Fifth Grade - Music - Lesson 11 - African American Origins of Jazz

Note to the Teacher

The BCP/Core lessons for First Grade deal with the African American origins of jazz in Lessons 11 and 12. This year's fifth graders cannot have had the benefit of the BCP/Core curriculum for their First Grade, so this lesson does not assume that prior knowledge.


Observe the African American beginnings of jazz.

Listen carefully to some piano music of Scott Joplin.

Note the rhythmic quality of ragtime piano music.

Listen carefully to some vocal and instrumental solos of Satchmo (Louis Armstrong).

Participate in an activity that demonstrates syncopated rhythm.


Recording of Scott Joplin's The Entertainer or Maple Leaf Rag, see Suggested Recordings

Recording of Louis Armstrong's St. Louis Blues, Potato Head Blues, Basin Street Blues, and/or other Satchmo classics, see Suggested Recordings

Suggested Recordings

Scott Joplin's Greatest Hits, RCA Victor CD 60842.

Both Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer are on this inexpensive disc. If you use another, just be certain it is not an orchestral arrangement of Joplin's music. The students should have an opportunity to hear the kind of "raw piano sound" of Joplin's ragtime.

Louis Armstrong's Greatest Hits, RCA Victor CD 68486.

This inexpensive disc has both St Louis Blues and Basin St. Blues. There are dozens of other good recordings for Armstrong. Try for one that has both his vocal and instrumental solos.

Suggested Books

Student Titles

Cornell, Jean Gay. Louis Armstrong: Ambassador Satchmo. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1972.

A good first biography of this world-famous jazz singer and musician that is unusually straightforward about Satchmo's arrest and enforced period of training in a Waif's Home in Louisiana as a youth. It is also filled with Satchmo's experiences with music.

McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. Louis Armstrong: Jazz Musician. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1991.

This is a straightforward telling of the highlights of Armstrong's development as a musician. Black and white photographs illustrate the text. This is more complete than Cornell's biography.

Medearis, Angela Shelf and Michael R. Music. New York: Holt, 1997.

Part of a series about African American arts. This gives an overview of the entire history of African American music, beginning with what they call "The African Connection" and ending with a chapter on rap music.

Medearis, Angela Shelf. Treemonisha: From the Opera by Scott Joplin. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

This act by act retelling of Joplin's opera is designated K-4, but it would make good independent reading for 5th graders. The composer spent years writing the opera and it failed in 1915 when it opened in Harlem. Beginning in the 1970s, revivals had been highly successful. Treemonisha is a powerful fictional African American heroine who lived during the years shortly after the emancipation of slaves. She works and stands for the idea that education is the most important means of uplifting African Americans. Watercolor and colored pencil illustrations by Michael Bryant are very powerful.

Millender, Dharathula H. Louis Armstrong: young music maker. New York: Alladin Paperbacks, 1997. Originally published in 1972 by Bobbs-Merrill and still available at libraries in that edition.

A wonderful chapter book that reads like a real story and would be good for reading aloud, although it can also be read independently without difficulty by fifth graders.

Mitchell, Barbara. Raggin': A Story about Scott Joplin. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1987.

A good Joplin biography for this age group with black and white pencil drawings by Hetty Mitchell.

Weik, Mary Hays. The Jazz Man. New York: Atheneum, 1967.

This is a special book by a mother and daughter team: the story, set in Harlem, is by Weik and the very expressive woodcuts are by her daughter Ann Grifalconi. It is the story of a young African American boy enthralled by jazz and dealing with neglect at home. It is comfortable reading for fifth graders.

Teacher Reference

Brown, Sandford. Louis Armstrong: Swinging Singing Satchmo. New York: Watts, 1993.

Sophisticated and somewhat racy for fifth graders, but this is a well-researched biography with Source Notes, Glossary, and a section For Further Reading which make it a good source for the teacher.

Monceaux, Morgan. Jazz: My Music, My People. New York: Knopf, 1994.

This is packed with background information for the teacher. The illustrations are cartoon- style portraits of important African American performers and composers, which should be shared with the students. They were done in a combination of pastel, paint, and markers--with lots of handwritten text included as part of each. In addition to the cartoons, Monceaux has created interesting collages for some of the musicians that try to capture the essence of the person. They could inspire a good activity in connection with this lesson.

