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.
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 musiciansreplete 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
As students watch the segments have them take notes in the following categories; alternatively, stop after each segment to discuss the following topics
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."
- 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?
Activity 2: Creating the Band
Now assign students to their jazz band teams. (Teams of 4 or 5 members work best, but you can easily make them larger.) Although there were many all-white or all-African-American bands in the 1930s, in order to illustrate the effects of segregation on American life tell students that most of their members must assume the roles of African-American men. Each band should also include one white male musician (or manager) and one African-American woman. (There were some female artists performing at this time, but not many. Wives of the performers occasionally accompanied the band on tour.)
Then, if you have time, show the following clips from JAZZ:
In Episode Five, in the section "Men Working Together" there is a segment about Benny Goodman's decision to include Teddy Wilson, an African-American pianist, in his trio. It begins around 104 minutes into the video.
In Episode Five, the segment seven minutes (trains with hobos) to 21 minutes into the video (streetcars with sound of horn) explains how white America made jazz a big business and reaped the profits for itself. It also shows how Duke Ellington responded to the painful effects of segregation.
Episode Eight, approximately 34 minutes into the film, describes how in 1947 Louis Armstrong invited Jack Teagarten (a white trombonist) to play with him at Town Hall. The sequence ends approximately five minutes later when the city of New Orleans refuses to let the two play together.
Questions to pose if you have time to show the above clips:
Ask each team to decide together the following:
Was segregation a problem only in the South?
- Were segregated jazz groups the norm because of how black musicians felt about white musicians, and vice versa, or because of how their audiences responded?
- How did some African-American artists deal with the injustices and humiliations of segregation?
- The name of their band.
- Their band's hometown
- The band members' names.
- The instrument(s) each band member plays.
- The general style of the band's music.
- The jazz musician most admired by the band.
- The band's hopes for the future.
Also ask that each team designate which band members function as manager, arranger, conductor, and so forth.
Direct students to the Jazz Lounge on the PBS JAZZ Web site for information about jazz styles. To help students figure out what instruments were in a jazz swing band, direct them to the "Behind the Beat" section of the JAZZ Web site and ask them to look at the credits for recordings made in the 1930s. For ideas about some famous jazz artists, students can do research in the Biographies section of the PBS Web site, as well as the following:
"Jazz Essays" at http://www.redhotjazz.com/essays.html
Schomberg Center for Research in black Culture at http://www.nypl.org/research/sc/scl/MULTIMED/JAZZHIST/jazzhist.html
Activity 3: Writing Biographies
Now ask that each student write a biography of themselves as a jazz artist. First, they should figure out how old they are at the moment (c. 1937), then work back in time and figure out when they were born (e.g. 1915). Using the historical and social information on the PBS JAZZ Web site, students should try to interpret how historical events would have affected them and their familiess, particularly from an African-American perspective.
Suggest that students look at some real-life biographies of jazz artists on the JAZZ site. If you have class time, show more JAZZ video clips of the early lives of great jazz artists like Louis Armstrong (Episode Two, the sequence "The Gift" which begins approximately six minutes into the film); Billie Holiday (Episode Five, beginning about 107 minutes into the film and ending about six minutes later); and Duke Ellington (Episode 2, approximately 143 minutes into the video).
Students may find this organizer to be helpful in pre-writing: Guidelines For Preparing A Biography.
Activity 4: Sharing Biographies
Now members of each jazz band need to get to know each other's fictional selves.
Ask each team member to share his or her biography with members of the group. Each group should sit in a cirlce, and each person in the circle should pass his or her biography one person to the left. The person on the left should read the biography and ask its author any questions which seem important.
Now members of the band should introduce one another. In other words, each person will introduce to the entire group the person whose biography they have read. Encourage students to ham it up a bitů "Joe is the best pianist since Jelly Roll Morton, and he will make our band the equal of Duke Ellington's anyday."
