Visualizing Jazz Scenes of the Harlem Renaissance

Estimated Time: Ten 50-minute class sessions with out-of-class time for students to research, draft, edit, and prepare required writing projects.


The Harlem Renaissance represents an era in American history during which the uniqueness of African-American culture was celebrated. It was a period marked by an active and vibrant nightlife; by the publishing of a great number of short stories, plays, poems and novels by and about African-Americans; by musicals written by and starring African-Americans; and, by the creation of artwork by and about African-Americans. The Harlem Renaissance was an age during which African-Americans sought to dispel common stereotypes through their art.

This lesson begins with a summary of the history and chronology of the Harlem Renaissance. Historical background consists of topics such as the northern migration of African-Americans, prohibition, postwar conditions and race relations. During this historical overview, students focus on Harlem as a "Mecca" for African American artists, musicians, and writers. Students read and respond to literary selections that either portray the Harlem jazz scene or were written during the period; they also listen and respond to relevant jazz pieces and view videotapes that illustrate the distinctiveness of the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene. Finally, students demonstrate their understanding of the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene by constructing an exhibit and producing written, artistic and musical interpretations.


  • Students will identify and connect themes of selected nonfiction, fiction, poetry and art to Harlem Renaissance jazz.
  • Students will compare and contrast historical and fictionalized versions of the jazz scenes of the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Students will describe the impact of jazz on African-American literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Print Literature

  • Your choice of select jazz poems by Langston Hughes:

    "The Weary Blues"
    "Red Silk Stockings"
    "Lenox Avenue: Midnight"
    "Dream Boogie"
    "Juke Box Love Song"
    "Trumpet Player"
    "Jam Session"
    "Harlem Night Club"
    "Midnight Dancer"
    "Saturday Night"
    "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)"

    (Selections may be found in many anthologies such as Selected Poems of Langston Hughes and The Langston Hughes Reader.)

  • Your choice of select writings by Harlem Renaissance authors:

    "Miss Cynthie" by Rudolph Fisher
    "When the Negro Was in Vogue" from The Big Sea by Langston Hughes
    "Ma Rainey" by Sterling Brown
    "Cabaret" by Sterling Brown
    "Poem" by Helene Johnson
    "Harlem" by Frank Horne
    "Jazz at Home" an essay by Joel A. Rogers

Song Lyrics

  • Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train"
    Principal artists: Duke Ellington and Ella FitzgeraldWritten by Billy Strayhorn You must take the "A" trainTo go to Sugar Hill way up in HarlemIf you miss the "A" trainYou'll find you missed the quickest way to HarlemHurry, get on, now it's comingListen to those rails a-thrummingAll aboard, get on the "A" trainSoon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem
  • "It Don't Mean A Thing" (Alternate Selection)
    Principal artists: Duke Ellington and Ella FitzgeraldWritten by Duke Ellington What good is melody, what good is musicIf it ain't possessin' something sweetIt ain't the melody, it ain't the musicThere's something else that makes the tune completeIt don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swingIt don't mean a thing, all you got to do is singIt makes no diff'rence if it's sweet or hotJust give that rhythm ev'rything you gotIt don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing
  • "Drop Me Off in Harlem" (Alternate Selection)

Audio tape or CD

  • The instrumental version of "Take The 'A' Train," performed by Duke Ellington.


  • JAZZ Episodes Two ("The Gift") and Three ("Our Language")

Art Work

Your choice of selected fine arts work. Suggested include:

  • Romare Bearden: "Jamming at the Savoy"
  • Aaron Douglas: "Play de Blues"
  • William H. Johnson: " Street Life, Harlem" ( and "Jitterbugs (III)" (
  • Michele Wood (Illustrations in "i see the rhythm" by Toyomi Igus; Children's Book Press, 1998)

(Note: Prints are often used in student anthologies to illustrate literature. One series, The Prentice-Hall Literature Series, contains a variety of prints that illustrate jazz.)

Equipment & Technology

  • Audio tape or CD player
  • VCR and television
  • Computers with Internet access and word processing software
  • Scanner & image producing software
  • PowerPoint projection system or overhead and transparencies
  • Blank Audio and video cassette tapes

General Supplies

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    Session One: Take the "A" Train

    1. Without comment, introduce the lesson by playing the lyric version of "Take the A Train."

    2. Using the K-W-L strategy, have students activate their prior knowledge about what they heard. (To use the K-W-L strategy, construct a 3-column chart on paper. The columns should be labeled "K" What I Already Know; "W" What I Want to Know; and "L" What I Learned.) Instruct students to fill in the K section of the chart. Expect most responses to be about trains or subways, which is an opportunity to mention long distance travel before planes became so favored.

