SARASOTA, FL – This semester, history is coming to life for Sarasota County high school students thanks to a collaboration of The Jazz Club of Sarasota and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, with support from the Sarasota County School District. The organizations are presenting Jazzlinks, an integrated arts experience to help illustrate the role of African Americans in U.S. history through music and theatre. This program is being funded through a $25,000 grant awarded to the Jazz Club from the Florida Arts Council, Division of Cultural Affairs.
Two Sarasota County Schools curriculum specialists prepared the content for 11th grade students, focusing on “document based questions,” an approach that requires students to use their own knowledge and several historical sources to develop an essay or series of short-answer questions. The curriculum connects three historical events with musical and dramatic illustrations: the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill with “Strange Fruit,” the emotional song made famous by Billie Holiday; the Harlem Renaissance with “Take the A Train,” which was immortalized by The Duke Ellington Orchestra; and the trial of the Scottsboro Boys with the spiritual, “Oh Freedom.”
WBTT performers will be brought into classrooms during February and March. Four actors will assume the roles of iconic figures in African-American history and jazz, sharing their stories – including instances of discrimination they encountered in spite of their fame. They will also respond (in character) to questions from students. A culminating performance will bring the full ensemble to each school, featuring a vibrant show of music, dance and poetry, in March and April.
Nancy Roucher, coordinator of Jazzlinks, says the partnership between the two organizations represents a natural and exciting collaboration to benefit students. “The project meets a need for integrated arts experiences at the high school level,” she said. “Research shows that arts integration engages students more and has been linked to higher achievement and increased retention of content. Jazzlinks will also bring arts instruction and a performance to some students who don’t participate in the arts after sixth grade.”
Twenty-five teachers from Sarasota high schools attended a teacher workshop on January 28 at the Westcoast Black Theatre to review the teaching materials that illuminate the struggles and triumphs of African Americans and the Civil Rights movement and to see a sample of the exciting performances planned for students. Teachers then individually opted into the program.
WBTT founder and artistic director Nate Jacobs said, “We are very excited to be working together to share this new experience with students. The possibilities are endless and we are ready to take flight!”
This is the theatre’s first entry into a year-round educational program. The Jazz Club felt WBTT would be an ideal partner in the venture since the organization’s sold-out shows have featured themes, music and content that resonate with the original concept of Jazzlinks.
Jazzlinks was originally created by The Jazz Club as a 5th grade curriculum that was implemented in all Sarasota elementary schools in the early 2000s. The project received national attention from The Wall Street Journal and Downbeat Magazine. In 2013, the state curriculum changed the focus of late 19th and early 20th century U.S. history to high school, encompassing the Jazz era. Program organizers decided to transform the original Jazzlinks units into a dynamic experience for 11th grade students.
“This will have an incredible impact on our students and our schools,” said Dr. Bernadette Bennett, the school district’s social studies curriculum specialist. “The Jazzlinks project presents history from the perspective of people, the struggles and the lives that are the fabric of who we are. The documents are just flat objects; the music, stories and production tell the story.”
About The Jazz Club of Sarasota:
The Jazz Club of Sarasota evolved from a group of friends listening to jazz music in their living rooms. Now, 36 years later, the club presents some of the top names in jazz music in over 70 events during the year, including a major week-long festival. The club’s goal is to “preserve, promote and present Jazz – the original American art form.” Call (941) 366-1552 or visit jazzclubsarasota.org.
About Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe:
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe of Florida, Inc. is the only professional black theater company on Florida’s West Coast. The mission is to produce plays that promote and celebrate the African-American experience, attract diverse audiences, while using its productions as a vehicle for supporting African-American artists and building the self-esteem of African-American youth. For more information on WBTT, visit the website at westcoastblacktheatre.org or call (941) 366-1505.