Rhythm & Improv: Jazz & Poetry

Discovering the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, and Langston Hughes


Key Staff

Primary Instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


The musicality of words is an important element of poetry, and many poets carefully consider the sound of the words on the page. Students will listen to and analyze jazz music, specifically considering sound, rhythm, and improvisation. Students will identify jazz characteristics in poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, and Langston Hughes, and will incorporate these elements in their own original poetry.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Discuss and identify several literary terms, including rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, form, free verse, stream of consciousness, lyricism, and imagery
  • Apply an in-depth understanding of jazz characteristics such as improvisation, lyricism, rhythm, and assonance to their own creative work
  • Analyze meaning and craft of poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, and Langston Hughes
  • Identify common characteristics of jazz music
  • Discuss the commonalities between jazz music and poetry

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection
  • Research

Assessment Type



What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
  • Projector
Technology Notes

Internet Access is needed.

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should familiarize themselves with the poets to be studied and the characteristics of jazz using the following sources:

  • Feinstein, Sascha, and Yusef Komnyakaa, ed. The Jazz Poetry Anthology. Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Komunyakaa, Yusef. Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries. Edited by Radiclani Clytus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.


  • Davis, Miles. Kind of Blue. Columbia Records 40579. CD.


Prior Student Knowledge

Students should be familiar with the artistic/literary genres of jazz and poetry.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual impairments or disabilities may need modified handouts or texts.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Tell students that they will be learning about common devices used by poets in order to develop their critical reading skills and enhance their own writing. Since many poets carefully consider the sound of the words on the page—the musicality of the poem—the class will also listen to and analyze music to help them develop their listening skills. Specifically, the class will analyze poems that are influenced by jazz music, which are often great examples of innovative explorations of sound, rhythm, and improvisation.

2. Warm up students to the concept of "improvisation." Generally, improvisation refers to creating and/or performing an artistic piece without preparation. Jazz musicians improvise by creating fresh melodies that coincide with the chord structure of a tune. They may already have an idea of how the song will go, but the specific melodies would be created on the fly (and often on stage!). Writers may improvise by writing whatever comes to mind in a "stream of consciousness" manner; or in other words, a transcription of a writer's thought process, comprised of all the strange connections the mind makes without forethought.

3. Prepare for a quick round of Exquisite Corpse, a game developed by the Surrealists. For more on the Surrealists, see the WebMuseum, Paris: Surrealism Web site. Divide students into groups no smaller than three and no larger than eight. Pass out a blank sheet of paper to each student.

4. To play Exquisite Corpse, tell the class they will be drawing a body, but each person will only draw a portion of the body. Ask students to fold the paper into thirds: the upper third will be used for the head to the shoulders, the middle third will be for the torso, and the lower third will depict the hips to the feet. Encourage students to be creative. For example, there are no rules stating that the body should stick to a human form. You may wish to show examples to inspire students, such as one created by Surrealists Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Max Morise, and Joan Miró circa 1926, available on the University of Alabama Web site.

Next, ask each student to draw a head on the upper third of the paper then fold the paper, leaving small marks on the top of the middle third that would enable the next student to continue from those marks, connecting the head to the torso.

When the student is finished drawing the head, they should pass the folded paper to the student next to them. This student should now draw the torso, and when finished (also leaving small marks on the top of the final third), should pass the folded paper to the next student to complete the figure.

When complete, the paper can be opened to see how chance functioned in the creation of art and how individuals in the class "improvised" and together were able to create interesting and imaginative art.

Build Knowledge

1. Poetry "Jam Session": Lead a collaborative writing activity that will further illuminate the concept of improvisation. Tell students that they will be playing a type of "stream of consciousness" game: Immediately after they read a line that contains a vivid image, they should write down the first line that comes to mind. This line should contain a vivid image that was triggered by the image contained in the previous line. Encourage students to be as wild or surreal as they want in writing their line. Start the ball rolling by revealing a line you've already written on the board, such as "swaying like the branches of a weeping willow" or "kangaroo in a party hat" or any other image that would conjure up a specific visual in students' minds. Students should immediately write their line. When finished, they should pass the paper to a neighbor. That student should write a line inspired by the previous student's image, then fold the paper so that the previous line cannot be seen. Tell students to pass the paper again and continue with the preceding steps until at least eight lines have been written.

