A Week of Jazz & Blues

Students in Class 11’s American Experience course spent the last week of February immersed in the world of jazz and blues. To kick off the week, students were joined by Upper School History teacher Jonathan Rulens and Upper School Music teacher Elizabeth Adler, who provided some historical context and musical background.

“By no means am I a blues expert,” said Ms. Adler, smiling. “But I have plenty of musical knowledge of the melodic and harmonic structure!” Ms. Adler began by showing students three scales: Major Scale, Pentatonic Scale and Minor Scale – all vital to the sound of Jazz and blues. She explained that the addition of one note – and lowering it to a flat – gives music its notable bluesy sound.

“This one note changes everything. Suddenly, you are in the world of blues!” she said, explaining that this is how the phrase “Blue Note” originated. “It’s a concept that came from African American music cultures.”

The rest of class time was spent examining various chords and lyrics that are rooted in Jazz music. Ms. Adler and Mr. Rulens emphasized the use of storytelling and improvisation that is linked to this style of music. Students also had the chance to write their own blues song, independently or in groups.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the students developed questions to ask their guests who were joining them at the end of the week: Chapin Scholar Professor Naomi Extra and her husband, Jerome Jennings, a jazz drummer, historian and big band conductor at Juilliard.

“There is so much to unpack when we talk about the music of Congo Square,” Mr. Jenkins told the students during his illuminating talk on Thursday. Congo Square was an area in New Orleans that was a site of “rich cultural incubation” in the 18th and 19th centuries.

On Sundays, enslaved people would gather in Congo Square to celebrate their African cultures and to enjoy a wide variety of musical styles. “This was an outlet of survival and resistance for these Africans,” he noted, adding that jazz, ragtime, big band, and blues all got their start in this corner of New Orleans.

Mr. Jennings played audio recordings of several rhythms that permeated West African and Caribbean music and continue to influence modern artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna. The students clapped their hands to beats enhanced by ceremonial drums, shells and voices. “Can you feel the rhythm?” Mr. Jennings asked the class. “It’s in everything.”

Mr. Jennings passionately sang along to the toe-stomping tunes he shared with Class 11. “I can get a little carried away when we talk about music,” he said, beaming from his Zoom box.

Following their robust discussion with Professor Extra and Mr. Jennings, on Friday morning, students participated in a “listening party,” to hear a variety of songs from the 1940s through today. Mr. Jennings introduced different forms of jazz music identified as The Swing Era, Bebop and Soul Jazz, among others.

Some of the tracks they listened to included: “Swing Shift” by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (1944), “Salt Peanuts” by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (1945), “The Creator Has A Master Plan (Peace)” by Leon Thomas (1969), and “Listen Here Goes Funky” by Eddie Harris (1973).

Mr. Jennings also noted that historical events had a significant impact on the evolution of jazz. The lynching and dehumanization of Black folks, for example, led to the writing and popularity of songs like “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday and “All Africa” by Max Roach.

He continued to touch on the prominence of Caribbean and Latin American voices in jazz, sharing songs such as “Vivir Mi Vida” by Marc Anthony (2013), “Drogba (Joana)” by Afro B (2018), and “Déjame Decirte” by iLe featuring Eddie Palmieri (2019).

Mr. Jennings and Professor Extra concluded by saying that jazz is continuously being reimagined. Now, folks are “redefining jazz and social justice in the era of Black Lives Matter in a wide-spanning way to include gender, sexual orientation and xenophobia.”