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Let Freedom Swing

Let Freedom Swing brings outstanding jazz artists and performances to community audiences. Inspired by conversations between former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, these concerts explore a wide range of jazz topics through the lens of American history. Since 2013, Let Freedom Swing has reached over half a million people in over 3,000 concerts around the world.

The resources on this webpage tell the story of jazz. Videos, music playlists, and artist biographies as well as classroom activities can be used to expand the concert experience.

Classroom Activity

What is Jazz?

Jazz grew out of the African-American community in the turn of the 20th century New Orleans. It is a mingling of the musical expressions of all the people who came to the United States by choice or by force—people from Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean—as well as those already living in America. Jazz musicians brought their traditions together (with special emphasis on the blues, church spirituals and ragtime) in a new, universal language. Through the blues, jazz musicians showed that the sorrows common to us all could be overcome with optimism and humor.

Through improvisation they celebrated newfound expressive freedom. And through the joyous rhythms of swing, they taught the many different people of New Orleans that they could work together with feeling and style.

Jazz spoke to all Americans and quickly spread upriver to St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and beyond. In the 1920s new technologies like radio, the phonograph and talking motion pictures made it possible for millions to hear jazz across America and around the world. The propulsive rhythms of swing invited these new listeners to tell their stories too.

As new generations of musicians filled the music with the depth of their personality, jazz evolved from small groups of early jazz to the brassy big bands of the swing era, the flashy virtuosity of bebop, to laid-back cool jazz, to fusion, free jazz and far beyond. Jazz has since become a part of every American’s birthright, a timeless symbol of individualism and ingenuity, democracy and inclusiveness. At its very core, this music affirms our belief in community, in love, and in the dignity of human life. And if we let it, jazz can teach us—in ways beyond our imagination—exactly who we are, where we have been, and where we should be going


The U.S. Constitution & George Washington

Jazz and Democracy

American democracy was designed from the very beginning around the idea of personal freedom. These key phrases from early American history—“We the People,” “E Pluribus Unum” and “A More Perfect Union”—have served as important themes for our nation since its founding.

“We the People” are the first three words of the United States Constitution and highlight the truly revolutionary nature of the American historical enterprise in placing unprecedented faith in the ability of its citizens to establish a republic:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

“E Pluribus Unum” (Latin for “Out of Many, One,”) was inscribed in 1776 on the face of the Seal of the United States. Long considered the official motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum” was as important in the 18th century as it is today in establishing an ideal for the nation—that many, different peoples could come together to form one society. “A More Perfect Union” is a phrase that appears in the first section of the U.S. Constitution. This idea captures the aspirations of the early republic to continue to improve over time, a difficult and challenging project, both then and now.

These ideas are relevant to the world of jazz as well: a group of diverse musicians negotiating in time to create a collective expression that reflects the unique personalities and values of each individual for the good of everyone. The traditions of experimentation and improvisation in jazz resemble the innovative approach of America’s democracy in placing so much faith in its people and in striving to invent something new, different, and perhaps, even better.


Key Figures

Louis Armstrong

Trumpet player and singer LOUIS ARMSTRONG is considered the most important improviser in jazz. With his infectious, wide grin and instantly recognizable gravelly voice, he won the hearts of people everywhere. Armstrong grew up in a poor family in a rough section of New Orleans. He started working at a very young age to support his family, singing on street corners, working on a junk wagon, cleaning graves for tips, and selling coal. His travels around the city introduced him to all kinds of music, from the blues played in the Storyville honky tonks to the brass bands accompanying the New Orleans parades and funerals.

The music that surrounded him was a great source of inspiration. As the young Armstrong began to perform around New Orleans, he captured the attention and respect of some of the older established musicians. Joe “King” Oliver, one of the finest trumpet players around, became Armstrong’s mentor. In 1922, Armstrong left New Orleans and began his lifetime of touring and recording. Armstrong’s innovations influenced every instrumentalist and every singer who followed him. He was, as the trumpet player Max Kaminsky wrote, “the heir of all that had gone before and the father of all that was to come.

Duke Ellington

“If jazz means anything,” DUKE ELLINGTON once said, “it is freedom of expression.” No one in the history of jazz expressed himself more freely—or with more variety or swing or sophistication. He was a masterful pianist but his real instrument was the orchestra he led for half a century. More consistently than anyone else in jazz history, Ellington showed how great music could simultaneously be shaped by the composer and created on the spot by the players. Each of his almost 2,000 compositions—love songs and dance tunes, ballet and film scores, musical portraits and tone poems, orchestral suites and choral works and more—was crafted to bring out the best in one or another of the extraordinary individuals who traveled the road with him. Ellington hated what he called “categories,” and refused to conform to anyone else’s notion of what he should be doing. As a result he managed to encompass in his music not only what he once called “Negro feeling put to rhythm and tune” but the rhythm and feeling of his whole country and much of the wider world, as well.

