“Jazz is About Collaboration”: Jim Crow Laws And Segregation

Estimated Time of Completion: One week of class time, and a second week of meeting and writing time for small groups which may be done independently.


  • To learn about the importance of jazz music in American life during the Depression.
  • To learn about Jim Crow laws and their effect on African-Americans.
  • To appreciate that de facto segregation existed even where segregation was not mandated by law.
  • To contrast the ways in which America’s most significant contribution to the arts, jazz music, depended on collaboration, whereas segregation valued separation above all else.
  • To pave the way for students to understand the Civil Rights movement.

Materials Needed

  • The PBS Ken Burns documentary JAZZ. This lesson uses primarily Episodes Five and Six.
  • The PBS Web site that accompanies the JAZZ series, as well as other Web sites listed in the lesson.
  • Writing implements for keeping a diary.
  • Art materials for creating posters. For one optional activity, a tape recorder would be useful.
  • A road map/atlas of the United States.


This lesson correlates to the National Standards for History, National Center for History in the Schools located online at https://socialsciences.ucla.edu/:

  • Analyze the role of new laws and the federal judiciary in instituting racial inequality and in disfranchising various racial groups.
  • Understand how new cultural movements reflected and changed American society.
  • Understand how American life changed during the 1930s. Analyze the impact of the Great Depression on the American family and on ethnic and racial minorities. Explain the cultural life of the Depression years in art, literature and music.

Procedures and Activities


In this lesson, groups of students form imaginary jazz bands which tour several cities in Depression-era America. Students do not need to play actual instruments to be in a “band,” but any musically-inclined students should be encouraged to perform. Jazz band members create imaginary identities for themselves, develop publicity for their tour, and keep diaries of their journey. The lesson is set up to generate great excitement in the planning phase of the tour, during which students will learn about the development of jazz music in the 1930s. While the lesson does not focus on the Depression per se, teachers might add that focus if they so desire. At the end of the lesson, students reflect on the ways that segregation encountered during their band’s “tour” would have affected African-Americans during the ’30s.

Assessment Suggestions

  • Students may be evaluated on their diary entries. You may read and grade them according to a rubric you introduce at the start, or you may let students evaluate each other’s work and provide feedback. It is important that the entries reflect what students have learned about a segregated America.
  • Students may be evaluated for their advertisements for their band, their band biography, for their overall ability to work productively within a group, and for their participation in class discussion.

Extensions / Adaptations

  1. Ask students to read a biography of one jazz artist. Ask students to write a review or present a talk which addresses the effect of segregation on the artist and his or her work.
  2. Compare the Supreme Court decisions of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to Brown v. the Board of Education (1954). How did the 1954 decision eventually lead to the demise of segregation?
  3. Arguments over the most effective ways to integrate America still cause controversy. Choose an issue like school vouchers or affirmative action and hold a debate.

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 http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/constitution_community.html.

All content in this curriculum provided by PBS. Chiaroscuro is not responsible for the content provided therein. Any questions, contact teachersource@pbs.org

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