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.
- 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
OverviewIn 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.
Activity 1: Jazz in the 30s
Show the segment “Like Taking a Drug” from Episode Five of JAZZ. It begins approximately 53 minutes into the film and ends 6 minutes later with a new a title, “Men Working Together.” The segment depicts the first teen craze in America generated by popular musicians—replete with screaming fan clubs, dance crazes, and clothing fads. Although the decade is the 1930s (and much may appear funny and quaint to teens today), much else will strike them as eerily familiar.
After watching the segment, discuss the similarities and differences between “swing fans” and today’s music fans. What kinds of new technologies enabled jazz to become the first of all teen crazes (e.g. records, radio, the first sound films)? Do recording stars today get a similar reaction from their audiences? Ask students how they would have felt if they had been the leader of a jazz band in the 1930s.
Now tell students that you are going to divide the class into teams. Each team will form an imaginary jazz band that will tour America in the late 1930s. It is the height of the Swing Band Era, and jazz musicians have become celebrities and sex symbols. Their music, played incessantly on the radio, blares across Depression America, lifting spirits and luring Americans to halls and clubs where they can dance their troubles away.
Tell students that each band will have the opportunity to decide what instruments each member will play, what they will name their band, what style of music from the ’30s they’ll play, who their idols are, how they will dress, and so forth. As they go on their imaginary tour, each band member will be asked to keep a diary of events.
Show the first 45 minutes of Episode Six, or select from the segments below those you have time for and deem most important:
Depression America and Jazz
From the beginning to approximately 13 minutes into Episode Six, the film covers an overview of Depression America including its effect on African Americans, the commercialization of Big Bands in the East and why musicians are drawn to the Midwest, where a more pulsating blues sound is still alive. It also introduces us to Coleman Hawkins.
From approximately 13 minutes to 19 minutes into Episode Six, the video highlights the importance of the saxophonist Lester Young who heads for Kansas City. The sequence begins with a street scene.
From 19 minutes to 28 minutes into Episode Six, the Kansas City scene itself is the focus, including the life of musicians who improvise well into the night. This sequence begins with the heading “Kansas City” and ends by introducing Count Basie.
From 28 minutes to 34 minutes, we learn about the life and music of Count Basie. It begins with the chapter title “Count Basie.”
Mary Lou Williams
From 35 minutes to 42 minutes, the film focuses on the role of women in jazz, highlighting the importance of Mary Lou Williams. This sequence ends with the title, “Memories of You.”
Memories of You
From 42 minutes to approximately 47 minutes, the film covers a bit of Louis Armstrong, more on Count Basie (who adds singer Jimmy Rushing to his band), the venues where jazz bands played in Depression America, and the importance of music to America at this time. It ends with the title “Musical Kinship.”
As students watch the segments have them take notes in the following categories; alternatively, stop after each segment to discuss the following topics
- What were the hardships faced by Americans, and especially African-Americans, during the Depression?
- What are the instruments you hear in jazz bands during this time?
- How did jazz bands travel at this time?
- Were the jazz bands themselves integrated?
- Did the jazz bands play to integrated audiences?
- What were some of the important cities in the jazz world?
- What were some of the popular dances in the ’30s? How do these dances differ from the dances of today?
- What kinds of clothing did people wear in their everyday lives during the ’30s? When they were dancing?
- Who are some of the important jazz artists at this time? How many of them seem to have been women? What were some of the problems female jazz artists may have faced?
- Which one of these musicians did you like most and why?
- 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
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.