Preston, Katherine. Scott Joplin: Composer. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

This is a well-researched biography with an introduction by Coretta Scott King and good black and white illustrations from the period throughout.

Teacher Background

Since jazz is the only form of music uniquely American in origin and early development, it makes a good subject for Black History Month. The combination early in this century by African Americans--first in New Orleans, then in Chicago and Kansas City--of African polyrhythms and melodic patterns together with some typically European rhythms and harmonic progressions of marching bands resulted in what came to be called jazz.

Material about the history of jazz in America grows almost daily, and there are fine collections of archival music, photographs, and stories available in libraries as well as record and book stores. The most important thing is that the students get a real sense of what the music of these famous jazz pioneers sounded like. Pieces written and played by Scott Joplin and Louis

Armstrong are basic to this history and can be supplemented with a whole variety of others who are named in several of the books suggested above if you don't have strong personal favorites.


Tell the students that the music we call jazz began in the United States in the African

American community. Ask for a definition of jazz. You will probably receive many partial answers that describe different aspects or qualities of jazz. Encourage the students express their ideas freely, then tell them how Genie Iverson has described jazz, as "African drum rhythms, French and Spanish dance melodies, church music and work songs from the days of slavery, all mixed together." Write those terms on the board underneath the word jazz, and brainstorm with the students to see whether they can together think of examples of those different kinds of music, either from pieces they have learned at school or heard elsewhere.

Tell the students that the first person whose music they will listen to today was born just after the Civil War, in 1868 and died in 1917. His name is Scott Joplin. He was African American, and we think of him as a pioneer in composing a new kind of music that people had not heard before. Write his name on the board and play just a bit of either Maple Leaf Rag or The Entertainer and ask for the name of Joplin's instrument (piano). Tell them that around the turn of the century, when Scott Joplin was a young man, pianos were used the way recordings are today. Nearly everyone had a piano at home, and there were pianos for dancing and singing in bars, dance halls, and restaurants.

Say to the students: Listen carefully to the piece all the way through, and this time tap out a steady beat with your pencils or hands at your desks and see what you observe about the special way Joplin uses rhythm in his pieces. When they have listened ask them: What did you notice about trying to follow the rhythm in Joplin's music? (Accept any answer that indicates a sense of syncopation, either between the two hands of the piano or in the upper, melodic part itself.) Ask them: Does anyone know what people call this kind of music that Scott Joplin made famous? (ragtime) If no one knows, tell them the answer and that the name came from the fact that the rhythm is so "ragged."

Tell them about Joplin's life, using information from any of the biographies suggested above. The students should know about how much music there was in Joplin's family, his mother's valiant efforts to find a piano that her son could play, about the opera Joplin spent so many years writing, and about the sad and difficult ending to his life.

If any of them have seen the film The Sting, remind them that all of the music for that film was ragtime music written by Scott Joplin. If any of them have heard music from Treemonisha, try to find and read the book by Angela Medearis suggested above.

Play one or two of the pieces by Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo as he was affectionately known. Ask the class: Do you think what you heard Louis Armstrong playing was jazz? (yes) Give some evidence for your answer. (Accept any reasonable responses.) What is Louis Armstrong's solo instrument? (cornet, trumpet) Do you think his voice and his trumpet sound similar? (In what ways yes? In what ways no? Give evidence or descriptions.)

If at all possible, read one of the biographies suggested above or suggest that the students read about Satchmo on their own. It is important that they know what the city of New Orleans was like as he grew up, what it was like for him to be arrested and placed in what they called the Waif's Home, and how his music took him all over the United States, and even all over the world eventually.

If there is time, play the Armstrong pieces again or play a different one and tell the class to pay attention to the rhythm the way they did in the Scott Joplin ragtime. When they have listened, see if they can describe to you the differences they hear between the rhythm of ragtime and the rhythm of Louis Armstrong's style of jazz.

