Ellen Livingston Unites Jazz and Democracy ☆

The Inception

Ellen Livingston, Instructor for the Social Studies Education program, is the primary author of an exciting new curriculum recently released by the Arts and Humanities Department in collaboration with The Rockefeller Foundation, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and The Documentary Group; Let Freedom Swing: Conversations on Jazz and Democracy brings two cornerstones of American culture together into classrooms.

The genesis of Let Freedom Swing was an event at The Kennedy Center prior to President Obama’s inauguration that brought together retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Wynton Marsalis, jazz musician and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Ellen explains that from their “musical performances and conversations about the commonalities between jazz and democracy reform came the idea of creating a resource for classroom use.” Teachers College was soon invited to design a curriculum and helped shape three short films produced by The Documentary Group.

With the help of Margaret Crocco, director of the project, and Anand Reddy Marri and Christina Morado, editors of the curriculum, Ellen became the lead author and began the challenging and creative task of determining how to bring together jazz and democracy. “The main challenge,” Ellen says, “was to do justice to them both, to talk about jazz in a way that would be meaningful to people who know about jazz, and also to talk about democracy at a substantive level. We needed to find ways to make this a mindful resource in both contexts.”

Building a Curriculum

Over the course of the next several months, Ellen worked on creating a curriculum that not only fully engages both jazz and democracy, but also is appropriate for music, social studies, and humanities classes from grades 6-12 and conforms to the standards of the National Council for Social Studies and the National Association for Music Education. The curriculum includes an overview of the project and the study guide and a chapter to complement each video: We the People, E Pluribus Unum, and A More Perfect Union. Each chapter includes an essential question, an overview, discussion questions, suggested activities, and suggestions for further research.

The Impact

The virtue of creating a curriculum is that it lives on in the classrooms in which it is taught. Ellen hopes, in particular, that Let Freedom Swing makes an impact in two areas. “The first,” Ellen says, “is to create a meaningful discussion about democracy in classrooms. It’s a term that’s used constantly but not really analyzed substantively. It’s such a rich and wonderful and at the same time problematic concept that we really want to stimulate a discussion about its possibilities and its challenges, and I think that coming at it from this very different angle from the way it’s usually introduced in the classroom is a wonderful way to get that conversation started.”

Ellen also believes that Let Freedom Swing is an effective means of sparking creativity and promoting the arts. “It’s a great way to bring music into the classroom because there isn’t as much art education happening as there should be. Students don’t get the exposure that they should.” Above all, she says, “social studies is by nature an interdisciplinary field, and I think that this is a perfect example of how to take what seem to be different subjects and bring them together in a way that doesn’t happen enough in schools.”

This interrelation between disciplines may ultimately be one of the greatest messages of the curriculum. “Life is not compartmentalized.” Ellen says, “Jazz grew out of a specific historical context, and it’s a historical context that tells us something about how democracy and freedom worked and didn’t work in America. Jazz is intimately connected with this history of American democracy; it’s one of the uniquely American art forms. It grew out of a particular slice of the American experience and that slice of the American experience has a lot to tell us about what democracy does and doesn’t mean.”