1. Ella Fitzgerald
In this lesson plan, we’ll start from the particular and move outward
to the larger subject. First, familiarize students with the music
of Ella Fitzgerald by watching the American Masters film about
her life and music. The film contains several extended performance
clips as well as good information on the history of jazz vocals. If
time is an issue, you could select a few of the performances to show,
but it would be better to see the whole thing to gain the context
of jazz history.
After watching the film, discuss the roots of jazz. How and when
do the students think jazz got started?
- Jazz means many things to many people, but here is one basic definition:
"A musical style created mainly by African-Americans in the
early twentieth century that blended elements drawn from African
musics with the popular and art traditions of the West." (http://www.essentialsofmusic.com/)
- The term jazz came into popular use around 1914. Some called it
"jass," but it finally caught on as jazz. The word was
first included in print on a record label in 1917. The music itself
was heard as early as 1900 — no one knows exactly when because it
wasn’t recorded until later.
- Jazz was created from a variety of influences: songs and dances
of slaves, minstrel show music, American folk music, religious music,
ragtime piano, the blues and marching brass bands.
- Improvisation is important to many forms of jazz. Improvisation
means to compose and play at the same time.
Ella Fitzgerald started as a swing singer and later moved on to
bebop, perfecting the "voice-as-instrument" style known
as scat. She had a diverse range, so she also sang other types of
American music. In the next part of the lesson, students will study
different sources and types of jazz, including swing and bebop, in
order to get a sense of the many styles encompassed by the term jazz.
2. Jazz Research
Next, students will break up into groups and do some research touching
on both jazz styles and African-American history. Each group will
take one (or more, depending on class size) of the following types
of music to research. Each group will need a unique topic, so there
is no overlap.
- Ragtime (roots of jazz)
- Blues (roots of jazz)
- New Orleans Jazz
- Cool Jazz
- Free Jazz
- Jazz Rock
Each group will use the library and/or the Internet to find three
- A short description of the characteristics of that musical style,
along with the years it was popular.
- A song or piece of music on CD that exemplifies that style. They
should know the year of the recording.
- An major event in African-American history that happened within
5 years of the recording date of that song.
See Student Organizers for
an assignment sheet.
3. Music Appreciation Day
In 1-2 class periods, each group will make a presentation including
items 1 and 2 above. After describing the type of music, they will
play their chosen piece of music for the class. The class can then
have a brief discussion of that type of music. How does that piece
show typical characteristics of the style? How might it differ? Do
they like it or not? Allow for free-form discussion and enjoyment
of the music.
Sum it all up with a brief discussion on what they have heard. Did
they realize that jazz included so many different types of sounds?
Which of the styles were best for dancing and which were meant more
for listening? Do they see any influences of jazz in the music they
listen to today?
4. Jazz History Day
To get some overall context for the development
of jazz as part of African-American culture, the final class period
will be devoted to creating a timeline from
the recordings and events.
You can use a set of taped-together posterboards that make a long
panorama or a roll of paper taped to the wall. On it, draw a long
straight line and add a mark for every ten years from 1900 to the
present. (Or you can let the students add the years as part of the
Each group will add their piece of music (title and artist) and their
historical event to the timeline using colored markers. You may also
want to come up with some key milestones in African-American history
to add to the timeline to flesh it out a bit more. Ask students to
help you add these. Let the activity include some brainstorming. You
might even want to have some reference books handy so students can
look up events and dates on the spot.
When the timeline is done, have everyone sit back and look at the
timeline. Let the students discuss and draw conclusions about how
African-American history has been related to the flourishing of jazz.
If desired, you can also assign a homework essay on this topic.
Students will be assessed on the quality of their participation
in class discussions and the timeline activity, and on the output
of the group research activity. Students can also assess one another.
If an essay is assigned at the end, students can be assessed on their
writing as well as understanding of the material.
- Connect this lesson plan to other American Masters lessons to
develop the theme of "what makes an American Master."
- Invite a local jazz musician or the host of a jazz radio show
to come to the class. They could talk about jazz and play some of
their favorite jazz music for the students.
- Connect this to a unit on African-American history in the 20th
- For music students, expand the lesson to include more detailed
information on tone color, syncopation, melody, etc. Have them evaluate
and comment upon techniques used, based on listening to performances
and reading sheet music.