Syncopation Activity

Tell the students that one of the characteristics of all jazz is the use of syncopated rhythms. Syncopated rhythms can be developed in a whole variety of ways, as they have heard in the examples of the Scott Joplin pieces and those of Louis Armstrong, but all syncopated rhythm has an important common element: it goes against what we expect to be the strong, regular beats.

Say to them: Syncopation is something you can probably feel in your body more easily than you can talk about it. All jazz musicians are able to feel it in their bodies and play it with their instruments. Let's try an experiment with syncopation that will demonstrate how the rhythm goes against the expected strong, regular beats.

1. Divide the class into two groups.

2. Write on the board: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and ; have everyone say the whole pattern together, saying everything but clapping only on the bolded numbers.

3. Write elsewhere on the board : 1 and and 2 3 and and 4, 1 and and 2 3 and and 4. Have everyone try that pattern in the same way, saying everything but clapping only on the bolded numbers.

4. When they begin to feel the rhythm, have one group do the first pattern as the other does the second. Be sure you keep the tempo the same between the groups, and as they begin to feel the syncopation, have them speak so softly that all anyone can hear is the clapping, playing off one another.

5. Congratulate them and tell them that's the kind of rhythmic play that jazz musicians feel when they're jamming together.

Fifth Grade - Music - Lesson 12 - More About Jazz

Listen to some examples of blues.

Note the importance of women vocalists to the jazz tradition.

Listen to some examples of scat singing.

Become familiar with the term improvisation in music.

Make up a simple blues (optional).


Examples of early blues songs, see Suggested Recordings below

Recording of one or more pieces of Duke Ellington, see Suggested Recording

Examples of scat singing in jazz, see Suggested Recording

Classroom-size map of U.S.

Suggested Recording for Scat Singing

Ella & Louis, Verve CD 835-313-2.

As the title suggests, this is a collection of cuts from the 1950s made by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. It is particularly good at illustrating the way Satchmo's personality and inimitable growling come through in vocals. The interaction with Ella only enhances it. There are good examples of scat singing from both of them.

Suggested Blues Recordings

Mississippi John Hurt, Last Sessions, Vanguard CD 79327.

Big Bill Broonzy, The 1955 London Sessions, Collectables CD 5161.

Bessie Smith, The Complete Recordings, Vol. 2, Legacy 47471.

Essential Women, House of Blues, 2CD set 61257.

This contains classics such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing "Trouble in Mind," Bessie Smith "Do Your Duty," Ma Rainey singing "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Sippie Wallace singing "Black Snake Blues," and Willie Mae Thornton Singing "Hound Dog."

Suggested Ellington Recordings

Complete Concert of 14 January, 1964, Fourstar CD 40063

Includes classics such as "Take the 'A' Train," "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," and "Black and Tan Fantasy."

Ellington's Greatest Hits, RCA Victor CD 68488

All the tunes are written by Ellington and recorded by his band between 1928 and 1967, including "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," "Caravan," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."

Suggested Books

Student Titles

Medearis, Angela Shelf and Michael R. Music. New York: Holt, 1997.

The chapter called "The Blues Experience" is especially good.

Schroeder, Allan. Ragtime Tumpie. New York: Little, Brown, 1989.

Easy reading for fifth graders, but one of the few books for youngsters about a woman in the world of jazz--this one about Josephine Baker.

Silverman, Jerry. Folk Blues. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

110 American Folk Blues arranged for voice, piano & guitar. Includes a chart of basic guitar chord fingering patterns, an informative introduction that tells a lot about the various performers who originated these songs. Also includes a good bibliography and discography. Any students truly interested in pursuing the blues form as a way of expression would find this book very useful.

________. Just Listen to This Song I'm Singing: African-American History Through Song. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1996.

This is an excellent collection of 13 songs written by African Americans. Good background information is provided for each, in addition to piano-vocal score and guitar chords for playing the music. Songs vary from traditional spirituals, ragtime numbers, blues, and more recent tunes such as "We Shall Overcome," which is based on an old hymn. Silverman gives suggested listening versions for each song, always recommending the classic recorded performers.

Venezia, Mike. Duke Ellington: Chicago: Childrens Press, 1995.

