Portrait of Billie Holiday, from The Carl Van Vechten
Credit: Photographs Collection, courtesy of American Memory Collection
The Second World War had an enormous effect on the development of jazz music, which, in turn, had a role to play in the American war effort. Jazz and jazz-influenced popular music were a rallying cry for U.S. servicemen, and helped as well to boost the morale of loved ones at home, who by listening to patriotic and romantic songs on the radio and on their phonographs were encouraged to wage war on the home front. The U.S.O. helped lift the spirits of U.S. servicemen at home and abroad as it brought popular Hollywood and musical celebrities together to perform for the troops. Jazz musicians also worked throughout the war on patriotic films. There is an unintended tribute to the broad influence of jazz music (and of the many prominent African American and Jewish American jazz musicians) in Hitler's ban, in 1939, on jazz and swing music in Germany.
This lesson will help students to understand the effects that the Second World War had on jazz music and the contributions that jazz musicians made to the war effort. The activities below help students explore the role of jazz in American society and the ways that jazz functioned as an export of American culture and a means of resistance to the Nazis. Gathering together excerpts of important works by both jazz historians and jazz musicians, the culminating activity helps students develop a broader historical perspective on the effects that World War II had on the course of jazz music.
The Jazz Life and American Society in the World War II Era: Focus on Billie Holiday
Divide the class into small groups. Provide each of the groups with one or more excerpts selected from Selected Readings in Jazz History (available as a downloadable PDF). On each page of this downloadable file, there is a different excerpt from the writings of historians, musicians, and biographers. You may wish to provide groups with one or more of the following questions:
2 class periods