Defining Jazz Music

Estimated Time

This lesson is composed of four integrated teaching sessions designed for 45-55 minute class periods. Taught as a complete unit, the lesson may span two to three weeks, depending on the amount of time allowed for in-class sharing and writing. The objectives and materials are listed in individual sections.


Louis Armstrong said, "Jazz is music that's never played the same way once." Ralph Ellison said, "Jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group..." With this lesson students will attempt to develop their individual and collective definitions of jazz.

In most cities today, continuous jazz can be heard on a local FM radio station. Usually, the music will be easy listening or "smooth jazz," as it is commonly referred to in urban settings. However, this music does not completely "define" jazz. Does this music represent a particular kind of jazz? Are there other "sounds," that are not "mellow" and "quiet storm" sounding music? If so, where did the sounds come from, and who were the early players? How does this sound distinguish itself from the sounds of earlier years, or is there a distinction? Does everyone like this type of music? What do likes and dislikes have to do with the definition of the jazz art form?

The lessons and activities assembled here will answer these questions and perhaps raise additional questions for students to explore.


  • Students will read two selected texts and extract definitions of jazz from various famous people, such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ralph Ellison.
  • Students will compose a working definition/explanation of jazz.
  • Students will develop a time line of the jazz era from the early 1900's to mid-century using multiple resources.
  • Students will read selected biographies.
  • Students will listen to selected interviews with jazz artists who describe the art form of jazz.
  • Students will listen to music composed or performed by jazz artists.

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Session One

Time: One to two 45-minute class periods.


  • Students will read for information and take notes.
  • Students will develop a personal explanation of jazz based on their readings and understandings of the information provided.


  • Overhead projector with transparencies
  • Copies of selected readings:
    • Dance, Stanley. The World of Duke Ellington. "The Art Is in the Cooking." DaCapo Press, Inc.: New York, 1970, (2-6).
  • Audio tape recordings of music by Ellington, Armstrong, Coltrane, or other legendary jazz artists
  • Computers with Internet access
  • Pen and paper or journals to record notes
  • Large sheets of paper to record definitions
  • Tube markers (both for transparencies and for paper)

Warm-up Activity

Copy the following statements about jazz. If you agree with the statement, place a positive symbol (+) next to the number; if you disagree with the statement, place a negative symbol (-) next to the numbered statement.

  1. Jazz is noise.
  2. Jazz is music that's always different.
  3. Jazz is an American art form.
  4. Jazz is revolutionary.
  5. Jazz is the same as bebop, hip-hop, and the blues.
  6. Jazz is new and old.


  1. Students will share and compare statements of agreement and disagreement. Students may tabulate their answers to determine which statement most people agreed and/or disagreed.

  2. Have students listen to a selection by Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong. Ask them if they would like to adjust their lists of statements after hearing the two pieces.

  3. Explain to students that they are going to read a short essay written by Duke Ellington. He discusses what he thinks jazz is and why there has been some confusion about the way it is described.

    If you do not have copies of Ellington's essay, see the PBS JAZZ Web site, " Jazz Lounge," ( for background information about jazz. Alternatively, students might explore the Jazz Improvisation Primer ( Carl Sandburg's poem Jazz Fantasia" may also be a useful addition.

  4. Have students take notes as they read. The double-entry journal format is recommended for their use as follows: A double entry journal can be made using notebook paper and folding it in half vertically. Draw a line with a pen or pencil down the fold to allow for two columns. Label the left-hand column "Notes" and the right-hand column "Reflections." Under "Notes" record important information; under "Reflections" record questions, impressions, connections, etc.

  5. Have students read aloud in pairs; taking turns reading and writing notes. They might want to skim the article silently first and then read it aloud to their partners, stopping to record notes they agree are important. Students should discuss the reading and enter their comments under "Reflections" on their journal pages.


Have groups share one note and their corresponding reflection with the class. They can write them on large sheets of paper with markers or on transparencies so that their ideas are displayed visually as well.


Students are to use their notes and reflections to answer the following question: "What does Ellington [or other author] say the definition of jazz is, and how does he explain it?"

