This lesson uses video excerpts from the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to explore the history of racial diversity and intermingling in New Orleans, and how it gave rise to the uniquely American art form of jazz.
The Introductory Activity introduces students to the concept of specific places having a certain character it imparts to its residents, and challenges them to consider the character of their own homestate. The Learning Activities use Dr. Gates’s video interviews with celebrated jazz musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. and a website from the PBS series Jazz to examine what it is about New Orleans’ history and character that makes it such a uniquely vibrant American city with such a rich musical legacy. In the Culminating Activity, students research three other American cities and prepare Student Organizers discussing their unique characters and contributions to jazz.
This lesson is best used as part of a unit of jazz history, New Orleans history, or the cultural contributions of African Americans.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
- Discuss what is meant by the specific “character” of different places.
- Outline the history of New Orleans, and describe the different cultures which came to find a home there.
- Describe how the racial and ethnic diversity of New Orleans contributed to its vibrant musical culture.
- Summarize the character of their own home city or state.
(2) 45-minute class periods
A Willing Association Video
Becoming More Negroidal Video
For each group:
For the class:
Part I: INTRODUCTORY ACTIVITY
- Ask students if they think specific places have certain overarching “characters” which shape those who live there. (Accept all answers.) What is it that gives a place character? (Possible answers may include food, climate, geography, ethnic and racial demographics, musical tastes, and socio-economic status. Accept all answers, writing them on a blackboard or whiteboard.)
- Divide the class into groups of 2-3. Write the following prompts on a blackboard or whiteboard and ask each group to spend five minutes discussing them and developing responses.
- What do you know about the origins of your city or state? Who settled it? When? Why?
- Is there a nickname for your city or state,or people from it?
- What is your city or state famousfor? What is its best-known landmark or attraction?
- What traits or characteristics do you think your city or state instills in its residents?
- How would you describe the personality of your city or state? If it were a dish, what dish would it be?
- At the end of the allotted time, ask each group in turn to read their prompt and answer the question. Did all the groups answer the questions in the same way? (Probably not.) What ideas did all groups have in common? (Write key words and concepts on the board.)
Part II: LEARNING ACTIVITIES
- Tell students that they will now be taking a closer look at the unique character of one of the most celebrated and distinctive cities in America--NewOrleans--through the experience of two of its many famous sons: jazz musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. Provide a focus question for the first video segment by asking why both men felt that growing up in New Orleans gave them advantages as musicians. Play the video segment Growing Up in New Orleans.
- Review the focus question: why do Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. feel that growing up in New Orleans gave them advantages as musicians? (Connick talks about the opportunities New Orleans afforded to play so many styles of music with so many different musicians, and Marsalis recalls the general saturation of New Orleans’ culture in music, even on the bus on the way to school.) Ask students how they think New Orleans came to be such a pervasively vibrant melting pot of musical styles. (Accept all answers, but suggest that New Orleans is one of the most racially diverse cities in the United States.) Ask students how this might affect musical culture. (Music tends to thrive in diverse contexts where it can be cross-pollinated and reinterpreted.) Ask students how they think New Orleans became so racially diverse. (Accept all answers, but tell students that one clue to answering this question can be found in the family history of Branford Marsalis, which extends back through many generations of New Orleans history.)
- Frame the next video segment by explaining that Branford Marsalis’s third great-grandfather, John Reinhard Learson, was a white German immigrant who fathered a child with a black woman in 1851. Ask the class what they think this might suggest about the identity of Marsalis’ third great-grandmother. (Accept all answers, but explain that most bi-racial children in the pre-Civil War South were the result of white men having sex with enslaved women.) Provide a focus question forthe next video segment by asking what historical factors make it difficult to find genealogical information about African Americans before the Civil War. Play the video segment A Willing Association. Pause at 5:39, after Marsalis says “It’s just one of those places that if that’s what you wanted to do, that’s what you could do.”
- Review the focus question: what historical factors make it difficult to find genealogical information about African Americans before the Civil War? (Before emancipation, the birth, marriage, and death of enslaved people were not part of any official record.) What was the identity of Marsalis’ third great-grandmother, and how was it finally determined? (Myrthe Valentin was indicated to be a free woman of color as indicated on the long-lost birth certificate of her son with John Reinhard Learson.) What does this suggest about the nature of the bi-racial relationship between Valenti and Learson? (That they were a real couple, uncoerced and unashamed.) How does Marsalis react to hearing this revelation? (He observes that “If it was going to happen in America, it would happen in Louisiana, and New Orleans specifically. It’s just one of those places that if that’s what you wanted to do, that’s what you could do.”) Ask students what they think Marsalis means by this. (Accept all answers.) Provide a focus for the remainder of the segment by asking what rights and freedoms African Americans enjoyed in New Orleans that they would not have had in the rest of the South. Resume playing the segment through to its conclusion.
