The Roaring 20s, Donnie Iris, and 2032–What Will Be Classic?

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In class recently, my students and I dove into the “Roaring 20s” and concentrated on all that Jazz. Hail to Billie and Ella and the Duke! What fun to introduce students to the Cotton Club, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. Each year, I am shocked most students are unfamiliar with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. At first this saddens me, like a few years back when a freshman of mine did not know who George Harrison was. Really? An hour ago, I heard the Donny Iris “classic”, “Ah, Leah” for the hundredth time.

I still think it’s a great pop song and wish my name were Leah instead of Cindy. The point is, I have to remember that I don’t know or appreciate much of the music my students listen to today. Why should they care about Jazz or my favorite pop songs? The singers of today will become sentimental heroes of my students tomorrow. In thirty years, their music will be classic. That I still love Donny’s silly, simple, delicious song is perfectly okay. The emotional connection adds a powerful dimension to the song. It makes me happy and transports me back in time and I’m instantly seventeen. Does the song compare with the Beatles or Benny Goodman? Of course not, but I still jump up and dance around the room to Donny, so I say, thanks, for that one-hit wonder. It’s been a companion of mine for 30 years.

I have blind faith introducing the classics to the next generation.  Whatever medium, whatever art form, if it’s universally appealing, it will stand the test of time. I believe Jazz is better than most music forms–it’s a shinier, richer, influential treasure swinging on the chestnut tree.

Well, trying to explain the essence of Jazz and tracing its roots to cover the evolution of Jazz is a daunting task. I’m a big Ken Burns fan, so I showed my students the intro to his Jazz documentary. I love how trumpeter Wynton Marsalis glorifies Jazz in a way that anyone can appreciate. As students worked on their classroom activities over the week, I played different Jazz pieces and heard students comment “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that” or tried to mimic Ella Fitzgerald’s scat in “Blue Skies”. They loved the lilting voice of Holliday’s voice and I caught most of the class tapping to “Sing, Sing, Sing” or smile to Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. One could say pop-culture is born in the 20s. What could be bigger than Walt Disney, Babe Ruth, and the movies? It was endearing to hear the students of today understand the importance of the Jazz Age and how it influenced, well, everything thereafter!

All week, all I seemed to hear and notice was everything Jazz. I happened to catch Chicago on a movie channel and there was Queen Latifa on stage in all her glory. I got it this time around; she was Bessie Smith.

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Jazz is the musical symbol of America. It’s certainly one of our best inventions. When one of my students completed her investigation of Jazz, she requested I play “Sing, Sing, Sing” and concluded shaking her head, “I know now I was born in the wrong decade.” How heartwarming coming from a fifteen year old.

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