2. Ask students to share some of the collaborative poems they've just created. Discuss how the poems leap from image to image in imaginative yet correlative ways. Ask students if they can guess what one student may have been thinking in order to come up with their line. What are the possible relationships between images written by two different people?

3. Discuss how such leaps in imagery is a kind of "riffing." In jazz, musicians may riff off of each other's melody when improvising solos. Play a clip of Scott Weinhold Jazz Quartet on the Millennium Stage for students, and listen to how the musicians are able to expand and complicate a melody or theme by listening to another member of a group play a solo and responding to them through their own solo.

4. Explain to students that, similarly, some poets write in an improvised fashion (or in a "stream of consciousness" way), illuminating the way a poet responds to different objects, events, people, or ideas and how he/she finds connections between different objects, events, people, or ideas. The work of French Surrealist writer Andre Breton, such as his cycle of love poems, The Air of the Water, would provide good examples. Discuss how this technique illuminates the way many things in the world are interconnected. We learn from our experiences and can apply what we've learned to different situations-a phenomenon that can lead writers to profound metaphors.

5. Pass out copies of the poem "Tenebrae" by Yusef Komunyakaa, available in Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews and Commentaries. You could also use William Matthews poem, "Schoolboys with Dog, Winter," available on the Poetry 180.com Web site. While Matthews’ poem does not carry the same jazz imagery as "Tenebrae," you can discuss the way Matthews moves from image to image, using the repetition of "It's dark" and "It's good" to carry the reader through the poem.

6. Ask students to read the first stanza of "Tenebrae" to themselves, then read it aloud for the class. Begin with a close reading of the first sentence "You try to beat loneliness/ out of a drum,/ but cries only spring/ from your mouth." Note how the word "beat" has two meanings: the literal beating of a drum and the attempt (and failure) to overcome loneliness. Discuss the possible connections between the first sentence and the second and third sentences in the poem. What does loneliness have to do with the image of the dancers "weaving a path of songs to bring you back"? Back to what?

7. Tell students that Komunyakaa wrote "Tenebrae" as a tribute to jazz musician and educator William Roberts, a talented and respected musician who committed suicide. Note the attempt at healing in the poem. Discuss how, in the third and fifth sentences, there are attempts at escape, through song and through music, but, as stated in the fourth sentence, "Sometimes/ our hands hang like weights/ anchoring us inside/ ourselves." Discuss how this image reflects loneliness.

8. Discuss the effect of each stanza beginning with the line "You try to beat loneliness/ out of a drum." How is this repetition similar to the act of drumming itself? Komunyakaa referred to these lines as the "tonal muscle" of the poem and "the refrain that tied everything down." Discuss what he might have meant by this and point out that, in music, we are used to hearing repeated refrains or melodies. Often the main melody in jazz acts as a recurring theme in a piece of music, and the other sections of a piece work to "riff" off of, expand on, or veer away from the main melody. But the main melody usually comes back.

9. Play the Millenium Stage performance of The Lynk/Anderson Quartet featuring an excerpt of Duke Ellington's "Caravan." Point out how the syncopated melody is played by the keyboard, shifts and veers away, then returns periodically throughout the piece.

10. Assign the rest of "Tenebrae" to students. Ask them to closely read the rest of the poem, looking for connections and relationships between images within a stanza and comparing and contrasting each stanza. Tell them to come to class prepared to share their observations.


1. After the class finishes their discussion of "Tenebrae," provide an overview of jazz characteristics. Point out that the class has already discussed one common characteristic of jazz music—improvisation. Some other important aspects are syncopated meter, lyricism (in art, a quality expressive of feeling or emotion), and a sense of movement. Also, jazz instrumentation is often comprised of the following: drums playing rhythm; piano, brass instruments, and/or woodwinds playing melody; string bass or bass guitar playing low notes providing harmony (though also sometimes playing the melody).

2. Play a selection of your favorite jazz music for the class. Jazz musicians performing on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage can be viewed on the Millennium Stage Explorer. (Note: Select the "Jazz" tap to view all jazz performances.) Explain that syncopation is a type of rhythm characterized by the shifting of accents (or stress) from what are normally strong beats to weak beats. In jazz, beats 2 and 4 are most often accented (1 - 2 - 3 - 4 ) whereas in European classical music, for example, the accent is on beats 1 and 3 (1 - 2 - 3 - 4 ). Tap out the rhythm of the jazz music being played for students, tapping harder when the beat is accented. To show contrast, play a selection of classical music.