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Session Two

Time: One to two 45-minute class periods.


Students will:

  • read actively to answer comprehension and implied meaning questions using the text as support, and
  • write and speak to inform.


  • Readings and writings from previous day's session
  • Your selections of recorded jazz music

Warm-up Activity

Write a short essay or paragraph to describe language and the importance of communication. Think about these questions as you write:

  • Have you ever misunderstood something or had someone misunderstand you because they thought you meant something other than what you meant?

  • Why are words confusing sometimes?

  • Why is it important for people to have a shared understanding of what a word means?


  1. Have students read their essays (written during the warm-up today, and the homework writing from the previous session) and underline the sentence that best describes what the writing is all about (the topic sentence) and the title.

  2. Allow each student to stand and read his or her title and topic sentence from each paper. Make suggestions orally for improvement and ask the students to share suggestions as well. Allow students time to make refinements before exchanging papers with fellow classmates for peer response.

  3. Peer Response: Students read fellow students' papers and suggest ways of improving the contents using the following model:
    • Title of the writing
    • Author's name
    • List two positive features of the paper
    • Ask two questions the author needs to elaborate on or to clarify
    • Make two suggestions for improvement
    • Rate the paper overall from 1 (low) to 4 (high)

    You may want to play recorded music during this time; when everyone is done, ask students to return the papers to the authors for revision.


Students may volunteer to share feedback from the activity. Are the comments/questions helpful? Why did we look only at the content and not at mechanics? How did you feel when you had to read your classmates' papers? Did you do a good job?


Students will revise both papers.

Session Three

Time: One to two weeks of researching, writing, and sharing.


Students will:

  • read about, listen to, and discuss music; and,
  • practice a variety of writing strategies: description, narration, exposition, and persuasion.

Warm-up Activity

Ellington says "Music itself is a category of sound, but everything that goes into the ear is not music." Explain this statement scientifically. What does he mean? Write a short explanation using what you know about hearing, music, and sound.


  1. Description.
    Students will work in pairs or groups of four to list the sounds they like. Some examples might be the music they love, or the noise of conversation on the school bus in the morning. Ask them to write about what they are doing when they hear the sounds they love. How do they listen? Do they need quiet to hear certain sounds? Can they hear others even when there is noise all around them?

  2. Narration.
    Have students look at their lists and their descriptions and determine how to prioritize the items. If they had to give up all of the sounds they like but one, which one would they pick? Do they need to add other sounds to their lists now? What is the most precious sound they want to hear? Students should write about that sound and why it is important to them.

    Students should share their writings, peer edit, revise and finalize.

  3. Exposition.
    Students will research how sound is produced and how humans hear. Ask students to demonstrate what they know about hearing by brainstorming lists or drawing diagrams. Together, draw the ear and the organs associated with hearing.

    Students will work in pairs or groups to prepare their research projects. They can search the Internet or use science textbooks to prepare brief but informative reports.

    Students must illustrate their findings, label the parts, and display them for others to read and learn the details about how sound is produced.

    Students will present their findings to their classmates or another class.

  4. Persuasion.
    Students will write to convince someone of a particular opinion about music.

    Students are to select one of the following statements for writing a persuasive letter or speech. The student must convince the listeners to agree with his or her position on the topic.

    Suggested positions are:

    • "Music is good for the soul; therefore, all music is good and worthy of respect."
    • "Loud music is offensive."
    • "Some music is bad for young people because the language is crude and violent."
    • "Music calms the savage beast."
    • "I would not trust a man who said he did not like music."

  5. Ask students to begin by identifying the audience and purpose for writing. Allow students to write in class and to practice reciting their speeches and/or letters to each other.


Students are to refine their presentations and share with the class on the next day.

Assessment Recommendations

Rubric for presentations:

4--Star Quality: Student speaks loudly and clearly enough to be easily heard and understood. Student presents three or more arguments/statements to support his or her idea. The reasoning is logical and easy to follow.

3--Achieving: Student speaks well enough to be easily heard and understood. Student presents two or more statements of support. The ideas are logical.

2--Working: Student does not speak loudly enough to be heard at all times. There are less than two statements of support. Some ideas are logical but may not be fully developed.

