Jazz in DC

Take a tour through jazz history in Washington, DC


Age range: Good for 12 to 18 year olds

Estimated Time: Give yourself some time! There are seven audio clips which each last between six and eight minutes.

Key Technology: You can use this on a computer or whiteboard—but you will need speakers (or headphones) for the music parts.

Subscribe to this audio series:

From Fairmont Street to U Street, from the Howard Theater to the Bohemian Caverns, take a tour through jazz history with Billy Taylor and Frank Wess, who lead listeners through their hometown's music scene in this 6-part audio series. Through memories and music, they describe growing up in the nation's capital, their musical coming of age, and the people and places that are indelibly linked to the world of Jazz.

Think About...

After listening to each audio track sum up what you have learned by listing three major points.

  • As you listen, jot down the names of musicians mentioned for later reference.
  • Based on what you learned from listening to the different segments, select one of the musicians mentioned and write a brief biographical sketch of him or her using what you already know and additional research conducted on your own.

As you listen to each segment, answer the following questions:


  • How did Billy Taylor and Frank Wess get their start playing jazz? What drawbacks did they encounter? How were they encouraged?

Incubating Jazz

  • In what ways was Washington DC an “incubator?”

Jazz Teachers, Jazz Masters

  • What role did teachers and idols play in Taylor’s and Wess’ development as musicians?

Life in Segregated Washington, DC

  • What was significant about U Street? What happened if African Americans went south of U Street?
  • How did African Americans make do as far as getting what they needed, seeing doctors, et cetera despite the rampant segregation?
  • What set Dunbar High School apart from the other schools attended by African Americans?

Bringing Jazz to Europe

  • What did teacher Mary Reese Europe impart to her students about Roland Hayes? What type of political climate and reaction did Hayes experience in Germany? Why did Mary Reese Europe make a point of teaching her African American students about Hayes?
  • How was jazz received in Europe and, in particular, France?


  • What was so unique about certain Washington DC neighborhoods vis-à-vis the jazz movement?
  • In what ways did these neighborhoods contribute to the growth and success of the jazz movement in Washington DC?

Unsung Heroes

  • Why did some jazz musicians not get the credit they deserved for their contributions to the movement?

Critical Thinking

  • How did jazz help change African Americans’ place in 1930s America?
  • How did African American history influence the development of jazz?

Quiz Yourself!

  • Who were some of the great jazz musicians in 1930s Washington DC?
  • What influenced the development of jazz music in 1930s Washington DC?

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

  • Where else in 1930s America did arts-focused neighborhoods emerge and what was their focus?
  • Are there any modern movements (visual art, dance, music, etc.) that have the same grass roots origins as the 1930s jazz movement in Washington? Where are they and how did they start?
  • Visit http://pbskids.org/jazz/ to learn more about jazz, specific musicians and to join a virtual band.

For the Educator

Students can listen to the audio clips in conjunction with any of the following activities and discussion questions:

  • Wess and Taylor mention jazz giants like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, Billy Eckstine, Fats Waller, Count Basie, and James Reese Europe. Have students conduct independent research on these legends, focusing on each musician's contribution to jazz.
  • Jazz was America's popular music in the 1930s and 1940s. What is America's popular music today? What makes a type of music popular? Ask students if they agree with Frank Wess, who said that popular music is music that people can dance to.
  • During the 1930s, jazz was not part of the school curriculum. In fact, students weren't allowed to play jazz in the music conservatory at Howard University. Discuss parallels between jazz and Hip Hop music. How does the role of Hip Hop in schools today (or lack thereof) compare to the role of jazz in the 1930s? Why isn't Hip Hop performance and analysis taught in schools the way classical music or jazz is taught?
  • Although students weren't allowed to study jazz in school, they were trained in Classical music. Taylor and Wess discuss how their education in Classical music enabled them to become better jazz musicians. Why would Classical music training equip Duke Ellington, Taylor, and Wess with the skills to become better jazz musicians?
  • Discuss issues of race and gender that were discussed in the audio series. In what ways did artists face obstacles due to their race or gender in the 1930s and 1940s? Does racial and gender discrimination still exist? In what ways?
  • Dr. Billy Taylor discusses how he had the opportunity to talk to one of his idols--Fats Waller--and didn't say a word. Have students write a fictional essay about their favorite musician or band. Ask them to imagine meeting the individual or group. Where would they meet? What would they talk about? Encourage students to use a lot of descriptive, sensory details in their essays.
  • Taylor and Wess share memories of influential teachers like Henry Grant. Ask students which teacher has been most inspiring or influential to them. How is this teacher similar or different to Henry Grant?
  • According to Taylor, bebop was born in Washington, DC. What is bebop? Have students listen to different types of jazz (i.e., bebop, ragtime, fusion, swing, free jazz, bossa nova) and discuss the differences. Next instruct students to research what makes their hometown or city unique. Have your class create a "Visitor's Guide" to your city or state that includes a brief history and suggested places to visit for entertainment, food, and shopping.

