Estimated Time: This lesson is composed of four integrated teaching sessions designed for 45-55 minute class periods. Taught as a complete unit, the lesson may span two to three weeks, depending on the amount of time allowed for in-class sharing and writing.


Louis Armstrong said, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.” Ralph Ellison said, “Jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group…” With this lesson students will attempt to develop their individual and collective definitions of jazz.

In most cities today, continuous jazz can be heard on a local FM radio station. Usually, the music will be easy listening or “smooth jazz,” as it is commonly referred to in urban settings. However, this music does not completely “define” jazz. Does this music represent a particular kind of jazz? Are there other “sounds,” that are not “mellow” and “quiet storm” sounding music? If so, where did the sounds come from, and who were the early players? How does this sound distinguish itself from the sounds of earlier years, or is there a distinction? Does everyone like this type of music? What do likes and dislikes have to do with the definition of the jazz art form?

The lessons and activities assembled here will answer these questions and perhaps raise additional questions for students to explore.


Students will:

  • read two selected texts and extract definitions of jazz from various famous people, such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ralph Ellison;
  • compose a working definition/explanation of jazz;
  • develop a time line of the jazz era from the early 1900’s to mid-century using multiple resources;
  • read selected biographies;
  • listen to selected interviews with jazz artists who describe the art form of jazz; and,
  • listen to music composed or performed by jazz artists.

Teaching Procedure

Recommended Resources

Relevant National Standards

NCTE Standards for English Language Arts

  • Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; and to acquire new information.
  • Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts.
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write.
  • Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • Students use a variety of technological and information resources.

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning

  • Understands the relationship between music and history and culture. (Music)
  • Knows the characteristics and uses of computer software programs. (Technology)

About the Authors

Judith Kelly, currently director of the D.C. Area Writing Project, taught middle school for 27 years in the District of Columbia Public School System. She was recently honored by the D.C. Council of Teachers of English.

Patricia Bradford, chairperson of the English Department at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Prince Georges County, Maryland, was recently named Prince George’s County Teacher of the Year.

Consentine Morgan, currently academic dean at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in Washington, DC, has taught English for 28 years. She is one of the three 1999-2000 ACE-Intel Teacher Summer Institute grand prize winners for her lesson plan integrating technology into history and English language arts.

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

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