Closer Readings Commentary

Jazz Appreciation Month 2016: Benny Carter and Democracy


Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) was created by the National Museum of American History back in 2002 to celebrate the extraordinary heritage and history of jazz. Each year the museum picks a major musician to commemorate.

This year Benny Carter is being honored. Mr. Carter, known simply as “King” to his fellow musicians, was a largely self-taught artist who became one of founding fathers of big band swing music. Early in his career, Carter arranged and composed scores for Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb, and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, as well as for his own highly respected orchestras.

Carter was also known as a pioneer in breaking down racial boundaries in jazz. In 1937, while living in Europe, Carter led the first interracial, multi-national orchestra. In fact, his three-year European sojourn was dedicated to spreading jazz throughout the continent. Carter finally settled down in Los Angles, where he become one of the first African Americans to compose music for films and television. For all these achievements, he was known as “the quiet giant” of jazz.

To learn more about Mr. Carter’s life, visit this year’s Smithsonian Jazz Appreciation Month feature page. You can download the 2016 poster here.

Jazz Appreciation

Jazz appreciation encompasses much more than a recognition of iconic artists; it relies upon educators, societies, libraries, museums, and musicians from across the country to promote and teach this unique cultural expression. Throughout the month, online, in-museum, and community programs will highlight jazz cultural history, musical performance and stories, programs, and productions.

Jazz Inside and Outside the Classroom

As any musician or fan will tell you, jazz cannot be taught through textbooks, alone. Understanding that learning about jazz and its history requires active listening, reading, and discussion, EDSITEment has compiled a brief list of Web links and topics to help educators and students in the classroom and beyond.

Start with the Ken Burns series JAZZ. The films tell the story of the origin of this American art form—the people who created it and the artists who performed it. Not simply a music appreciation course, the JAZZ  documentary explore how the music reflected the historical periods that produced it; including two world wars; the Great Depression; and the decades of racial prejudice and Jim Crow laws that shaped the music and dictated who heard it and when. (Many PBS stations will be rebroadcasting this award winning series this month. Each episode will be free to stream online on the PBS website for a limited time.)

EDSITEment Lessons

Below is a list of additional sites that educators and students may use to create new lesson plans, start a research project, or learn about other organizations in the U.S. and abroad that are committed to furthering jazz education.

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Online Jazz History Archives

Explore the Library of Congress and NEH’s joint project to digitize our nation’s historical newspapers by conducting a keyword search for “jazz;”

Try searching for "jazz" in one of the southern state encyclopedias such as Alabama, Georgia, or  Louisiania; 

Browse this extensive collection of early sheet music by African American composers for examples of early jazz and its musical predecessors such as ragtime and the blues;

This is the definitive online resource for learning about jazz before 1930. Read in-depth essays and biographies and listen to hundreds of recordings.

Jazz Education

Created by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz with partial funding from NEH, this website offers new Internet-based jazz curriculum for social studies, American history, and music classes in the U.S. This is the first jazz/social studies curriculum using current Internet technology and offered free of charge on a national basis;

The website for a national network dedicated to jazz education;

Founded by Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies, this website offers a wide selection of digital resources—journal articles, book chapters, magazines, teaching materials, talks, internet links, and performances—to represent the diversity and innovation in jazz studies.

International Jazz

Besides a description of its large archival collection in Germany, the Jazzinstitut website contains a comprehensive list of other international organizations, workshops, musicians, and clubs.

Researching Jazz

Below is a list of possible topics that students might explore in classroom discussion or as a research project.

  • Billie Holiday and the song, “Strange Fruit”;
  • Josephine Baker, the World War II underground French Resistance, and 1950s civil rights activism;
  • Jazz in Nazi Germany and World War II concentration camps;
  • Louis Armstrong and desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas;
  • The State Department jazz tours of the 1950s and 60s featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Dave Brubeck;
  • Jazz behind the Iron Curtain;
  • Willis Conover and Voice of America;
  • Jazz and the civil rights movement;
  • The Zoot Suit riots.

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