Many unsung heroes in jazz music are mentioned in this series. Discuss with students the definition of "unsung hero." Ask students to find out who the unsung heroes are in their neighborhoods. Have them conduct oral histories by interviewing these heroes. Depending on the technological resources available to you and your students, you can either assist students in creating audio or video clips of these interviews or have students write articles about the people they interviewed for a class "Unsung Heroes" magazine.

In this audio series, jazz legends Frank Wess and Dr. Billy Taylor paint a colorful picture of the nation's capital when its clubs and schools were teeming with a new kind of popular music—jazz. They also provide a glimpse into the challenges and inspirations of young, African-American men on their way to a prolific career in jazz in the 1930s, during a time of racial segregation. This series provides an opportunity for students to listen to oral histories about the people and places—and the unsung heroes—who made important contributions in the history of jazz.

Instructional Strategies

Beginnings (08:01)

Dr. Billy Taylor and Frank Wess share memories of Dunbar High School, long-gone DC clubs and of jazz legends Jelly Roll Morton and Lester Young.

  • After students listen to the audio clip, have a class discussion about the important role that music played in the lives of these individuals.

Incubating Jazz (06:30)

In Part II of the series, Wess and Taylor share memories of growing up in music clubs around the region and reflect on the role DC had in the development of jazz.

  • Compare and contrast the birth of jazz in DC and in Harlem. In what ways were the movements similar or different?

Jazz Teachers, Jazz Masters (06:50)

Henry Grant was a music teacher who taught in Washington DC's black public high schools. Among his students count luminaries of Jazz history, including Duke Ellington— and Billy Taylor and Frank Wess, who remember him.

  • Taylor and Wess discuss teachers and role models who served to inspire them. Ask students to reflect on teachers, coaches or instructors who have influenced and inspired them. This subject matter provides a great opportunity for students to write personal essays about those who have inspired them.

Life in Segregated Washington, DC (07:37)

In this episode, Taylor and Wess talk about the upsides and down-sides of being African-American in the segregated Washington, DC of their childhood. Segregated theatres and restaurants, racist neighbors, and prejudiced law-enforcement made life in Shaw difficult. Despite this, African American-owned establishments in DC afforded a respite from some of these hardships— one of these havens being the prestigious Dunbar High School.

  • This segment provides an excellent opportunity to have a serious discussion about the realities of segregation in twentieth century America. It is a wonderful chance to discuss the Civil Rights Movement as well as the response of African Americans to the discrimination and segregation they experienced. Particular emphasis should be paid to non-violent responses such as marches and cultural movements.

Bringing Jazz to Europe (05:36)

Teacher Mary Reese Europe was the sister of James Reese Europe, who brought jazz to France in WWI. In this episode, Taylor and Wess expound upon the influence of the two siblings, and Mary Reese Europe's teachings about singer Roland Hayes in prejudiced Germany prove an inspiration to her students.

  • It is important to explore the rise of the jazz movement in 1930s Washington in light of simultaneous world events. While African Americans were experiencing discrimination and prejudice at home, millions of Jews and other so-called minority groups were being persecuted all over Europe by the Nazi regime which was quickly gaining power.
  • An interesting activity to help students grasp the chronology of world events is to create a multi-layer timeline with different tiers for prejudice-related events in America and Europe.

Neighborhoods (07:36)

The Crystal Caverns, the Howard Theatre, and other venues in Washington DC allowed the teenage Wess and Taylor opportunities to see their idols in concert. In this episode, they discuss the great musicians who frequented these monuments of jazz history.

  • This segment provides a helpful segue into understanding how and why neighborhoods developed with a specific cultural focus.
  • Students should take this opportunity to research the Harlem Renaissance, Chicago’s Chicano Movement and others. Independent or small group study of the different influences, themes, and individuals involved in the various movements will provide students with a great understanding of how important communities are as well as how people have made the best of adverse situations. They will also develop a deeper understanding of art as a cultural catharsis.

Unsung Heroes (07:36)

Washington, DC saw an influx and outflux of some of Jazz's greatest talent. In the final episode the series, Taylor and Wess talk about the relative anonymity of some originators, including Billy Eckstine and others who enjoyed only a short-lived celebrity.

  • This segment provides an interesting opportunity to discuss the degree of one’s celebrity and what makes it either long-lasting or short-lived.

Culminating Activity and Discussion

After listening to the series, have students discuss the importance of keeping arts programs in schools. Consider staging a formal debate in which students debate the pros and cons of funding arts programs.



Daniella Garran
Original Writer

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