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Classroom, Jazzy lessons and activities for K-12 cats

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Black and Blue: Jazz in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man


Ralph Ellison, musician-turned-writer, wrote Invisible Man like a jazz composition. The novel has many solo parts, and the events seem improvised as the unnamed main character goes from the south to the north, with many ups and downs. His life is a sad song, illuminated in the end with his self-made light bulbs that seem to cry, "Why am I so black and blue?"

In this lesson, students explore recurring themes of invisibility and jazz by reading excerpts of the novel, writing about major characters, summarizing events, connecting jazz themes with key concepts in the novel and creating new interpretations of the impact of jazz on Invisible Man. Students will use the discussions and reading and writing experiences to compose documented essays in a class book that describes the influence of jazz on Ralph Ellison as a writer.


Students will:

  • interpret key themes and concepts in Invisible Man that are also found in jazz compositions;
  • describe the influence of jazz on the characters in Invisible Man; and,
  • explain the influence of jazz on Ralph Ellison as a writer.

Estimated Time

Thirteen 50-minute class sessions with out-of-class time for research, drafting and preparing projects.

Materials Needed


  • Copies of the novel Invisible Man for all students
  • Copies of the poem "I, Too" by Langston Hughes
  • PBS JAZZ, Episodes Two ("The Gift"), Three ("Our Language"), and Four ("The True Welcome")
  • Lyrics to Louis Armstrong's "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue"
  • Instrumental jazz selections on audio tapes or CD's

General Supplies and Equipment

  • Student journals
  • Cassette recorder and blank audio tapes
  • Computers with internet access and word processing software
  • VCR and television
  • Newsprint
  • Overhead and transparencies
  • Wide markers in a variety of colors
  • Loose-leaf binder for class book

Teaching Procedure

Session One

  1. Introduce the lesson by encouraging students to view JAZZ 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.

  2. Discuss the meaning of the lyrics and the implication of being "black and blue." Have students speculate about the speaker and the feelings expressed. Guide students in their speculations by asking whether Black and blue refer to mood, skin tone, the inability to be seen in certain circumstances, physical injury, etc.

  3. State the objectives and relevant standards. Be certain that students understand what is expected of them.

Sessions Two and Three

  1. Direct students to write in their journals about other colors that have special connotations (e.g., the color red and anger, or the color green and envy).

  2. Have students share orally. This will help students to be aware of more than one perspective and give them ideas for the next assignment.

  3. Have students write their own color lyrics and read them with an instrumental jazz selection. Jazz selections may be provided by the teacher or by the students. Make an audiotape of the students reading.

  4. Evaluate the lyrics according to the rubric below (or a similar one). Evaluations should be done on both the live and recorded readings.

Session Four and Five

  1. Locate the following statement in the prologue of Invisible Man:
    Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underworld of sound to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking,
    What did I do
    To be so Black
    And blue?
  2. Have students form groups of four and begin reading the prologue, beginning at the quote and continuing until the beginning of the section titled "Juneteenth."

  3. Watch Jazz episode Two, "The Gift" (approximately 4:58 - 17:13). Direct students to pay close attention to the segments focusing on Louis Armstrong to determine why this song might reflect aspects of his life. Ask students to summarize the episode and record their ideas in a double entry journal. Remind students that in a double entry journal the summary is written on the left side of the page and the response/reaction on the right side.

  4. Tell students to use their journals and the excerpt from Invisible Man to discuss the references to black and blue. After the discussion, students should write a group summary of what it means to be so black and blue. Tell them to note any similarities between references in the "Prologue" and in the song lyrics.

  5. Have student groups share their work orally.

Session Six

  1. Introduce another concept of invisibility by reading, "I, Too" by Langston Hughes.

  2. Direct students to write a journal entry explaining the concept of invisibility in "I, Too."

  3. Share entries.

  4. Ask students to write a short essay that compares/contrasts the concept of invisibility in Ellison's prologue and Hughes's poem.

