as expressed in the film and the other "negative." Then, through discussion, elicit what students remember.

    At the end, your blackboard might look like this:


    Vaudevillian, not artist
    Played into "minstrel" stereotypes
    Should have played jazz not pop tunes
    Pleased white audiences
    Neglected the tastes of black audiences


    Risked his career to take a stand
    Spoke out about racial injustice
    Willing to turn down an historic opportunity for the sake of his beliefs
    Only black performer to take such a stand

    Now ask students what they know, or would like to know, about the events in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 that elicited such a strong reaction from Louis Armstrong. What about these events upset Armstrong so much? Who did he criticize? Do you think he was being a disloyal American or a noble one for taking the stand that he did? Ask students how they think they would have felt had they lived through these events as they were happening. What questions would they like to ask Armstrong when they "interview" him for their radio broadcast?

    Activity 2: Learning About School Desegregation

    One way to have the entire class learn about events in Little Rock as they unfolded is to have them read or enact "Nine for Justice." It is one of 26 scripts produced by the Southern Regional Council, based on an oral history project. The Southern Regional Council works to promote racial justice, protect democratic rights and broaden civic participation. An article about the series appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of Social Education. The script can be downloaded, printed, and distributed to students. (The SRC has granted PBS permission to do so for purposes of this lesson.) Alternatively, you can have students read the script online, or order the CD's and tapes of the program from the SRC.

    A lesson on the Supreme Court decision itself can be downloaded from The Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives, available at http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/constitution_community.html.

    You may also wish to have students interview someone now at least in their late 50s or early 60s who may remember these events, or show relevant portions of the documentary Eyes on the Prize.

    Activity 3: Topics for a 1957 Jazz Radio Program

    Depending upon how much work you want to assign each class member and the number of students in your class, you may wish to create several radio broadcast teams, or have everyone contribute to one radio broadcast.

    Here is a list of suggested segments for the radio broadcast. Each segment requires between two and four students working together to "produce" it. Your students may suggest other ideas in addition. Students should access the PBS JAZZ Web site for information on various aspects of jazz.

    1. News updates from Little Rock, Arkansas as the crisis unfolds. The radio broadcast will take place after September 2nd, 1957, before President Eisenhower decides to send in federal troops, almost two weeks later.

    2. Interview with Armstrong, including a retrospective of his musical contribution to American jazz, and roundtable discussion with some of his critics (younger, more militant jazz artists). For Armstrong Web sites go to:

      Satchmo: The Official Site of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives

      Louis Armstrong Discography

    3. Analysis of the Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) as discussed by several legal experts.

      See http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/brown_v_board_documents/brown_v_board.html already listed above.

    4. Interview with Thurgood Marshall about his groundbreaking work for the NAACP and the Brown decision.

      For a history of the NAACP go to http://www.naacp.org

      For Thurgood Marshall, access:

      Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

    5. Interview with Rosa Parks about the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. What tactics does she feel will be most successful in ending school segregation? For information about Parks go to:

      National Womens Hall Of Fame

    6. Roundtable discussion with a panel of "presidential historians" about President Eisenhower, his stand on school desegregation up until this time (he was opposed to it) and what they think he will do next. For Eisenhower Web sites access:

      Eisenhower Birthplace

      PBS Online NewsHour: Opening Doors And Minds

    7. Interviews with African-American authors James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1952).

      For Ralph Ellison go to:

      New York Times Books

      Irving Howe: 1952 Review of Invisible Man published in The Nation

    8. Jazz music of the 1950s. This team will select the music played on the show, and give commentary about it, with an emphasis on showing how jazz music became more experimental and radical as younger musicians responded to the crisis over Civil Rights.

      Direct students to the Jazz Lounge on the PBS JAZZ Web site for information about jazz styles.

    9. Advertisements (this is optional, but if you add them in, students should research the products that were available in the 1950s). Go to American Memory of the Library of Congress at http://memory.loc.gov/ or research the National Archives at http://www.archives.gov/research_room/arc/index.html.

    (Note: Students may note that there are few obvious roles for women in the radio show. They could be presidential historians or legal experts, as well as take on other roles. But it might be useful to point out that in fact, few women actually filled these roles in the late 1950s. When women joined the Civil Rights movement they often found themselves relegated to the role of "secretary." Their dissatisfaction would later fuel the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s.)