1--Willing: Student presents but does not speak with understanding. More support is needed for ideas and those that are shared are fragmented.

Rubrics for writings:

4--Strong writing: Essays contain a well-developed topic sentence and several examples or supporting details. Papers are free of errors. Transitional words are used to connect ideas. Sentences vary in structure. Word choice is varied as well.

3--Capable writing: Essays are developed with a topic sentence and some examples or supporting details. Few if any errors. Some transitional words are used. Ideas are connected. Some sentence variation and word choice.

2--Developing writing: Partial development of a topic sentence with few examples or support. Several errors in language use; lack of transitional words. Little sentence variations and limited words choice.

1--Limited writing: Topic sentence not defined, but an attempt is made to have one. Few if any examples or support. Errors interfere with meaning.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

  1. Build a model of the ear and brain to show how we hear and then write an explanation of the process. If we all hear the same things (a record playing for example), then why do we like different sounds? Why don't we feel the same way about what we hear? What else has an impact on hearing? Have students add that answer to their models and to the explanations. How does this relate to Duke Ellington's explanation of jazz and music?

  2. Select one of the topics below and have students write a short essay to explain their answers. Remind them to: (1) state their position on the topic, (2) add their reasons for believing as they do, (3) write one paragraph for each reason, and (4) then close out the essay with a bang!

    Possible essay topics from the reading (and re-reading):

    • What is the purpose of the food menu metaphor Ellington employs?
    • Could he have explained the categories of jazz better without using the food example? How?
    • What does Ellington say about imitation and imitators?
    • What is Ellington's definition of jazz? Do you agree or disagree? Explain why or why not.

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Session 4

Time: Two to three 45-minute class periods.


Students will:

  • practice active reading strategies of note taking, comparison/contrast, and main idea;
  • read and comment on the definitions of jazz artists;
  • write definitions of jazz; and,
  • compare Ellington's definition and their own.


Copies of Craig Werner's "A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America" in The Jazz Impulse (Plume Books: New York, NY, 1998).


  1. Students will copy the quotations from Werner's article, and identify their sources.

  2. Students will explain the meaning of each quote.

  3. Students will write a comparison/contrast essay on one of two topics: (1) Ellington's definition of jazz and those of Armstrong and Ellison; or (2) Ellington's explanation of likes and dislikes in categorizing music.

  4. Students will read their essays to members of their groups. They will peer edit and revise before participating in scoring their essays using the rubric for writing.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

Students can present their prepared speeches from the previous objective in Session III. On the second day, one student could begin a speech and another student who shares a similar viewpoint can pick up and continue the speech or improvise.

Have students learn about improvisation in different ways: for example, they may tell jokes and riddles and come up with endings on the spot in a round-robin manner, i.e. one tells a joke or asks a nonsense riddle and the person next to him/her must answer it. The idea is to get them to improvise. Have students listen to "jam sessions" or live recordings of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars playing, "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "C Jam Blues" and Ellington's band playing the same songs. Ask them to listen for the improvisations. Have students write a descriptive paragraph to describe what they heard.

Assign students the task of interviewing a professional in the music industry (teacher, local radio disc jockey, editor of the music section of a newspaper, choir director, etc.) or relatives and friends who are music lovers to collect definitions/explanations of the meaning of jazz.

Students should also ask their interviewees which jazz artists they like, and why. Students should try to interview as many people as possible, but no less than 10. They should tabulate their results and display the data in a scientific manner (graphs, charts, or some other visual). What conclusions can they draw from their findings? Students should write a brief report to explain what they found out and whether the data supports what they've read or not.

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Recommended Resources

The Soundry

Relevant U.S. National Standards

NCTE Standards for English Language Arts

  • Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; and to acquire new information.
  • Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts.
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write.
  • Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • Students use a variety of technological and information resources.

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning

  • Understands the relationship between music and history and culture. (Music)
  • Knows the characteristics and uses of computer software programs. (Technology)

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In partnership with PBS.

Provided in partnership with NAfME
These lessons and activities explore sound and how sound is defined in jazz.
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