Inspiration from Wynton Marsalis, James Baldwin, and My Students

Due to inclement weather for an outdoor event nearby, Wynton Marsalis showed up at my school, where his gig had been relocated. This happened on Tuesday at 11 am, and I just happened to have a coinciding off period, so I took two flights of stairs down to the balcony of The Denney Theatre. With an introduction from Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, Marsalis spoke about the fundamentals of jazz and how jazz teaches us to exercise individual rights as well as responsibility to others. “Jazz can show us how to work together,” he said, “while also celebrating our obvious differences.” The metaphors weren’t lost on this English teacher. Marsalis spoke of improvisation and how improvisation is freedom. Then he improvised on trumpet with The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and proceeded to blow my socks off. There was a call and response among the musicians. The piano and sax, the drums and string bass and trombone each had their turn. I understood the celebration of differences and left the theatre that day feeling that jazz is life.

This whole jazz experience overlapped with classroom discussion of James Baldwin’s 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues.” I had never taught this story. I’m not sure I fully understood the nuance. I had hesitated to assign the story. It’s not exactly short. But there’s something about Baldwin. And I couldn’t have planned a guest performance of a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning jazz musician if I had tried.

Prior to the reading assignment, I gave my students a bookmark, ironic since The Norton Introduction to Literature is online. The bookmark, a mini-handout, included what to look for when marking the text:

  • Music and Jazz
  • Being Trapped, Physically and Emotionally
  • Light vs. Darkness
  • Grace, Forgiveness, and Salvation
  • Family Obligation
  • Characterization of the Narrator vs. Sonny

Then came Wednesday, the day of the graded discussion. I had divided the story into three parts and my class alphabetically into three groups. My students read the entire story but focused their annotations on their assigned section: beginning, middle, or end.

The students first discussed their chunk in small groups for main ideas and motifs. Then we had a class graded discussion. Everyone participated. Intelligent and sophisticated conversation ensued. In twenty-two years of teaching, what happened in my classroom this week ranks as a highlight of highlights and left me inspired.

Sonny is a free-spirited jazz musician with a heroin problem. It’s 1950s Harlem. His older brother, the unnamed narrator, teaches school and has spent time in the military. The brotherly conflict is real. Before their mother dies, she tells the older brother, “Don’t let him fall.” It seems wrong to write a story about the artist James Baldwin or his masterpiece of a story. You would be better off reading “Sonny’s Blues,” and then we can talk.

39 thoughts on “Inspiration from Wynton Marsalis, James Baldwin, and My Students

  1. Challenge accepted. I will read Sonny’s Blues.

    Jazz is indeed like life. Winton Marsalis dropped by your school?! He’s the best of the best! Another great jazz trumpeter is a native Oklahoman, the late Chet Baker. Check out his version of “Look for the Silver Lining.” It’s a Crystal-worthy song, indeed. 😊

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    1. Incredible, right? And busloads of kids of all ages about 500 people. That’s why I snuck into the balcony. Our jazz musicians and piano students were there, but most of my students missed the opportunity. I was super lucky to have an off period. Then again, I’m believing more and more that there’s no such thing as coincidence. Thanks for the Chet Baker suggestion, David. Again no coincidence that you mentioned, I listened—and cried because it spoke to me. I needed that one for my playlist. Enjoy the James Baldwin! There’s an allusion to the Book of Isaiah at the end that makes me feel…well, I don’t want to give anything away…

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  2. Wow, Wynton Marsalis dropped by your school!!! Crystal, what a wonderful post, interweaving his messages with those of your class reading. I love it when you talk about your teaching hopes and strategies. This one was extra special.

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  3. What a lovely experience and metaphor. I also consider Improv Jazz as ego jazz because the musician can make that segment as long as he chooses (which is often minutes longer than my desire to listen.) (This criticism also applies to Rock and Roll and other type of music where the musician takes too long to gratify his/her creative spirit/ego/whatever the motivation is.)

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  4. jazz is funk and fusion
    welded wedded embedded
    in blues of the black man
    as only he can
    race not the card
    but the lesson
    stressing
    the climax
    of a cut
    reshaped
    and made perfect
    in the erosion
    of time
    my how fine

    what a superb post~

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  5. That’s so neat. I can feel the beats here! It’s not lost on me on how connected all the events just flowed. This is so good, Crystal! You are “connected” and resonating with goodness and loving healing vibes!!! 💯❤️🤗

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    1. Thank you so much, Dwight! I must be “connected” because I feel your response with a tear or two in my eyes. One takeaway from the week (from both Marsalis and Baldwin) is about the importance of listening before responding. I appreciate you. Have a wonderful Saturday!

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  6. Miracles happen when we venture into the unknown–such as jazz, in your case–with an open mind. We are better able to see the other with a new appreciation. Congrats on creating such an open discussion among your students!

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  7. Thank you for sharing your adventure!!.. I do like jazz, I am listening to some quiet, relaxing, smooth jazz as I speak… “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” (Plato).. 🙂

    Until we meet again..
    May love and laughter light your days,
    and warm your heart and home.
    May good and faithful friends be yours,
    wherever you may roam.
    May peace and plenty bless your world
    with joy that long endures.
    May all life’s passing seasons
    bring the best to you and yours!
    (Irish Saying)

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  8. Divine signs, indeed, Crystal. Many of them simultaneously, and from varying directions.

    You mentioned in the previous post it wasn’t as though you heard a voice from above. Really? Sound most definitely is involved here. It’s only one Sign among many, granted, but Someone definitely speaks to you. …and to everyone who reads of your experiences.

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    1. It does seem like the pieces keep falling into place. Now to watch for the next piece and the next and to keep marveling in how they all work together for the good of the big picture. Thanks for your staunch support and kindness, Keith. Have a great week!

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  9. What a wonderful day you had, and how timely it all was. The longer I live, the stronger my belief that there are no coincidences. God uses everything and works it into His bigger plan. (As a side note and outside the realm of your post, I am interested in learning more about a “class graded discussion.” I have never participated in one or assigned one. I am retired so I assume this is something new. As a student this would make me nervous. I can imagine some students trying to take over the discussion to get a better grade or just because it is their nature. I also wonder how as a teacher you can have ears everywhere at once. What if that shy student says something remarkably insightful while you are on the other side of the room? Or if it is the whole class, I can imagine it being like a Zoom discussion where a few people take over the discussion.)

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    1. Thank you, Linda! I’m trying to be kind to myself. So this time, they talked in small groups first about their section of the story. Then I required one comment per student for our whole class discussion. They start with what the section is about and layer in symbols and motifs. It’s mostly to hold them accountable without grading their writing, and I mostly give 100s unless they obviously didn’t read.

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      1. Crystal, this is a good time to be kind to yourself (and that does not include grading a gazillion papers). I like your idea. It does hold them accountable for their reading and encourages them to interact in their group. It validates their ideas while encouraging them to be selective (i.e. not every idea that pops in their heads is worth sharing). I just know you are a wonderful teacher and a blessing to your students! Have a great, restful weekend.

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  10. I always leave your blog having learned something interesting or having something else to read. Thanks so much for teaching not just inside the classroom, but outside of it as well! 🥰

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  11. Stirring discussion! Marsalis’ words about jazz apply truthfully to life in general. Yes!! We need to celebrate our differences. You and your students experienced moments of epiphany with James Baldwin. Crystal, thanks for sharing these moments.

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