    Activity 4: Assigning Roles for the Jazz Radio Show

    Create an appropriate number of jazz radio teams. Then ask each team to meet and divide among them the topics listed above. Make it clear that every student will need to do substantial research for her or his role.

    Then ask each radio statio team to decide on:

    • What city it is broadcasting from, and what its call letters will be.
    • What its motto and musical theme will be.
    • Who will be the announcer who introduces the various segments of the show.
    • Who will be the station manager who sequences the various episodes and records them. Alternatively, the broadcast can be performed "live" from the studio for a viewing audience.

    Activity 5: Viewing Relevant Portions of JAZZ

    You may not have the time to show all of these segments. If you show several, you can intersperse group work time (research and writing) with viewing the film. A suggested list of the most important clips appears at the end of the list.

    Segments of the JAZZ series that trace the career of Louis Armstrong:

    1. From Episode Two, "The Gift" beginning at about seven minutes into the film and ending at about 22 minutes with a scene of World War I and airplanes.

      This is a gripping segment about Louis Armstrong's early life. As students watch it, suggest that they think about what interview questions they would ask Armstrong.

      Focus questions for watching the clip:

      • What is the importance of New Orleans in Armstrong's life? Would he have become the same person had he grown up in another city? How important is the place you live to who you might become as an adult?

      • Does Armstrong seem bitter about the hardships he had to confront in his early youth?

      • What important role did the Karnofskys play in Armstrong's life? How might his relationship with them have affected Armstrong's relationship to white people throughout his life?

      • Was being sent to the Waif's Home a fortunate or unfortunate event for Armstrong?

      • How do other people react to Armstrong as a person and musician, even in his early youth? Why?

      • Why does Armstrong want to stay in New Orleans forever?

    2. From Episode Two, "To Make the Angels Weep" beginning at approximately 132 minutes into the film and ending at approximately 143 minutes.

      This segment continues with Armstrong's life as he moves first to Chicago and then to New York.

      Focus questions for watching the clip:

      • What are the significant contributions Armstrong made to American music in terms of trumpet playing, melody and "swing" rhythm?

      • How do the big band leaders nurture younger talent?

      • What effect does his marriage to Lil Hardin have on Louis Armstrong's career?

    3. From Episode Four, "Mr. Armstrong" beginning approximately 13 minutes into the film and ending at approximately 41 minutes with the next title "Elegance."

      The first ten minutes or so covers the ways in which Armstrong broke into the more popular New York City venues which were for white audiences. Then the segment focuses on Armstrong's major contribution to American vocal music. At approximately 26 minutes he sings a powerful song "Black and Blue" about what it means to be black in a white world. It ends with the influence Armstrong had on his audience.

      Focus questions for watching this clip:

      • In what way did Armstrong change American vocal music forever? What vocal artists today have unique singing styles? Can you think of a more recent singer who has changed the style in which others sing?

      • Some viewed Armstrong as being too willing to please his white audiences, of sweeping under the rug his deeper or truer feelings. Is this a justified view?

      • How does Armstrong's career develop? How do other people help propel him? How does he seize opportunities that come his way? What role does his sheer talent play?

    4. From Episode Five beginning at about 21 minutes into the film with the sound of a trumpet and scene of street cars, ending about eight minutes later.

      This segment covers some of the more troubling aspects of Armstrong's career, from his reliance on his white manager to his willingness to play stereotypically "Negro" roles in films.

      Focus questions for watching the clip:

      • How does Armstrong defend himself under criticism? How do his supporters do so today?

      • Is ongoing criticism of Armstrong justified?

      • What rock stars today are criticized, and for what?

    5. From Episode Seven, 102 minutes into the film to 105 minutes.

      This brief segment picks up when Armstrong is 40 years old and describes his final, happy marriage.

      Focus questions for watching the clip:

      • How would you relate Armstrong's need for a happy home to his upbringing in New Orleans?

      • Why do you think so many stars fail to find personal happiness? Why do you believe Armstrong did so?

    6. From Episode Eight, about 34 minutes into the film until 40 minutes.

      This episode shows Armstrong's determination not to let segregation interfere with the creative process. He appears on stage in New York City with a white colleague he much admired, Jack Teagarten. But when he invites Teagarten to play with him in his hometown of New Orleans, the city refuses. Armstrong never sets foot in New Orleans again.

      Focus questions for viewing this clip:

      • We continue to see conflicting images of Armstrong as an "Uncle Tom" and as a man of utter principle. Which of these images should be Armstrong's enduring legacy?