    3. Have students form groups of four to share the K section of their K-W-L charts by recording their ideas on Post-It notes and placing the notes on a poster board for later reference.

    4. Give a brief overview of the music of Duke Ellington and explain his connection to Harlem. See if students are able to associate the transportation mode with the times. See the Biographies ( section of the PBS JAZZ Web site for more information on Ellington.

    5. Play "Take the A Train" again or "Drop Me Off in Harlem." Ask students to listen to, sing along with, or "finger-dance" with the music.

    6. State the lesson objectives and identify the standards.

    7. Restate the concept of the train as the primary means of long distance transportation. Distribute or place on an overhead a quotation from Billy Strayhorn about the "A" train. Have students move back into the groups of four and compose brief descriptions or vignettes of how they imagine the setting of the "A" train. Key terms & concepts: Sugar Hill, Harlem, all aboard, way up in Harlem. The descriptions or vignettes may be shared orally. See the New York ( section for more information.

    Session Two: Drop Me Off in Harlem

    1. Again, open the session with music. Ask a volunteer to review what students learned during Session One. Show color prints of several artists' renditions of Harlem Renaissance jazz; artists such as Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, and Aaron Douglas are recommended. Discuss the prints in relationship to the music and the overview of Ellington and the Harlem Renaissance.

    2. Distribute K-W-L charts. Have all students fill in the K & L sections of their charts.

    3. Use a poster board or newsprint to make a list of the items in the K column.

    4. Lead the students in a discussion of the unique characteristics of the people and the setting of the Harlem Renaissance. Read Dance's interview with Billy Strayhorn. The discussion should include details such as the famous Harlem rent parties, The Cotton Club and The Savoy where African-Americans were allowed as entertainers but not as guests, the distinction between the uptown clubs and the downtown halls, the musical theaters and the zoot suits. Students may also learn about African-American intellectuals active during this time--such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Alain Locke--many of whom decried jazz as a "low" art form that embarrassed the African-American race.

      See the New York ( and Roaring Twenties and Great Depression ( sections of the JAZZ site for more information.

    5. Make a list of the items in the L section. If students do not list items that touch on jazz and literature of the Harlem Renaissance, suggest some ideas to explore. Suggested questions include: What is the significance of the "A" train? When did Duke Ellington perform the piece? What was Harlem like when Duke Ellington performed there? What does "renaissance" mean? Why was this period so significant in the history of African-Americans? Did other ethnic groups participate in the Harlem Renaissance? If so, how?

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    Session Three: History of Harlem

    1. Have students use a variety of sources to research the answers to the questions raised on the K-W-L chart. Resources should include printed texts and the Internet. This component may require significant out-of-class time. In addition to the resources available on the Jazz Web site, please see the Recommended Resources below.

    2. Place students in groups of four to discuss their research and begin to develop a time line of significant events of the period. Questions: When did African-Americans begin to settle in Harlem? Why? What made this period important in American history? Why was this period also called the Jazz Age?

    3. View JAZZ Episode Two, "The Gift," to answer the previous question and to identify the most significant historical jazz events shown in the videotape.

      It is strongly recommended that you view Episode Two in its entirety, since the continuity of the entire episode more wholly and accurately represents Harlem life. In the event that this is not possible, the following segments are recommended:

      • 3:52 - 4:27
      • 36:41 - 38:52
      • 49:17 - 49:40
      • 59:38 - 61:00
      • 140:12 - 144:40

    Session Four: Harlem Renaissance Time Line

    1. Use the time lines from Session Three to introduce other significant people of the Harlem Renaissance. Names and contributions should be listed on the time lines.

    2. Create a designated "Harlem Renaissance" area (e.g., on a bulletin board or a table in the corner) and display the time lines here. Reserve this space as place to display other works created in this lesson.

    3. Have students use the time lines to write their own brief descriptions of Harlem during the '20s and '30s as the first step to preparing a Harlem Renaissance exhibit. An exhibit is a convenient and effective way to showcase student work as well as to provide an accessible resource center. Refer to the rubric below for ways to organize the writing.

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    Session Five: Langston Hughes's Harlem

    1. Have students read "When the Negro Was in Vogue" from The Big Sea by Langston Hughes. Also, a reading of Hughes's essay " The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" provides Hughes's opinions on African-American debates about "high" and "low" culture during the period.