Activity 5: Constructing the Story of the Band
If you have the time, show this segment from the JAZZ documentary:
Episode Seven, "We Need to Be Free" which begins approximately 116 minutes into the film. You need only show the next ten minutes, the section which demonstrates how Duke Ellington wrote specifically for the instrumentalists in his band, and how he got them to play their best on stage even if they were not on speaking terms offstage.
Ask students in what ways making music is like playing on a team. For what reasons might band members not get along? They might compete for audience "ratings," disagree with each other's politics, have dated the same man or woman, etc. Why might some band members be good friends? They might hail from the same city, like the same foods, share a love of the same sport, admire each other's musicianship, etc.
Now ask students to create the story of the band itself.
They should use "Places, Spaces, and Changing Faces" on the PBS JAZZ Web site for ideas. Keeping in mind that they now need to blend their individual biographies into a group identity, have them answer the following questions:
Now ask the group to write a "band biography." Each member of the band should keep a copy of it for later use.
- Which musician(s) started the group and why? What city did the band start in?
- Which musicians were added later to the group, and why?
- What older musicians sponsored the group, or were mentors to some of the players?
- Has the band had any serious disagreements to date?
- What financial risks or problems face the band?
- What recordings has the group made together? Name them.
- Describe the band's very best concert ever.
- Describe what reviewers are saying about the band.
- Describe what the band's critics are saying about the band.
- Describe the band's goals for the next year.
Activity 6: Planning a Tour
Ask students to access information in "Places, Spaces, and Changing Faces" on the PBS JAZZ Web site. Based on what they have read, seen on the video, or experienced first hand, ask students to formulate an itinerary departing from either New York City or Chicago. Each band's itinerary should include a minimum of three cities. Require that one of cities be in a Southern state. Also require that the tour include two small town venues in between big cities, such as a college campus, movie theater or hotel ballroom. One of the small town stops must also be in a Southern state. Tell students that they can travel a maximum of 400 miles between stops. Distribute road maps or atlases, or access online mapping sites like MapQuest or Vicinity. Ask students to plot their route from city to city, without using today's super highways (most of which were not yet built).
Depending on your time schedule, you may or may not wish to ask students to search online for information about each city they visit. A good source of information about various cities in the 1930s would be the WPA guides that were written at the time and can be found in reprints for such cities as New Orleans or New York City. The Library of Congress's WPA Life Histories collection, organized by state and available online, is a great place to start. Individual WPA guides for Virginia and Tennessee are available online.
Activity 7: Publicity
Now that each band has a real identity, ask each team to create publicity for its tour. Each member of the band should help to create at least one.
Options for publicity include:
When all teams have completed their publicity assignments, they should give a presentation to the class with an eye to selling "tickets" to their concerts. If possible, have groups play their own music, perform dances, play "radio" commercials, distribute flyers and exhibit posters. You may or may not wish to make this a competition to see who can sell the most tickets.
- Posters and flyers. Use album cover art for inspiration.
- Radio commercials. These could be taped and include an excerpt of the band's music. If you have musicians in your class, ask them to create their own. Otherwise may use tapes, CD's or perhaps download something from the PBS JAZZ Web site from a group they would like to emulate.
- Dance numbers presented live. These should correspond to one of the band's latest hits. Check out the "Dance" section of the JAZZ Web site for more information.
Activity 8: Learning About Segregation
The bands are now ready to go on their imaginary journeys. Help the class consider the travel arrangements they will have to make. Who will drive? Will the manager have to make reservations? Where will the band eat and sleep? What luggage will they have? How can the band travel as economically as possible during hard times?
Then ask the class to consider the following question:
What would be different about taking this tour back in 1937 compared to today?
Students will naturally think of many things; it's the Depression, there was no air conditioning, etc. Some students may or may not think of segregation. You may wish to explain the difference between de facto segregation in the North and West and segregation based on state statutes in the South. You may also wish to assign textbook reading on Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court decision which made segregation legal. Now ask, what would segregation mean on a day-to-day basis for their tours?
To answer this question, ask students to read "The Jim Crow Years" set in Little Rock Arkansas from Will the Circle Be Unbroken? 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.
From the script students will be able to:
- Deduce the "rules" of the Jim Crow South.
