Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr.

Lesson Plan – Crescent City Gumbo: Race & Jazz in New Orleans

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Grades: 9-12

TIME ALLOTMENT: Two 45-minute class periods


This lesson uses video excerpts from the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to explore the history of racial diversity and intermingling in New Orleans, and how it gave rise to the uniquely American art form of jazz.

The Introductory Activity introduces students to the concept of specific places having a certain character it imparts to its residents, and challenges them to consider the character of their own home state. The Learning Activities use Dr. Gates’s video interviews with celebrated jazz musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. and a website from the PBS series Jazz to examine what it is about New Orleans’ history and character that makes it such a uniquely vibrant American city with such a rich musical legacy. In the Culminating Activity, students research three other American cities and prepare Student Organizers discussing their unique characters and contributions to jazz.

This lesson is best used as part of a unit of jazz history, New Orleans history, or the cultural contributions of African Americans.

SUBJECT MATTER: American History, Social Studies

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

– Discuss what is meant by the specific “character” of different places.

– Outline the history of New Orleans, and describe the different cultures which came to find a home there.

– Describe how the racial and ethnic diversity of New Orleans contributed to its vibrant musical culture.

– Summarize the character of their own home city or state.

US History Content Standards, National Center for History in the Schools

United States Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

– Standard 2 – Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.

-Standard 2A: The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants.


– Distinguish between the “old” and “new” immigration in terms of its volume and the immigrants’ ethnicity, religion, language, place of origin, and motives for emigrating from their homelands.

– Trace patterns of immigrant settlement in different regions of the country and how new immigrants helped produce a composite American culture that transcended group boundaries.

United States Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930) 

– Standard 3 – How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression.

– Standard 3C: The student understands how new cultural movements reflected and changed American society.


– Explain the growth of distinctively American art and literature from the social realists to the “lost generation.”



Finding Your Roots, Episode 1, selected segments.

Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.

Clip 1: “Growing Up in New Orleans”

An introduction to the rich musical culture of New Orleans and the impact it had on Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., growing up there as young musicians.

Clip 2: “A Willing Association”

An investigation deep into the roots of Branford Marsalis’ family tree yields a surprising family fact and an early example of why New Orleans possesses such a  unique racial culture.

Clip 3: “Becoming More Negroidal”

Harry Connick, Jr. discusses his onetime insecurity about being a “skinny white boy” in a largely African American musical genre, and Branford Marsalis describes a jazz innovation attributed to his great-great-uncle.


The Birthplace of Jazz

A primer on New Orleans history and culture from the website of the PBS series Jazz.

For each group:

– Computer with internet access

“The Birthplace of Jazz” Student Organizer

For the class:

– Computer with internet access and projection screen

“The Birthplace of Jazz” Student Organizer (Answer Key)

Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark all of the websites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom, or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal. Preview all of the websites and video segments used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.