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.