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School Days

School Days

One of the central themes of my history course is that America is a nation of great contradictions. The history of American music provides an excellent means for illuminating perhaps the most basic contradiction of all in U.S. society, that of race. How could the author of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that "all men are created equal" and possess an "inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," have been a slave owner? How could the founding fathers be inspired by the example of limited government set by the Iroquois nations yet engage in a policy of genocide when indigenous tribes interfered with westward expansion?

American music — jazz, rock, rap, R&B, gospel, country — has been the most alive and innovative musical tradition in the world for at least the last century. All these forms come out of the gumbo pot of African, European, and Native American sources that characterizes the musical heritage of both North and South America. Yet, in the United States, black artists typically have done the lion's share of the innovating, while white artists (and white-owned record labels) have reaped the lion's share of the financial rewards. Furthermore, our cultural elites still overwhelmingly look to Europe to validate American "high" culture, when what makes us unique is the unprecedented cultural crossbreeding that has taken place here. Compare the corporate and government support for "classical" forms such as the symphony, opera, and ballet to what's afforded to jazz, which should be considered the classical expression of American vernacular music. It is impossible to seriously study the history of 20th-century American music, from ragtime to rap, without also studying the history of racism.

Yet American music is also the story of gradual and sometimes spectacular triumphs over racism and class discrimination, of self-taught geniuses and bootstrap capitalists who neither asked for nor received public subsidies, and whose musical creations, for better and worse, have captured the imagination of the world for the past half-century. As trumpeter/educator Wynton Marsalis frequently has commented, jazz music can be seen as the ultimate artistic expression of American democracy, in its emphasis on individual expression within a cohesive group context.

My 9th-grade U.S. history course syllabus begins with the European conquest of the Americas and the disastrous consequences that followed for the Native American population and enslaved Africans. During the first week of class, as the class is doing homework assignments from the text about European conquest and colonization, I devote the better part of two 50-minute periods to demonstrating how Native American, African, and European elements came together and evolved into all the myriad forms of American music. I use recordings that reflect the traditional roots of the music, while explaining that all musical forms evolve over time and that 20th-century recordings inevitably have introduced modernizing influences.

Because of time constraints, I generally explain what elements I want students to listen for in a given piece and then play an excerpt that illustrates the point I am trying to make. I often fade the music down to talk over it, then fade it back up to let the music reinforce what I've just said. The DJ in me would, of course, prefer to play each track in its entirety — and sometimes students will implore me to let the music play — but excerpts are usually better suited to 50-minute periods and short adolescent attention spans. (See www.rethinkingschools.org for a listing of albums and individual tracks used in this lesson.)

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