Jazz in a Nutshell 1: Piano, Sax, Ragtime and More (55+)

Jazz is one of the most enduring and creative art forms. With its roots in European and African traditions, it has developed numerous styles over time and continues to evolve today.

We’ll explore the golden age of jazz—its artists, instruments and styles as well as its social context. Styles we’ll consider include ragtime, boogie-woogie, swing, bebop and cool jazz. We’ll focus on some of the best pianists and saxophonists too. We’ll learn about the careers of Scott Joplin, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frankie Trumbauer, among others. This course is designed to appeal to lifelong jazz fans, reaffirming their love of the music, as well as to novices who want to discover what all the fuss is about.

Note: Back by popular demand, from fall 2013. Complemented by Jazz in a Nutshell 2: Trumpet, Guitar, Fusion and More. You can take either course or both.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Outline the roots and social history that together created jazz in the US
  • Give examples of iconic, innovative jazz musicians who have influenced this music’s development and taken it in various directions
  • Describe the vision and expression of pianists, saxophonists, big bands and big band singers
  • Pursue further listening on your own with increased appreciation for various jazz musicians and styles

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture and music, with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: The Roots: From New Orleans to Paul Whiteman

Jazz became a new music for a new country. Combining European and African traditions, the form was supported by an exciting street life and pleasure palaces. Scott Joplin, religious music, the riverboats, and virtuosic superstars contributed to the form’s success.

Week 2: Piano: From Boogie Woogie to Bill Evans

Stride and ragtime piano became popular as every club and sporting house had a piano, providing work for the talented professors of the instrument. It later became the lead instrument in combos and groups led by extraordinary stylists like Errol Garner, George Shearing, and Bill Evans.

Week 3: The Big Bands

Jazz hit the pop charts for the first and only time. Starting in the 1930s, big bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, and many others attracted crowds to dance, buy records, or just enjoy being part of the “swing” era.

Week 4: Big Band Singers

The big bands were not only the breeding ground for great soloists, but also produced the greatest vocalists. Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra all did their time with big bands. Because they were just featured performers, they often spent more time on stage listening than actually singing.

Week 5: Saxophone: The Soul of Jazz and the Art of Improv

The saxophone is probably the instrument most strongly identified with jazz. The greatest practitioners could fill the horn with their personalities, which were often tortured and emotive. The greats we'll cover include Frankie Trumbauer, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Stitt.

Week 6: Bebop and The Cool School

Jazz took two different directions after the Second World War: The big bands declined and musicians played in smaller groups centered around improvised solos. Bebop was fueled by giants who wanted to take the music where it had never been before. The Cool School preferred a more leisurely, less frenetic pace.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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