Session Seven

  1. Form student groups of four to revise, edit, proofread, and publish the essays in a loose leaf binder. Page protectors are recommended to protect the essays during handling.

  2. Evaluate the essays according to the rubric below (or a similar one).

Session Eight

  1. As a warm-up, direct students to write a journal entry that describes an occasion when they have felt invisible.

  2. Instruct students to again form groups of four, share their journal entries and select a situation from the journal entries to role-play.

  3. Discuss the role-playing. Key questions may include the following:
    • How would you feel in that situation?
    • What would you have done or how would you have handled the situation?
    • What does the situation say about society?
    • What does the situation say about human relations?

  4. Assign students to read chapters one through five of Invisible Man. Tell them that they are reading to find examples of invisibility and to learn why this is called the great jazz novel. Suggest that they pay close attention to how jazz affects the characters.

Session Nine

  1. Have students respond to the reading in a double entry journal. Remind students that in the double entry journal they should use the left column for the summary and the right column is for their response/reaction.

  2. Ask students to use their journal entries to discuss questions such as the following:
    • What references are made to invisibility in these chapters?
    • What examples or references are made to jazz?
    • With is the significance of the names of the characters and the Golden Day?

  3. Tell students that these and similar questions are to be considered as they continue to read assigned excerpts of the novel. Selected excerpts should reflect aspects of invisibility and jazz themes. An example of a suitable excerpt is in chapter 14 with the quote, "St. Louis mammieeee- with her diamond riings..."

  4. Encourage students to revisit JAZZ, Episode Three. Direct them to look for specific events that may connect to Invisible Man, such as the Harlem Renaissance jazz artists who struggled to create their own identities. Cite Armstrong's decision to begin recording under his own name.

Sessions Ten and Eleven

  1. Tell students to rewrite one of the scenes from a chapter of their choice in Invisible Man. Two examples of rewriting are changing the outcome of a scenario or changing a character's behavior.

  2. Have students role-play the rewritten scenes. An optional but worthwhile activity is to videotape the presentations as a means of self- and peer-evaluation.

  3. Evaluate the presentations according to the rubric below (or a similar one).

Session Twelve

(This session may require some out-of-class time for research and writing.)

  1. As a culminating activity, have students form groups to research the life and times of Ralph Ellison. (See Recommended Resources below).

  2. Guide students in preparing a PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate their findings. An overhead with transparencies may be substituted or students may report out via a panel.

  3. Evaluate the group presentations according to the rubric below (or a similar one).

Session Thirteen—Summative Assessment

(This activity may require out of class time to draft, revise and edit. The resulting product should be a class book, "The Influence of Jazz on Ralph Ellison as a Writer.")

  1. Direct students to write an essay describing the influence of jazz on Ralph Ellison as a writer. Essays should be documented and should address major events in Ellison's life that impacted on his choice to become a musician-turned-writer.

  2. Evaluate the final essays using the rubric below (or a similar one).

  3. Construct a class book of the essays.

Assessment Recommendations

Rubric for Evaluating Song Lyrics

3—Lyrics demonstrate complete understanding of color connotations, meaning of the song is clear, language is descriptive and interesting, presentation (reading or singing) has a "professional" tone, presentation is clearly heard and understood.

2—Lyrics demonstrate some understanding of color connotations, meaning of the song is somewhat clear, language is interesting, presentation is complete, presentation is slightly amateurish, presentation is slightly difficult to hear and understand.

1—Lyrics are few and do not show understanding of color connotations, meaning is unclear, language is repetitious and uninteresting, very amateurish, difficult to hear and understand.

Rubric for Evaluating Essays

3—Is insightful with fully developed ideas, has clear sentences written in a variety of patterns, has effective transitions, has specific and relevant details that reflect the purpose, is appropriately organized, has precise, vivid and expressive word choice, represents exemplary writing.

2—Is insightful with developed ideas, has clear sentences written in a variety of patterns, uses transitions, has relevant details that reflect the purpose, is appropriately organized, represents commendable writing.