Bessie Smith

BESSIE SMITH was a fabulous deal to watch,” the banjoist Danny Barker remembered. “She was a large pretty woman and she dominated the stage. You didn’t turn your head when she went on. You just watched Bessie.” Her stage presence may have mesmerized audiences but it was her huge, confident voice, captured on records and capable of conveying every human emotion from grief to joy without a hint of sentimentality or self-pity, that made her the acknowledged Empress of the Blues. She began her show business career in 1912 as a chorus girl with a touring tent show, Ma Rainey’s Rabbits Foot Minstrels. She was not the first singer to record the blues. That honor went to Mamie Smith (no relation) who set off the blues craze in 1920.

But from the time she began to record in 1923, Bessie Smith out-sang and out-sold all her rivals. Great musicians accompanied her—Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson and more—but she was always the star, traveling in her own private railroad car, drawing huge crowds wherever African Americans lived, north as well as south, and admired by growing numbers of whites, as well.

“Jazz calls us to engage with our national indentity. It gives expression to the beauty of democracy and of personal freedom and of choosing to embrace the humanity of all types of people. It really is what American democracy is supposed to be.”

— Wynton Marsalis

Jazz and Democracy Playlist

Big Ideas

Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


A system in which everyone can vote and share in making descisions.

Rhododendrites [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons


A member of a community, having rights, privileges as well as obligations.

CarbonNYC [in SF!] [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons


The right to do what you want, to make your own descisions, and express your own opinions.

The Fundamentals of Jazz

What are the Blues?

An African American music developed in the South during the mid-1800s. It is the foundation of most American popular music. The blues is capable of expressing a wide range of emotions, often including sadness or loss.


What is Swing?

The basic rhythmic attitude of jazz. When a whole band is swinging it means everyone is listening to and balancing with one another while still expressing their unique personalities. Swing also refers to a specific style of jazz for dancing featuring large ensembles.


What is Improvisation?

The act of making something up on the spur of the moment.


Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians

Classroom Activity

What is the Great Migration?

The largest human migration in American history began in 1915. Over the next half-century, nearly six million African Americans packed their belongings, left their homes in the Jim Crow South, and set out for the big cities of the North in search of jobs and freedom. Known as the “Great Migration,” the poet Alain Locke wrote, this mass movement was “a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern.”

City life in the North was immeasurably enriched by the arrival of so many strangers from the South. But American culture was transformed forever because jazz was part of the newcomers’ baggage. Wherever they settled it found eager new audiences. New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, the wide-open streets of Kansas City Missouri, the Paradise Valley neighborhood in Detroit, Central Avenue in Los Angeles, and many other new jazz-rich big-city enclaves all across the country became proving grounds for America’s music.


Zora Neale Hurston & Langston Hughes

The Harlem Renaissance

Each city was important to the music’s development, and each added its own unique flavor to the mix. Still, as Duke Ellington remembered, "Harlem in our minds had the world’s most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there." Ellington moved from Washington, D.C. to Harlem in 1923. Other eager young musicians flocked there, too. Harlem was then the cultural capital of black America, home to the Harlem Renaissance, a remarkable coalescing of African American artists, that included activists W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, and the writers James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Huston.

All kinds of jazz flourished in its cabarets and nightclubs and dance halls but in the 1920’s, one solo piano style seemed especially well suited to the city’s fast-paced, competitive spirit. Harlem stride or “eastern ragtime” is “orchestral piano,” one practitioner said: While the left hand “strides,” establishing a steady rhythm by alternating between bass notes at the end of the keyboard and chords around its middle, the right hand is free to play swinging, intricate melodies as if it were a horn. Two stride-masters stood out above the rest, James P. Johnson and his friendly rival, Willie “The Lion” Smith.

“Sometimes we got carving battles going that would last four or five hours,” the Lion remembered. Rent parties were their specialty—all-night dances held in crowded apartments where the price of admission helped keep the landlord at bay. “They would crowd a hundred people … into a seven-room railroad flat,” the Lion recalled, “and the walls would bulge—some of the parties spread to the halls and all over the building.” He and Johnson usually fought to a draw, Duke Ellington remembered. “It was never to the blood. With those two guys it was always a sporting event. Neither cut the other. They had too much respect for that."


