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Role Models #4: Wynton Marsalis

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Lesson Overview:

This lesson is, without question, one of my most favorite of the year.  While teachers often choose Mozart or Beethoven to represent music in the Role Model Unit of Inquiry, I always teach Wynton Marsalis.  Why?  Because he is a jazz great even though he hated to practice as a kid, and as a professional he actively engages in teaching and outreach to take music to the next generation.  Not only that, but the kids love to listen to my Joe Cool’s Blues album.  Don’t miss this fabulous lesson and turn your kids on to an amazing, real-life, current musical great!

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:



To recognize the music of Wynton Marsalis and to understand his contributions to the world of music.  Also, to be further introduced to the biography collection and to decide whether Wynton Marsalis is a role model.   (AASL 1.1.6, “Read view, and listen for information presented in any format . . . in order to make inferences and gather meaning.”)

Suggested Time:

40-45 minutes

Success Criteria:

Each child will listen to a few of Wynton Marsalis’ recordings to recognize his musical style (jazz.)   The class will be further introduced to the biography collection and use evidence to explain whether Wynton Marsalis is a role model.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

As the children enter the room, have some of Wynton Marsalis’ music playing.  I like to use the Joe Cool’s Blues album.  You can find it right on Mr. Marsalis’ website, and there is plenty material you can play as a preview without having to purchase the album.  Find the recorded music to play back here:  Joe Cool’s Blues Preview Tracks.

Explain that today the lesson also focuses on the life work of one person.  As in the lesson on Walt Disney, the students will be looking for information and then using that information to decide whether this person could be considered a role model.   Challenge the students to listen carefully and to let you know when they hear something that might convince them that this person is or is not a role model.

2. Main:

Explain that the person they are learning today is a musician.  You won’t have time to read the entire biography, so preview it ahead of time and be prepared to highlight some of the relevant information about Mr. Marsalis.   I usually go ahead and tell the children Mr. Marsalis’s name since it is unlikely that they will have heard of him before.

Again, ask the children to let you know when they hear something that might help them to decide whether Mr. Marsalis is a modern-day role model.  Set up a class board or flip chart so that you can record the children’s ideas:

While teaching from the recommended biography, I highlight some of these ideas:

  • Wynton’s parents loved music.
  • Wynton was named after a famous jazz piano player.
  • Wynton received his first trumpet when he was six, but he did not like to practice. He would rather play ball with his friends.
  • When Wynton was ten, he tried playing the trumpet again. He could only make funny sounds and he still did not want to practice.
  • When Wynton was twelve, he decided that he wanted to learn to play the trumpet and he started studying music very diligently.
  • From the age of twelve, Wynton practiced 3-5 hours a day!!
  • Wynton played in bands in high school. He also studied hard and received good grades.
  • Wynton attended a famous music school in New York named Juilliard School of Music.
  • In college, Wynton also played in bands and traveled across the United States to perform when he was not studying. Eventually, he started his own band with his brother.
  • Wynton has won top music awards both for jazz and classical music. He is unusual in that he has mastered two completely different styles of music.

At this point I usually pause and teach the children what a Grammy Award is.  Show them the picture on p. 16 of a Grammy Award – it looks like an old-fashioned record player, the gramophone.  Children will not know what a gramophone is, so bring up a few pictures.

There is an amazing YouTube video of an old gramophone being wound up then playing a vinyl record.  Use this clip:  Gramophone Playing Record  Today’s children are used to digital files, and they will be amazed to learn how early recordings were enjoyed.

Returning to the biography and information about Mr. Marsalis, wrap up with:

  • Wynton liked jazz because jazz allows musicians to make up their own notes, to improvise.
  • Wynton likes teaching young people about jazz and has directed a jazz program at New York’s Lincoln Center for many years.
  • Wynton has written books, performed on radio and TV, and traveled the world to share music and to teach music.
  • Wynton is noted for his ability to compose as well as perform music.
  • Wynton believes that the only way you can get better at something is to practice!

Review the children’s ideas that you have scribed.  Make sure that the class notes are complete.

Finally, play a video of Wynton Marsalis performing so that the children can see as well as hear him.  I like this video of Mr. Marsalis playing on the David Letterman Show:  Wynton Marsalis Septet Playing on David Letterman Show, 1995

3. Conclusion:

Go back to the flipchart or board notes.  Ask the children whether they think that Wynton Marsalis is a role model.  Ask them to give evidence to support their answers.  Scribe a conclusion for the class.  “Wynton Marsalis is a good role model because . . . . “  Use their reasoning so that the lesson has a conclusion and so that their thinking can be summarized for their portfolios or as a group work sample.

  1. Wynton Marsalis by Stephen Feinstein.
  2. Joe Cool’s Blues music, found here: Joe Cool’s Blues  (audio only).
  3. Demonstration of a gramophone in operation, found here: Gramophone Demonstration (video and audio)
  4. Wynton Marsalis Septet playing on the David Letterman show: Wynton Marsalis Playing on David Letterman Show, 1995  (video and audio)
  5. Computer and speakers to play the music for the children.
  6. Screen and projection capability to play the videos for the children.

Like the Walt Disney lesson, I have not built a written assignment into this lesson because the kids have gotten so excited about the music it is nearly impossible to refocus them.   However, if you need a writing assignment, set a simple task such as:

  1. List five facts about Wynton Marsalis’ life and his work as a jazz musician.
  2. Do you think that Wynton Marsalis is a role model? Please explain your thinking with a few short sentences.

Recommended books for this lesson:

Wynton Marsalis by Stephen Feinstein

Key Terms:

Wynton Marsalis, Musicians, Jazz, Trumpet, Performing Arts, Gramophone, Grammy Awards