1—has limited development of ideas, no evidence of purpose or theme, repetitious sentence pattern, ineffective transitions, extraneous details, represents limited understanding of assignment.

Rubric for Evaluating Presentations

3—Well organized, original and unique approach, engaging and provocative, demonstrates understanding of the plot of the selection, easily heard and understood, evidence of rehearsal and preparation, appropriate props, participation of most group members.

2—Thoughtfully organized, instances of uniqueness, provocative, demonstrates understanding of the plot of the selection, easily heard and understood, evidence of some rehearsal and preparation, props, participation of most group members.

1—Slightly organized, predictable and bland approach, shows no understanding of or relationship to the plot of the selection, difficult to hear and understand, no evidence of advance planning and rehearsal, no props, limited participation of group members.

Rubric for Evaluating Group Presentations

4—Clearly communicates understanding of key information, clear and coherent organization, participation of most group members, evidence of originality and/or creativity, engages the audience, goes beyond expectations.

3—Demonstrates understanding of key concepts, clear organization, content relates to the purpose, participation of most of the group members, evidence of originality and/or creativity, engages the audience.

2—Demonstrates misinformation of some key concepts, weak organization, somewhat relates to purpose, participation by at least half of the group members, some evidence of originality or creativity, somewhat engages the audience.

1—Demonstrates obvious misconceptions or misinformation, too many vocal fillers, lacks coherent organization, does not relate to purpose, lack of participation of most group members, little or no evidence of creativity, does not engage the audience.

Rubric for Final Essays

3—Clear focus, appropriate and effective organization, effective transitions, clearly stated purpose, vivid sensory details, relevant details that support the theme, few or no errors in grammar, mechanics, usage and spelling, consistent, careful and precise word choice.

2—Clear focus, appropriate organization, transitions, stated purpose, vivid sensory details, relevant details that support the theme, minor errors in grammar, mechanics, usage and spelling, precise word choice.

1—Unfocused, no noticeable organization, ineffective or inappropriate transitions, unclear purpose, details that are unrelated to purpose, few sensory details, numerous errors in mechanics, grammar, usage and spelling, general and imprecise word choice.


  • Play the Louis Armstrong tape or CD, "Black and Blue." Explain that Andy Razaf wrote the song. Direct students to find out more about Andy Razaf, paying close attention to why he wrote this song and what other Razaf songs may have influenced the theme of Invisible Man.

  • Research references to blue and Black in jazz selections of the period during which Ellison was writing. Explain how they might have influenced character development. Examples include songs by Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters.

  • Divide the class into groups and have them role play characters and/or scenes. Freeze the players and have other students give an oral commentary on the role-plays.

  • Construct an examination for students who were assigned to read the prologue to Invisible Man.

  • Create a newspaper front page for activities of Andy Razaf, the narrator in Invisible Man, and Louis Armstrong. Include fillers that depict other Harlem activities.

  • Rewrite one or more scenes from Invisible Man into another genre, such as drama or poetry.

  • Use the Lyrics to Louis Armstrong's "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue" to write and perform a skit or narrative.

Recommended Resources

Selected Essays

  • "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" by Andy Razaf in Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Edited by Eric J. Sundquist, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, Boston 1995.

  • "The Music of Invisibility" by Tony Tanner in Modern Critical Views: Ralph Ellison, Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1986.

    "The Sound of Music" in Black Americans of Achievement: Ralph Ellison, by Jack Bishop, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1988.

(Texts containing the essays are widely available in school and public libraries.)

Web Sites

I'll Make Me a World

King of the Bingo Game: Ralph Ellison

Classic Note: Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

Encarta: Ralph Ellison

Relevant National Standards


  • Read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
  • Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
  • Employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • Conduct research on issues and interest by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems.

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning

  • Understands the relationship between music and history and culture (Music).
  • Understands the cause of the Great Depression and how it affected American society (United States History).

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. Top