Students at T.W. Josey High School had a U.S. history lesson Thursday. Their teachers were a trumpet, drums, double bass and keyboard.
The drum told the story of the beginnings of jazz in West Africa 300 years ago.
The trumpet took students to New Orleans in the 1900s and guided them through Prohibition and the Great Depression all the way to the time of Louis Armstrong’s Hello, Dolly!
With musicians and their instruments set on Josey’s gymnasium floor, more than 150 students sat in the bleachers and heard the evolution of jazz, which in effect told the story of America.
The Richmond County school system’s social studies department joined with Garden City Jazz this month to teach students U.S. history through jazz music.
The five musicians and professional learning specialist André Mountain are performing for schools throughout Black History Month.
“When you teach U.S. history, you can use music to bring it all together and make it more interesting,” he said. “We just want to involve the community in what we do with social studies.”
In the hourlong presentation, the musicians touched on the evolution of the phonograph, the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to work in Northern factories in the 1900s, the jazz age after World War I, and the evolution of jazz from swing to hip-hop today.
“I’m going to start listening to jazz records after this,” Josey junior Jasmine Cobb said. “It made me think about where we came from.”
Some students in the bleachers recognized the music, but others were introduced to Cab Calloway for the first time when the Garden City group performed his 1931 song Minnie the Moocher.
The students echoed keyboardist Karen Gordon’s lyrics as she sang, a nod to Calloway’s call-and-response technique.
Mountain used the song to segue into the period when black soldiers returned from World War II to face more segregation and how jazz collectives grew from the fledgling civil rights movement.
He said bebop was an example of musicians expressing more creativity and individuality.
“It represented people seeking freedom in the music the same way they wanted freedom in society,” Mountain said.
By the time the musicians arrived at the birth of hip-hop, students were dancing in the bleachers and singing along to the music.
DJ Big Meal, known as the “Professor of Niceness,” showed how modern artists such as J. Cole sample jazz music from decades ago.
Mountain said he wants to increase such performances in Richmond County schools to keep students interested in learning.
He said he has gotten requests to take his presentation to Atlanta Public Schools.
In education, Gordon said, music can be one of the most important tools.
“I think telling history through music is the only way to do it,” Gordon said from her keyboard. “There’s so many milestones that if you know about music or even listen to music, music can tell the story just like art in history reflects the times. It’s so important.”