Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Jazz and World War II: A Rally to Resistance, A Catalyst for Victory

Created September 23, 2010


The Lesson


Jazz and World War II: Billie Holiday

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.

Guiding Questions

  • What effect did World War II have on jazz and how did jazz contribute to the war effort?

Learning Objectives

  • Gain awareness of the importance of jazz as a form of American cultural expression and influence in the world
  • Experience different forms of jazz
  • Learn how jazz musicians involved themselves in the war effort
  • Learn how the war experience forever changed the jazz community

Preparation Instructions

  • Visit the Jazz Lounge, a feature of the EDSITEment-reviewed Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns; on this site, you and your students can explore the different styles and instruments of jazz. Then visit the Smithsonian Jazz website, where you can listen to different forms of the music; on this site, go to "What is jazz?", a part of "Jazz Classes." The resources on these pages will give everyone an excellent introduction to the music that was popular in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.
  • Give your students time to explore the Jazz Classes resources. Each musician section includes audio clips of the artist's music to which one can listen, in addition to biographical information. You may wish to focus on the Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald sections, which have pertinent information on jazz in the 1930s and 1940s, and will be helpful in completing the activities described below.
  • There are also biographies available on Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. Click on Biographies and find additional information on Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald; next, look up William "Count" Basie, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw.
  • Using the resources described above, you can review with your students the history of jazz in the period leading up to World War II; knowing a little about this history will help them in the activities that follow. Jazz flourished in the 1920s and became the popular music in America from 1930–1946. By the mid-1930s, jazz was played in Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Los Angeles, and (especially) New York; at that time, uptown Harlem was the center of the big band swing scene, but yielded its place during the 1940s to Manhattan, which had become the center of the bebop craze, a radical movement within jazz.
  • For analyses of these and other aspects of jazz history, see the excerpts that are transcribed in Selected Reading in Jazz History (available from EDSITEment as a downloadable PDF); this document will be used in activity 4, below.
  • For a list of print resources on the history of jazz music, consult the Select Bibliography (available as a downloadable PDF).
  • For a list of suggested recordings, consult the Select Discography (available as a downloadable PDF).

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Jazz Life and American Society in the World War II Era: Focus on Billie Holiday

The Jazz Life and American Society in the World War II Era: Focus on Billie Holiday

  • Learn about Billie Holiday on the EDSITEment-reviewed Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. On the same site, there is the transcript (available as a PDF) of an interview with Artie Shaw. You will need to scroll down and click on "Artie Shaw" to download the PDF; go to page 9 of this PDF and read what Artie Shaw said about Billie Holiday. Discuss the following questions with your students:
    • What were the events that seem to have shaped Billie Holiday's life?
    • Why do you think "Strange Fruit" was such an important and controversial song?
    • Why do you think Holiday had such a difficult life?
Activity 2. Swing and Nazi Germany: Jazz in Wartime Europe
  • In Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, go to Great Depression: History in the Key of Jazz. You can read about jazz and the Depression or simply skip down to the section on "Swing." Listen to "Sing, Sing, Sing" on the audio clip. Then skip down to the last section entitled " A Glimpse of Things to Come" and read the experience Duke Ellington had while traveling in Europe in mid-1939. You can also listen to jazz critic Gary Giddins' discussion of the appeal of swing.
  • Also in Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, go to World War II: History in the Key of Jazz. In the last section of this webpage, entitled "Jazz in Occupied Europe," you and your students can read about the impact that Nazi propaganda and repression had on jazz musicians and fans.
  • Show your students the movie Swing Kids. This outstanding film shows how swing music became a form of resistance for young Germans who were anti-Nazi. It also shows how jazz musicians were scorned for being African American and Jewish. Discuss how the music was a form of protest and resistance for young Germans. Have students read the Hans Massaquoi section in The Good War by Studs Terkel (Ballantine, 1984; pp.498-505). Massaquoi was a real swing kid and served as technical advisor for the film. Also another excellent resource for the swing kids is a history text entitled Inside Nazi Germany by Detlev Peukert (Cambridge University Press, 1987).
Activity 3. Jazz and World War II — The Historical Perspective
  • Go to World War II: History in the Key of Jazz. Read the discussion of the African American contribution to the war. Discuss with your students the following question: Why did Downbeat magazine refer to jazz musicians as "Soldiers of Music"? Ask students to give several pieces of evidence to back up their opinion.
  • Go to Women in Jazz, a feature on Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. Answer the following questions, based on the section which discusses what role women played in jazz in the 1930s and 1940s:
    • How did the war change the way that women were involved in jazz?
    • How did this compare with the general workforce?
    • How was a woman's place in society altered as a result of World War II?
  • Go to the webpage on Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns dealing with the Recording Ban. Discuss with your students the following questions:
    • Why do you think the musician's union instituted the recording ban
    • What effect did the recording ban have?
    • Do you feel that the recording ban achieved its goal? Why or why not?
Activity 4. Small Group Discussions: Selected Readings in Jazz History

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:

  • Think about whether your reading focuses on individuals or a larger group. What does it say about the relationship between the individual and the group?
  • What important issue is central to this particular reading?
  • How do you know this?
  • If opinions are given, what explicit or implied facts support the author's point of view?
  • Do agree or disagree with what the author has written? What is the basis for your position? Explain your reasons and provide evidence.
  • What other information would you need to better understand or evaluate your reading?

Extending The Lesson

  • Ask student groups to prepare PowerPoint presentations on issues related to jazz and World War II. Some possibilities are the effect of the war experience on musicians, the shift in popularity from swing to bebop, the symbolism associated with World War II era popular songs, and the issue of race in jazz and in World War II.
  • Ask students to prepare song lyric analyses of World War II era popular songs. They can access song lyrics to all the most popular songs at Lyrics World. Have them try to find recordings of the songs they selected and present the song and their analyses to the class. Possible ideas for analysis could include the following: ways in which women are portrayed; stereotypes which appear in the lyrics; and reinforcement or challenges to American values of the period
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Music
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Musical analysis
  • Online research
  • Research
  • Robert Nohel


Activity Worksheets