- Review the focus question: what rights and freedoms did African Americans enjoy in New Orleans that they would not have in the rest of the South? (They could own land, publish their own newspapers, and attend their own schools.) Ask students why they think racial culture in New Orleans had developed so differently from the rest of the South. (Accept all answers.)
- Divide the class into groups and have each group log on to “The Birthplace of Jazz” webpage. Explain that in the text of this webpage they will be taking a closer look at the underlying reasons for New Orleans’ unique racial heritage, and how this heritage helped create a musical legacy that jazz musicians like Marsalis and Connick continue today. Distribute the The Birthplace of Jazz Student Organizer to each group and allow 20 minutes to complete the organizer using information found on the webpage.
- After 20 minutes have passed, go through the organizer with the class, encouraging discussion among the groups and correcting or clarifying answers as necessary. Revisit the culminating question of the Introductory Activity: if New Orleans was a dish, what dish would it be? (Accept all answers.) Tell students that Branford Marsalis’ brother Wynton once answered exactly this question, and provide a focus question for the next media excerpt by asking students to what dish Wynton Marsalis likens New Orleans. Play “Wynton Marsalis: On the Romance and Integration of New Orleans” Audio Feature (the third such Audio Feature on “The Birthplace of Jazz” webpage).
- Review the focus question: to what dish does Wynton Marsalis liken New Orleans? (Gumbo.) Ask students if they know what gumbo is. (A soup or stew native to New Orleans combining ingredients and culinary practices of several cultures, including French, Spanish, German, West African, and Choctaw Indian.) What other point does Wynton Marsalis make in this excerpt about the nature of ethnic and racial integration in New Orleans? (That the city is largely integrated because different ethnicities are so physically intermingled, and couldn’t avoid each other even if they wanted to.) Ask students what they think this might say about the nature of racial and ethnic prejudice. (Accept all answers, but suggest that Marsalis’ observation implies that proximity breeds familiarity, and familiarity is conducive to understanding; in short, it is ignorance which breeds contempt.) Frame the next video segment by explaining that it presents a happy example of this principle at work in the life of Harry Connick, Jr. as he discusses how New Orleans’ unique heritage shaped his interests and his personality. Provide a focus question by asking what Connick wanted to be when he was young. Play the video segment Becoming More Negroidal.
- Review the focus question: What did Connick, Jr. want to be when he was young? (Because his musical heroes were all “fat and black,” and because of the good-natured ribbing of the Marsalis brothers that he should be “more negroidal,” Connick aspired to be “black” in speech and dress--and, most importantly, in his music.) Ask students if they find Connick’s revelation that he once aspired to be “more black” at all surprising, unusual, or uncomfortable. (Accept all answers, but suggest that the preeminence of African American sports and music figures in particular inspire similar adoration and emulation among white youth today.) Did Connick encounter resistance as a “skinny white boy” in realizing his dream to be taken seriously as an authentic New Orleans jazzman? (No--not beyond the friendly teasing of the Marsalis brothers.) What does this suggest about New Orleans culture? (Accept all answers, but suggest that the lack of resistance Connick encountered as he grew up pursuing distinction in a largely African American musical genre is testament to New Orleans’ ongoing acceptance of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds—even rich white boys!)
Part III: CULMINATING ACTIVITY
- Divide the class into three groups and assign each of them one of the following cities: New York, Chicago, or Kansas City. Have groups return to “The Birthplace of Jazz” webpage and click on the “Places, Spaces, and Changing Faces” link on the menu at the left of the screen. This will bring up a map of the United States with links to their assigned cities. Using the material they find here, have each group prepare a Student Organizer (with a corresponding answer key) about the character of their assigned city, how that character came to be, and what it has contributed to jazz music. This should be similar in nature to the The Birthplace of Jazz Student Organizer they completed earlier in the lesson. Copy and distribute each group’s student organizers to each student in the other two groups, assigning them as homework.