This is easy reading for fifth graders, done with Venezia's usual attention to the visual as well as the biographical. Good black and white photos of the Duke plus some reproductions of paintings of the jazz world give a good feeling for the periods of the life of this great popularizer of jazz.

Teacher Reference

Monceaux, Morgan. Jazz: My Music, My People. New York: Knopf, 1994.

You will find good information and black and white illustrations of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and other women performers.

Montgomery, Elizabeth Rider. Duke Ellington: King of Jazz. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1972.

The biographical information--especially about circumstances surrounding the composi- tion of certain pieces--is good, and well told. There are photographs of the Duke at different periods of his life, plus some of other figures important to the history of jazz, such as Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, and James P. Johnson.

Teacher Background

Students should be aware of the spread of jazz from its early days in New Orleans to big cities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. A great deal in this lesson depends on what recordings you choose from what is available to you, so questions and directions will necessarily be more general than they usually are. Students heard some blues by Louis Armstrong in the last lesson. Now they should hear some more examples of early blues, first with piano, then with instrumental accompaniment. If by any chance you or anyone in the class knows basic guitar chords, it would be a wonderful supplement to the class to have a guitar available for simple chords to accompany the student activity.

It is important for the students to be aware of the importance of women performers to the jazz tradition from the first--especially the blues--so try to find examples of blues sung either by Ma Rainey (1886-1939) or Bessie Smith (1894-1937). Other preferences would be Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sippie Wallace, or Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton.

The other person whose music the students should hear is Duke Ellington (1899-1974), as an example of the sophistication and complex instrumentation that developed with the Duke's compositions and his bands. Most libraries will have a good selection of Ellington recordings. When I checked the local record store, there were 21 different Ellington CDs available. Use any of the books listed above for biographical information about Ellington.

It is important that the students hear the huge difference between the "raw" sound of early blues, coupled with its language of the most everyday happenings, and the very smooth sounds of Ellington's's band playing pieces like his "Solitude," "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," or "Take the 'A' Train."

The pieces you choose should also illustrate how, in the early days of jazz, instruments were played to sound like voices, and voices growled to sound like instruments so that there was the constant interplay between the voice and the horn, for example. The Ella and Louis recording is a good illustration of this, in addition to providing examples of great scat singing.


Begin the lesson by reviewing: ask who Scott Joplin was, what instrument he wrote his music for, and what about his music led to the name ragtime. Next ask about Louis Armstrong: what instrument he played, the qualities they recall about his vocal style and the way his instrument sounded. Have someone explain what syncopated rhythm is and/or demonstrate it by clapping or singing a tune with syncopation.

Ask someone to come to the map and point out the city where jazz first started (New Orleans), then tell them to find the other big cities where jazz caught on, such as St. Louis and Kansas City. Ask them: What joins these cities to New Orleans? (the Mississippi, rivers) Tell them that many early jazz players performed on boats that took people on trips on the Mississippi. Eventually, there were also great jazz bands in Chicago and New York. When musicians traveled back and forth between those two cities, they went by train, because the cities are not connected by rivers. Jazz musicians then began writing lots of songs--especially blues--about all the experiences they had taking long train rides, being lonesome, and missing family and other people they loved.

Tell the students that there were always many women who sang jazz, right from the beginning in New Orleans, and show them some pictures of early women performers, such as Ma Rainey. Tell them she was born in 1886 and is still known as "Mother of the Blues." Ask them to tell you a description or definition of blues (solo songs, sometimes with piano or guitar to accompany, and the words tell about something from everyday life that's really bothering the singer).

Play a blues selection by a woman from the 20s or 30s. Anything of Bessie Smith would be good; for example, "Lock and Key" with James P. Johnson on the piano, so they can hear a good example of Harlem "stride" piano from its originator or any tune in which Bessie and one of the horn players toss the tune back and forth. Ask them to describe her voice. (If you can play something with the voice and horn imitating each other a lot, ask them to tell you what's happening.) Ask them: What do you think about the rhythm in these blues songs? Does it sound steady and regular or pretty free? (pretty free) Do you think the words to blues songs are happy or sad? (usually some of both, complaining but also with a sense of humor and sometimes getting even with someone who's responsible for the trouble you feel) Do you think it sounds as though she's been practicing this piece for a long time or it's all just tumbling out? (the latter)

