Growing up jazz

Listening to American History

The fourth graders watched the video of Fats Waller like a band of detectives, taking in the jazz musician’s singing style and piano playing as well as facial expressions. “He looks like a cartoon,” said one student. “How does he sing like that?” said another. “Can you play it again?” they asked.

The students were midway through a musical tour of the past 200 years of American history. Their quest was to hear the story that’s threaded through work songs, church songs, freedom songs, the blues and big band. The story, said tour guide Andromeda Turre, is how the traditional artistic expression of West African people was not extinguished when it was brought to America through slavery. It exploded into jazz.

Students discover West African traditions threaded through American music

Andromeda Turre’s presentation, Growing Up Jazz, gave students a new way to connect historical terms of slavery, freedom, Juneteenth, sharecropper and the Great Migration: through music. The program, which included video clips, personal stories and group discussion, was offered separately for fourth and fifth graders as well as an evening presentation for Katonah Elementary parents.

The language of music enabled students to learn with their hearts and minds.

“Growing Up Jazz” began with a video clip of traditional West African music. “The person singing is a griot,” she said, explaining the role of a person who shares a community’s stories through songs. She directed students to notice two hallmarks of the griot’s music: a gravelly voice and the song’s call and response form.

The students listened for those clues in short videos of Big Mama Thornton, Duke Ellington and other jazz musicians. The music also prompted discussion about the lack of options formerly enslaved people had after the Civil War and the opportunities that drew them to the industrialized north.

Students find the story that connects the facts

Growing Up Jazz closed with contemporary clips. Students were quick to identify the West African call and response technique in Bruno Mars’ music, and the raspy tones of Lady Gaga.

“It was so good to see students making connections and putting things together,” Andromeda said about the presentation.

“Students nailed the definition of Juneteenth,” said Principal Cristy Harris. “Last year was the first year we talked about it. Now they understand the holiday through its music.”

Principal Cristy Harris and Andromeda Turres