3. Play your favorite jazz selection again. Tell students to listen to the sounds they hear and "free write" whatever comes to mind based on the sounds for five minutes. Tell them it's okay to make up their own words if appropriate and that their writing doesn’t have to make "logical" sense. Just write. Ask if it's possible to mimic the rhythm and sounds of jazz in poetry. If students have trouble thinking of examples, ask students how to translate the sound of cymbals from music to words. It may look like this: "tiss tiss tiss." If rhythm is added, the words could be "tiss-tiss-tiss-pop tiss-tiss-tiss-pop." Compare this example to the words "his gin fizz sopped with this big mop." Note how the words that communicate a drink that was spilled and cleaned up have a similar rhythm as the nonsense words, "tiss-tiss-tiss-pop." Set students' work aside for the time being.

4. Pass out Sonia Sanchez's "Tapping" (available in The Jazz Poetry Anthology) and discuss which characteristics of jazz are evident in Sanchez's poem. This activity can also be done using Yusef Komunyakaa's "Slam, Dunk, & Hook." Ask students to point out which areas of the poem they believe are the most lyric or carry the most emotional weight.

5. Point out to students that there is a repetition of the line beginning with "when i" that acts as a kind of refrain that is similar to the repeated refrain of "you try to beat loneliness out of a drum" in "Tenebrae." Not only is Sanchez including music vocabulary in the poem (i.e., "chromatic," "lyrics," "horn," etc.), but also has attempted to mimic the sound of jazz through language.

Ask students for examples, such as "when i cross kick/ scissor locomotive"). Point out that the musical sounds are accomplished by subtle rhyme and repetition. The poet has repeated the hard "k" sound in "cross kick" and then incorporates assonance (repetition of similar vowel sounds) in "kick/ scissor." Also explain that when single syllable words that end in consonants are used in a string ("when i dance my spine in a slouch"), there is the effect of a punchy rhythm.

6. Pass out "Dream Boogie" by Langston Hughes (a copy is available on the PBS Kids Web site). Discuss the characteristics of jazz evident in the poem. (You may wish to distribute copies of this poem ahead of time so students can read the poem closely and prepare their observations.) Discuss the lyricism of the poem, particularly pointing out that underneath the "happy beat," there is an underlying sadness. Discuss how this theme is echoed in Komunyakaa's "Tenebrae."

7. Compare the rhythm in "Dream Boogie" to Countee Cullen's "Heritage" (available at the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center Web site). Discuss the difference between free verse and poetic forms such as the sonnet. Poetic forms may limit the writer in terms of which words she may choose because the writer is trying to work within a pre-defined form. In some cases, the writer may choose a word for a line that does not successfully communicate an idea or feeling as another word in order to meet certain rhyme or rhythm criteria.

8. Explain that both Hughes and Cullen were Harlem Renaissance writers. While Cullen worked within traditional poetic structures such as the 14-line sonnet, Hughes incorporated jazz and blues rhythms into his work, wanting to embrace his African American heritage in ways avoided by many of his peers who wanted to gain success in the white literary world.


1. Challenge students to write their own poem in which they incorporate stylistic elements found in the works of Hughes, Sanchez, and Komunyakaa. The poem should be written in free verse and should reflect a sense of movement from the beginning to the end of the piece. It should employ at least three of the following:

  • Improvisational leaps in image
  • Careful attention to the sound of words (including assonance, alliteration, and rhyme)
  • Lyricism
  • A line or beginning of a line that acts as a refrain

Students could refer to the free writing exercise conducted earlier in the class and use excerpts from that piece if they choose. Students can complete the poem for homework.

2. Spend the next class period workshopping and discussing students' work.

3. Have students read their completed poems aloud in a poetry reading.


Assess the students based on the following criteria:

  • Active participation in the creation of a collaborative poem
  • Identified examples of jazz characteristics in work by Sanchez and Hughes
  • Demonstrated understanding through insightful and frequent participation in class discussions
  • Wrote a free verse poem that incorporated three aspects of jazz music

You may also use the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 9-12 Music Standard 6: Listening to, analyzing, and describing music

Grade 9-12 Music Standard 8: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts


Grade 9-12 Music Standard 9: Understanding music in relation to history and culture

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Language Arts Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Language Arts Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Language Arts Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts



Theresa Sotto
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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