And all that Jazz

Robin Armstrong (left, standing with trash can lid), and Jon Seligman (right).
March 10, 2014

Desks, whiteboard, even the grand piano fade into the background as Billie Holiday’s voice literally envelops room 101 of Levine Hall. One by one students slip silently into their chairs to the irresistible slides in “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.”

Welcome to Music professor Robin Armstrong’s “History of Jazz” class.

“You know you’ve got a good gig when you can play Billie Holiday in the classroom,” says Armstrong, who is preparing her students for the day’s lesson in the European and African influences on blues, jazz and, in fact, over the decades, American music.

The mostly freshmen and sophomores in the class have watched the 1947 film “New Orleans” and listened to Holiday’s emotional, soft swing and call-and-response with the muted timbre of Louis Armstrong’s horn. They’ve heard too the structured, more instrumental and less emotional rendition sung in the film by fictional opera singer, Miralee Smith.

Their professor will guide them through the differences and show them how race and gender, not only talent and style, determined who made it to the top of the record charts. Armstrong will prompt them make connections and to understand jazz in the context of culture. She will even at some point connect the Beatles to their roots in the Blues in this course that satisfies creative expression and multicultural, social, cultural, and historical understanding requirements of the McDaniel Plan.

But Armstrong doesn’t stop there. She also invites colleague and percussionist Jon Seligman to class to get everyone’s toes tapping to the captivating rhythms of jazz through the decades. Arming the students with 5-gallon plastic buckets and trash-can lids along with more traditional drums, tambourines, African double bells and triangles, Seligman creates a percussion ensemble that almost magically illustrates the trademark beats of the genre.

Grins stretch across their faces. They get it. They really get it.

“I can really see how everything is developing and how the music is connected to the times,” says Kylan McCubbin, a freshman from Baltimore, who listens to a lot of music from Motown to Marvin Gay, Louis Armstrong to ’90s rap, with his dad, Chris Herrera.

Last summer they visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “There’s an exhibit there that shows connections like Metallica looked up to Little Richard, and Elvis looked up to Benny Goodman.”

It is sweet music to Armstrong’s ears.

“Jazz changes because the society producing it changed, and my students are learning to make connections between sounds,” she says. “It’s a wonderful way of teaching the skills of making connections between disparate pieces of information – helping them learn to put together information they’ll need to vote, to apply for a job, to rent an apartment.

“Life skills. Isn’t that really what we are here to prepare them for?”

 Armstrong creates a journey through history and culture to foster her students’ understanding of the social context of jazz and how race and gender influenced the creation and changes in music.

“If they understand the dynamics of society and social stratification, then they can transfer that to understand better their own social context.”