    2. Ask students to use double entry journals to summarize the selection(s) and react. If students are not experienced in using double entry response journals, use a short related selection from one of the references and model the strategy. Remind students that the left side is for summative comments, while the right is for their thoughts and ideas about the reading.

    3. Have student groups use their Post-It notes, time lines and descriptions to compare the Hughes piece with the Harlem portrayed in Session One. Tell each group to compose two to three sentences that portray Harlem during this time; share these aloud.

    Session Six: Writing Descriptions of Harlem

    1. Have students read "Miss Cynthie" by Rudolph Fisher and write a descriptive paragraph of the setting. As a prewriting activity, students should go back to the story and identify words that describe the setting. A story map might be helpful in assisting students in understanding the story.

    2. Direct students to again form groups of four. Each group should identify the similarities and differences in Hughes's, Fisher's, Ellington's and their own descriptions of Harlem. Have them label the similarities between all the versions. They may construct charts, make lists, clusters or design any other graphic organizer that works for them. Have each group create an oral presentation to share their findings, i.e., a talk show, a skit, game show. For this activity, allow students to audio or video tape their presentations. Use the rubric below to evaluate the presentations.

    Session Seven: Jazz Poems by Langston Hughes

    1. Distribute copies of selected Langston Hughes jazz poems. Place students in groups and distribute no more than two poems to each group. Have group members select someone to read the poems aloud with any instrumental version of an Ellington piece. Allow students time for rehearsal.

    2. Use one poem as a model to illustrate theme and style. Read the poem accompanied by a jazz selection. Explain how the poem is related to the jazz of the period. An example is "Jam Session," the strength of which is in the short lines and the rhythmic repetitious refrains "pop-a-da" and "oop-pop-a-da"--similar to refrains noted in many jazz lyrics. Note the significance of the title. Explain how jazz influenced the words and pattern of the poem.

      Consider the reference to the transformation from the daytime jail to nighttime musical celebrity, a situation all too familiar to the African-Americans at that time.

    3. Instruct the students to follow this example with their Hughes poems and present their analyses to the class. Each person in the group should have a task. For instance, one person should act as recorder, another as spokesperson, another as oral reader and a fourth may be responsible for the accompanying music. Please note that there are no "correct" interpretations. If students' ideas seem to vary too widely from the poem, ask probing questions that may guide them into thinking more deeply about the poem. An example is to lead students in a discussion of the metaphors the poet uses.

    4. Make a general statement about jazz poems, such as, "A jazz poem is free verse that has some of the qualities and characteristics of jazz."

    5. Distribute more poems to each group (for example, "Cabaret" by Sterling Brown, " Harlem" (
      pal/chap9/9intro.html) by Frank Horne, "Ma Rainey" by Sterling Brown and "Poem" by Helen Johnson), and repeat step two.

    6. Direct groups to construct a chart of their analysis of the poem and share orally. Place charts in the Harlem Renaissance exhibit area. The chart may be as simple as a two- or three-column graphic that explains the significance of the title, the word pattern or rhythmic repetitions, and the theme. Guide students in recalling "Jam Session" and how that poem is related to the jazz of this period.

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    Session Eight: Writing Harlem Renaissance Vignettes

    1. Direct students to write a vignette about one of the poems they have read and discussed. Explain to students that vignettes are short narratives that illustrate a concept or idea and that writing vignettes will help them to clarify and interpret the analyses that were prepared in Session Seven.

    2. Pair students to revise, edit, and proofread their vignettes. Use a computer newsletter program to publish the vignettes. Place them in the Harlem Renaissance display area.

    Session Nine: Time Travel Back to the Harlem Renaissance

    1. Use the concept of going back in time and have students imagine themselves as working citizens of Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Each student should choose a venue that reflects both their occupation and some aspect of the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene. Examples include:
      • An advertiser who will design an ad for a train station
      • An artist who will paint a scene in the Cotton Club
      • A newspaper reporter who will write a story about an Ellington or Armstrong performance
      • A songwriter who will compose the lyrics for a jazz song

    2. View JAZZ Episode Three, "Our Language" (67:20 - 72:47). Guide students into gleaning an overall impression and a realistic picture of the jazz scenes. Suggest that students make a list of descriptive words and phrases that they may use as references for their projects.

    3. Have students present their projects. Presentations should include identification of the occupation, rationale and a clear statement of how their project reflects both the occupation and the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene. Projects should be displayed as part of the Harlem Renaissance exhibit.