Key Figures

Duke Ellington

DUKE ELLINGTON was born in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1899. His parents both played piano and they encouraged their son to study music at a very early age. In 1923, Duke moved to New York, where he joined the cultural revolution known as the Harlem Renaissance. Composer Will Marion Cook advised young Ellington, “First…find the logical way, and when you find it, avoid it and let your inner self break through and guide you. Don’t try to be anybody else but yourself.” It was a lesson Duke would carry throughout his career.

Thomas "Fats" Waller

THOMAS “FATS” WALLER had such a magnetic personality and was such a consummate showman, one younger musician remembered, that “you could never be sad in his presence.” Waller’s bubbling stage persona—leering and lampooning the tunes he sang and played, shouting to urge his men on—often hid the master he really was. After Duke Ellington, Waller was the most prolific and successful songwriter to emerge from the world of jazz. Songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” (all written with lyricist Andy Razaf) became American standards and helped make him nearly as celebrated in his lifetime as his friend Louis Armstrong. He was also the first jazz musician to record on the organ, but his most lasting impact was as a pianist. Building upon the Harlem stride he learned from his mentor, James P. Johnson, Waller developed his own irresistibly swinging style. His tireless left hand set the driving pace while his right served up delicate figures that continue to dazzle pianists. Jimmy Rowles marveled that Waller seemed able to “think in two directions.” “Fats,” said Art Tatum, “that’s where I come from.” And Mary Lou Williams urged students hoping to learn how to play jazz to “go back to Fats Waller. That’s the metronome.”

Ella Fitzgerald

“If the musicians like what I do,” ELLA FITZGERALD once said, “then I feel I’m really singing.” She was a child of the Great Migration, born in Virginia but brought north to Yonkers, New York as a little girl. Discovered at 16 after winning an amateur night contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, she first won fame in the late 1930s, performing novelty tunes and romantic ballads with the hard-swinging Chick Webb Orchestra. During the 1940s, she recorded with every kind of backup group and established herself as a master of scat singing, incorporating the fresh harmonies and rhythms of bebop into wordless acrobatic performances that astonished audiences and musicians alike. Her gift of swing, impressive scatting, precise diction, and extraordinary range made her as adept a soloist as any horn player. Then, in the 1950s, she recorded definitive versions of standards by America’s greatest songwriters, from Cole Porter to Duke Ellington. Through it all, she never lost the girlish joy evident on her earliest records, never seemed to sing out of tune, and never failed to swing. Musicians were awed by her musicianship. For her, “music is everything,” her sometime accompanist Jimmy Rowles said. “When she walks down the street, she trails notes.”

“Jazz calls us to engage with our national indentity. It gives expression to the beauty of democracy and of personal freedom and of choosing to embrace the humanity of all types of people. It really is what American democracy is supposed to be.”

— Wynton Marsalis

Jazz and the Great Migration Playlist

Big Ideas

Adi Holzer [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons


A movement or period of great activity (as in literature, science, and the arts).

Seattle City Council from Seattle [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons


An interacting population of various kinds of people in a common location.

The Photographer [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons


The way of life, especially the customs and beliefs of a particular group of people.

The Fundamentals of Jazz

Exploring the Blues

Saxophonist Camille Thurman guides us through the Blues, and shows us how the Blues is a building block of Jazz!


When Big Bands Were Dance Bands

Guitarist James Chirillo, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Alvin Atkinson remind you that big bands performed for dancers, and show you how to keep a strong sense of swing in your rhythm section work, no matter how fast or slow the tempo.


Jazz Leave New Orleans

Who was King Oliver, and what was his contribution to the growing popularity of Jazz and the continuing innovations in the art form? Jazz at Lincoln Center's curator Phil Schaap explains Jazz's part in the Great Migration, and talks about one of the music's first stars.


Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Classroom Activity

Jazz and Civil Rights

“Jazz,” Duke Ellington once said is a “barometer of democracy.“ All through the years jazz has exemplified all that is most admirable about the country that created it –freedom, inclusiveness, individualism and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests for the greater good. But from time to time, musicians have also felt the need to use their art to protest when the United States fails to live up to its promises.

It started early. In 1929, Louis Armstrong turned a simple Broadway ditty called Black and Blue, into a searing indictment of racism. In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, Duke Ellington presented Black, Brown, and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America in part to remind his countrymen that while fighting for freedom abroad, Americans should not forget those denied freedom at home. “I contend,” he said, that “it was a happy day when the first unhappy slave was landed on America’s shores. We stirred in our shackles, and our unrest awakened justice in the hearts of a courageous few, and we recreated in America the desire for true democracy, freedom for all, the brotherhood of man, principles on which the country had been founded.”