- Learn how the rules affected every aspect of everyday life for both blacks and whites.
- Appreciate the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that African-Americans fought the system.
- Learn that some whites also struggled to liberate the South from the stranglehold of Jim Crow.
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.
If you download and print it, students can perform a dramatic reading of the script. Including the Narrator, there are 20 roles. The most pivotal of these is Ozell Sutton, an African-American who grew up the son of a sharecropper. Later he became a journalist for the Arkansas Democrat and Special Assistant to Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. Brownie Ledbetter is a white woman who expresses her outrage at the segregationist mores under which she lives.
After students have either read or enacted the script, they should be able to answer the Jim Crow Study Guide questions in class discussion or in writing.
Now ask the class to make a list of all the "rules," big and small, that segregation imposed on life in the South before and during the 1960s.
Then ask, What will this mean for you as your jazz band tours the South? Allow considerable time for discussion. It is in the minutia of daily life that students will understand segregation's full impact.
For other Web resources about segregation see:
"Voting and Discrimination," The Bill of Rights in Action. Scan down for the second article, "Race and Voting in the Segregated South."
The Afro-American Almanac
For documents relating to segregation, search "American Memory" of the Library of Congress at http://memory.loc.gov/ or the National Archives at
Activity 9: On the Road
Show Episode Five, beginning about 43 minutes into the film with an image of a train and the title "The Road" and ending at about 52 minutes.
Based on what they've seen in the film clip, ask students to make lists of the kinds of difficulties they will encounter on the road, both physical and psychological.
Activity 10: Keeping a Diary
Each member of the team must write five diary entries to complete the assignment. Aim for a minimum of one page of writing per entry. Students can also download photos from the Web and paste them in as photos they took of Depression America. The five entries should correlate to the five stops the jazz band will make on the road. Since each team's itinerary and cast of characters is different, their diaries will vary. Also remind diarists that even if they are members of the same band, their experiences will differ depending on whether they are assuming the character of a black man, black woman, or white man. Before they begin to write, remind students that in many northern towns and cities de facto segregation existed, and in the South, segregation was mandated by law.
Tell students that their diary entries can include many details of everyday life, comments about the places in America they are visiting, as well as exciting episodes. However, each diary entry must describe at least three of the following situations. Thus, for each stop on their tour, the team must meet and decide the overall story line of events for that imaginary day before individual members write their separate entries.
Activity 11: Sharing Diaries, Sharing Experiences
Your bus or car breaks down and you need to get help.
- A member of your band gets sick and you need to get medical help.
- You must house your band players in a small town where there is no hotel for African Americans.
- You must figure out what to do for a concert in which black and white players cannot be seen on stage together.
- You must figure out how to house the band overnight, since the black and white players will not be allowed to stay in the same hotel.
- Two band members are having serious interpersonal differences and do not want to play together that evening.
- You play to your most enthusiastic crowd yet.
- You enter a new and exciting city you have never been to before; describe it.
- You are exhausted and booked to play at a dance hall where few people show up.
- On the road you are struck by the suffering of many people in Depressio-era America.
- A band member is insulted by a racial slur or indignity.
- You have been driving in the South and cannot find a restroom marked "For Colored Men" or "For Colored Women"
- An incident occurs which lets you know that there are some white Southerners who feel that Jim Crow laws are burdensome and unjust.
- A policeman stops your bus on the road to make inquiries.
- You meet some aspiring jazz musicians who admire your group.
- You learn that the all-white jazz band that played before you earned almost twice as much as your group did.
Suggestions for debriefing from the Jazz Tour experience:
- Diaries can be shared in many ways. Band members can read each other's diaries, or each band can present their overall experience to the class by reading excerpts from their diaries and playing their music (performed live, or taken from a tape or CD).
- Hold a discussion about what students learned about the impact of segregation. Why is segregation antithetical to the "all men are created equal" premise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?
- How is segregation antithetical to the creative and collaborative nature of jazz music? What other ventures in life would be stymied or stifled altogether under a segregated system?
- 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.
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