    Session Ten: Evaluating the Display Area (Formative Assessment)

    1. Inspect the Harlem Renaissance area for any missing pieces in the representation of the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene. Assign students to fill in the gaps (e.g., Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington are the only Harlem Renaissance greats mentioned.)

    2. Ask students to evaluate the Harlem Renaissance exhibit area. They should use the Exhibit Scoring Guide for the evaluation.

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    Assessment Suggestions

    Rubric for Writing Descriptions

    4--clear and appropriate organization, effective transitions that help readers to follow the organizational pattern, clear overall purpose, vivid details that relate to the overall focus of the description, few or no errors in mechanics, usage, grammar, or spelling, careful and precise word choice

    3--focused and clear organization such as spatial or order of importance, use of transitions that help the reader follow the organizational pattern, details that support what is being described, descriptive words and phrases that help the reader visualize what is being described, minor errors in mechanics, usage, grammar and spelling

    2--weak organization, inadequate transitions, some details that include too many extraneous ones, vague descriptive words that do not help the reader to visualize what is being described, numerous errors in mechanics, usage, grammar and spelling

    1--no noticeable organization, unclear purpose, lack of transitions, few details, overall description is not helpful in helping readers to visualize what is being described, numerous errors in usage, mechanics, grammar or spelling that hinder comprehension, imprecise word choice

    Rubric for Presentations

    4--Clearly communicates understanding of key concepts, clear and coherent organization, participation of most group members, evidence of originality and/or creativity, engages the audience, goes beyond expectations

    3--Demonstrates understanding of key concepts, clear organization, content relates to the purpose, participation of most of the group members, evidence of originality and/or creativity, engages the audience.

    2--Demonstrates misinformation of some key concepts, weak organization, somewhat relates to purpose, participation by at least half of the group members, some evidence of originality or creativity, somewhat engages the audience.

    1--Demonstrates obvious misconceptions or misinformation, too many vocal fillers, lacks coherent organization, does not relate to purpose, lack of participation of most group members, little or no evidence of creativity, does not engage the audience.


    Guide students in choosing a way in which they can share their understanding and knowledge. Suggestions include the following:

  • Construct a playbill for a bus or other public transportation
  • Using Hughes's model, create two original jazz poems
  • Construct a "comic book" that illustrates a fiction selection
  • Illustrate a portrayal of Harlem from "When The Negro Was in Vogue" or "Miss Cynthie"
  • Design a Web page describing a Harlem Renaissance jazz scene
  • Write lyrics for a song that portrays the Harlem Renaissance jazz scene
  • Rewrite a work of fiction into a play
  • View a movie such as Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues and write an essay relating it to the jazz age (Mature content and language).

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Differentiated Instruction

Most activities and assessments are suitable for various skill levels and learning modalities. However, take into account the make up of the class and make adjustments as needed. For instance, less advanced students may be asked to paraphrase a selection prior to interpreting a selection, while average or advanced students may be asked to write a paragraph that explains the theme of a selection. Heterogeneous groups may be asked to choose a photograph or illustration to accompany a selection and justify their choice. Kinesthetic learners may be asked to create diorama models. Advanced students may also be able to compose a longer and more detailed comparison/contrast essay than other students may.

An example of differentiated instruction is as follows. More Advanced Students: Write a community profile of the Harlem Renaissance described in one of the selections. Less Advanced Students: Use pictures that represent key elements of the community to construct a collage of the scenes in one of the selections. Kinesthetic Learners: Use clay or papier-mache to create a Harlem Renaissance scene.

Finally, some students may also have less advanced technological skills than others and will therefore need additional instruction in order to conduct research on the Internet.

Recommended Resources


I Hear America Singing (Langston Hughes)

Literature & Life

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Relevant National Standards


  • Read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
  • Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
  • Employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • Conduct research on issues and interest by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems.
  • Use a wide variety of technological and information resources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning

  • Understands connections among the various art forms and other disciplines. (Art)
  • Understands the relationship between music and history and culture. (Music)
  • Understands the visual arts in relation to history and culture. (Visual arts)
  • Understands the relationships among science, technology, society and the individual. (Technology)
  • Understands how the United States changed between the post-World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression. (United States History)

In partnership with PBS.

Provided in partnership with NAfME
Students read and respond to literary selections that either portray the Harlem jazz scene or were written during the period. This is an excellent activity to enjoy when studying the history of American music and during Black History Month (February).
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