Next, tell them about Duke Ellington, as a later stage in the development of jazz. Using any of the Suggested Books, show them photographs and make sure they know that Ellington played the piano from the time he was little, but that he also wrote his jazz for a whole band with many instruments, and that he wrote a huge number of tunes. Play a few selections for them and then ask:

Are these songs for just a singer? (no)

Can you tell what the instruments are? (probably piano, drums, trombone, trumpet, sax, and string bass at least)

Can you hear how each instrument takes a special solo and plays a game with the tune,

changing it around just for fun? Musicians call that improvising (write the word on the board), which means taking a part of a tune you know well and just playing with it, maybe changing the rhythm, then changing the way the melody moves around, just letting the music itself lead you around. Tell them that when vocalists improvise it has a special name, which is scat singing (write it on the board). If you have access to Louis & Ella, play them a cut to illustrate some fancy scat singing and ask for responses from the class when they've heard it.

Optional Blues Activity

Tell the class that historians of jazz feel that blues have their origin in the old field songs of call and response that is such a deep part of the African American experience. They also show the influence of African American work songs and spirituals, except that the subject of blues songs is not spiritual, sorrowful, or even uplifting. Rather, the blues express really strong everyday emotions such as anger, getting even, playing against the rules, or giving someone a hard time.

Say to the class: The classic blues form would have one line that sets out the situation, such as a woman who wants to get away (write it on the board):

I'm a ramblin woman, I've got a ramblin mind.

I'm a ramblin woman, I've got a ramblin mind.

I'm gonna buy me a ticket and ease on down the line.

The second line repeats the first, and then the third gives a solution (sometimes with an unexpected twist).

Ask for volunteers to try making up a blues to sing. (If a guitar is available, this would be the time to use it as a simple accompaniment.) Tell them: You don't need to write down your ideas on scrap paper, because blues is a form that needs to come out freely. Just have an idea in your head about something that might be bothering you at the moment--maybe you have a baby sister or brother who always wakes you up screaming too early in the morning or maybe you have a best friend who snubbed you or let you down yesterday. Then sing a simple, simple tune with words that tell us the situation. Repeat it again, then feel it resolve in the last line.

If no one in the class volunteers, try one yourself, and if there is something humorous about it that brings on some laughter, that will help encourage some of the students to give up any fears they may have about the possibility of feeling foolish. Once one of the students tries, chances are several will want to follow.



Student Titles

Cornell, Jean Gay. Louis Armstrong: Ambassador Satchmo. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1972. (8116-4576-2)

McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. Louis Armstrong: Jazz Musician. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1991. (0-89490-307-1)

Medearis, Angela Shelf and Michael R. Music. New York: Holt, 1997. (0-8050-4482-5)

Medearis, Angela Shelf. Treemonisha. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. (0-8050-1748-8)

Millender, Dharathula H. Louis Armstrong: young music maker. New York: Alladin Paperbacks, 1997. (0-689-80881-X) Originally published in 1972 by Bobbs-Merrill.

Mitchell, Barbara. Raggin': A Story about Scott Joplin. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1987.(0-87614-810-9)

Schroeder, Allan. Ragtime Tumpie. New York: Little, Brown, 1989. (0-316-77497-9)

Silverman, Jerry. Folk Blues. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

________. Just Listen to the Song I'm Singing. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1996. (1-56294-673-0)

Venezia, Mike. Duke Ellington: Chicago: Childrens Press, 1995. (0-516-04540-7)

Weik, Mary Hays. The Jazz Man. New York: Atheneum, 1967.

Teacher Reference

Brown, Sandford. Louis Armstrong: Swinging Singing Satchmo. New York: Watts, 1993.(0-531-13028-2)

Monceaux, Morgan. Jazz: My Music, My People. New York: Knopf, 1994. (0-679-85618-8)

Montgomery, Elizabeth Rider. Duke Ellington: King of Jazz. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1972.(0-811645-738)

Preston, Katherine. Scott Joplin: Composer. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.(0-7910-598-6)