    7. From Episode Nine, "Ooftah," the sequence with which this lesson began.

    Segments of JAZZ that introduce us to other artists as the times become more militant:

    1. From Episode Eight, "Sustained Intensity" beginning at about 56 minutes into the film.

      This segment introduces us to the next great trumpet player, Miles Davis. He grew up in a privileged home, and develops a new style of playing as well as a "cool" and aloof persona.

      Focus questions for viewing the clip:

      • Armstrong grew up in poverty and Davis in wealth, yet Davis seems the angrier man. How might you explain this? What events in American history are taking place as Davis comes of age?

      • In what other ways can you compare and contrast these two giants of the jazz trumpet?

    2. From Episode Nine, the opening sequence which lasts about five minutes gives a good overview of the beginning of the Civil Rights movement and the jazz world as it begins to fragment into a variety of very personal styles.

      Focus questions for viewing the clip:

      • How does music reflect the politics and zeitgeist of the times?

      • What do you think today's popular music says about our day?

    3. From Episode Nine, "The Messengers" beginning at about 50 minutes into the film and ending approximately 11 minutes later. This segment directly follows "Ooftah." It introduces us to the "Jazz Messengers" who are eager to bring jazz back to its black roots.

      Focus question for viewing the clip:

      • How does the style of the Jazz Messengers differ from the style of Louis Armstrong? Which do you prefer and why?

    4. From Episode Nine, "Inside Out" beginning at about 113 minutes into the film and ending with "Existence Music" at about 130 minutes.

      This episode goes into depth about Miles Davis's life and music. His personal anger seems to mirror the increasing rage of African Americans in the late 1950s. Yet some of his most significant collaborators (Gil Evans and Bill Evans) were white.

      Focus questions for viewing the clip:

      • How would you contrast the personality and playing styles of Armstrong and Davis?

      • How do both men transcend race in their music making?
      • What appeals to young people about Davis's personal sense of style? In what ways does Armstrong seem "old fashioned" by comparison?

    5. From Episode Nine, "Existence Music" from 130 minutes into the film takes us into the 1960s with John Coltrane and a much more radical style of music. The rest of Episode Nine continues to explore this trend. You might want to show these sequences after students put on their radio programs to show what came next in jazz, and to try to relate the new sounds to the radical politics of the 1960s.

    Most Recommended JAZZ Segments: From the above, the most important to show are:
    • Episode Two, "The Gift"
    • Episode Four, "Mr. Armstrong"
    • Episode Eight, "Sustained Intensity"
    • Episode Nine: "The Messengers"

    Activity 6: Script Writing

    After students have completed their research and watched segments from the JAZZ series, they should work to complete scripts for their portions of the radio broadcast. These can be detailed outlines from which they can ad lib questions and responses, or word-for-word scripts. The announcers should also prepare scripts of their introductions and comments. The team working on jazz music of the 1950s should provide the musical selections for the broadcast as well as commentary. The station manager should sequence all segments of the broadcast.

    Activity 7: Listening to the Broadcast and Debriefing

    Students may tape their radio programs and then play them for the class, at a school assembly or at an evening event for the community. They could also present their programs as if they were being broadcast live from the recording studio, so that the audience would watch them live as they spoke into "microphones."

    Assessment Suggestions

    • Students may be evaluated on the content of their portion of the radio broadcast. It should reflect the research they conducted.

    • Once you have recorded or presented the radio broadcast you can assign work based on the students' newly-acquired understanding of school desegregation.

    • Students can evaluate each other or be evaluated by you for their ability to work as a member of a cooperative group.


    • What should be done to more fully integrate American schools and universities today? Ask students to suggest proposals and hold debates about various alternatives.

    • When else in American history has the theory of states rights led to conflict with the federal government? Compare the arguments advanced by segregationists in Little Rock to Calhoun's doctrine of nullification during the tariff crisis (1833), or South Carolina's secession from the Union (1861).

    • What should be the role of celebrities in politics? Compare the role of Louis Armstrong to movie stars and rock musicians in more recent years.

    • Ask students to research the lives of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong and compare them as men and jazz trumpeters.

    About the Author
    Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. Her work in the classroom has been described in various articles she has written over the years for Social Education. Joan and fellow-colleague Sari Grossman are the editors of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature. Joan is also a contributing author to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at www.nara.gov/education/cc/.

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