Jazz found ways to echo both the inspiration and the turbulence of the Civil Rights Era of the 1950’s and 60’s, as well. In 1956, when Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus sought to block integration of his state’s schools, the bassist Charles Mingus responded with a scathing piece called “Fables of Faubus.” That same year, when the State Department asked Louis Armstrong to represent the best of America behind the Iron Curtain, he said he wouldn’t go till they “straighten out that mess down south… They’ve been ignoring the Constitution."


Malcom X & Martin Luther King Jr.

Victories and Anguish

Nineteen-sixty saw student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters all across the South. When Duke Ellington learned that black students had been turned away from a whites-only restaurant, he made sure he, too, was turned away and made headlines across the country. The drummer Max Roach, his then wife, the singer Abbey Lincoln, and the tenor saxophone master Coleman Hawkins combined forces to record We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, a torrent of anger and anguish that perfectly mirrored the rising tide of protest.

The Civil Rights movement won two great victories—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But they came at a fearful cost: civil rights workers murdered, marchers beaten, neighborhoods destroyed, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Amid the anguish, some African American musicians for a time abandoned the dream of an integrated art form. Other musicians, despairing at the chaos and turned inward, rejecting musical conventions in search of new forms of personal expression.

It is of course impossible to predict the future, either for jazz or for the United States. But however history unfolds, jazz musicians will be there, mirroring the country’s best traditions and pointing things out when things go wrong.


Key Figures

John Coltrane

Spirituality of one sort or another had always been an undercurrent in jazz, but in the 1960s JOHN COLTRANE, one of the most influential and adventurous saxophonists of the era, put forward the belief that music actually had the power to heal, and he brought an almost religious intensity to everything he played. Coltrane explored the harmonic freedom of modal jazz and the tones and textures of various world musics, and he tested the very limits of his instrument—all in search of a more profound musical meaning. Supported by an equally innovative and turbulent rhythm section, Coltrane developed one of the most powerful and explosive styles in jazz, known as “sheets of sound,” for the torrents of notes that streamed from his horn.

Spiritual though he was, Coltrane was hardly detached from the world around him. In 1963, when he learned that the bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, had killed four young girls, he drew on all his expressive resources to create a haunting musical elegy titled simply “Alabama.” This potent combination of seriousness and spirituality became a signature trait of this powerful performer. By 1964, when his landmark album “A Love Supreme” was released, John Coltrane had already achieved the status of idol among many fans and fellow musicians. “My music,” John Coltrane said, “…is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being…”

Nina Simone

Singer, pianist, composer, and civil rights activist, NINA SIMONE was born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. She learned to play piano at the age of four and sang in her church’s choir while still a child. After finishing high school, Simone won a scholarship to New York City’s Julliard School of Music to train as a classical pianist. She taught piano and worked as an accompanist for other performers while at Julliard, but eventually left school after running out of funds. Turning away from classical music, she started playing American standards, jazz and blues in clubs in the 1950s. Before long, she also started singing along with her music. Simone’s music defied standard genres. Her classical training showed through, no matter what style of song she played, and she drew from many sources including jazz, gospel, pop and folk. By the mid-1960s, Simone became known as a major voice of the Civil Rights Movement. She wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young African-American girls. After the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Simone composed “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)”. She also wrote “Young, Gifted and Black,” borrowing the title of a play by Lorraine Hansberry, which became a popular anthem of the Civil Rights Era.

“Jazz calls us to engage with our national indentity. It gives expression to the beauty of democracy and of personal freedom and of choosing to embrace the humanity of all types of people. It really is what American democracy is supposed to be.”

— Wynton Marsalis

Jazz and Civil Rights Playlist

Big Ideas

Lorie Shaull [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


The right to do what you want, to make your own decisions, and express your own opinions.

Rhododendrites [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons


A statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something; also an organized public demonstration expressing strong objection to a policy or course of action.



The action of setting someone or something apart from others; also, in US history, the enforced separation of different racial groups.

The Fundamentals of Jazz

What are Spirituals?

How do they influence Jazz music? Bryan Carter and his band tell you more and perform for you.


What is Free Jazz?

Drummer Bryan Carter and his band guide you through Free Jazz, an innovation in music that emerged in the 1950s. They show you how it's played, and how to listen for it - check it out!