Monday, November 1, 2010


FOR LANGSTON HUGHES'S THIRD ENTRY in the First Books series, he turned his attention to a subject that was of great importance to him: jazz. It was the first children's book to examine the "American music," and Hughes felt the responsibility. As he wrote in a letter to Arna Bontemps,  "what I really know about Jazz would fill a thimble!," and so he made sure that the text was reviewed by Dave Martin, Marshall Stearns, John Hammond, and other jazz experts. To his editor Helen Hoke, he confessed that The First Book of Jazz was "just about the toughest little job I've ever done."

THE BOOK OPENS WITH LOUIS  ARMSTRONG who becomes the lens through which the history of jazz is revealed. Little Louis grew up in New Orleans, a town where everyone played music, often spontaneously and with abandon. "To the players, it is play--just for fun. That is how the music called jazz began--with people playing for fun."

Throughout the book, Hughes truthfully highlights African-Americans' role in the development of jazz music.
"A part of American music is jazz, born in the South. Woven into it in the Deep South were the rhythms of African drums that today make jazz music different from any other music in the world. Nobody else ever made jazz before we did. Jazz is American music."
Despite the patriotic tone, the particular Americans in question are undeniably black. In a photo spread of "Great Jazz Pianists" African-American musicians outnumber white seven to three. (The men to women ratio is seven to three as well, interestingly.) Even when Hughes covers the vast array of American styles that went into jazz, they tend to be (as they should be) black interpretations of each musical form.

Work Songs


The Blues



Louis Armstrong's life story then kicks back in, because as Hughes states, "The story of Louis Armstrong is almost the whole story of orchestral jazz in America." Through Amrstrong, Hughes can move the story from New Orleans to Chicago to New York City to the world.

With the history done, Hughes then discusses the mechanics of jazz: improvisation, syncopation, percussion, rhythm, blue notes, tone color, harmony, break, riff, and continuing his theme ("It was not just playing music. It was playing--like a game--with music, for fun.") the joy of playing.

At the end of the book, Hughes provides three appendices that are of interest to any jazz fan: "Famous Jazz Musicians," "Suggested Records for Study (Part 1, Part 2)," and "100 of My Favorite Recordings (Part 1, Part 2)."

Hughes was so excited by his subject that he went to Folkways records and convinced them to put out a companion LP for The First Book of Jazz called The Story of Jazz, which I will post later this week.

I HAVE INCLUDED MANY of Cliff Robert's fantastic illustrations here, but to see all of Cliff Roberts's art for The First Book of Jazz, (including a phenomenal double spread and a realistic portrait of Louis Armstrong, see my Flickr set here. I will discuss Cliff Roberts in greater detail in a future post with lots more great art from other children's books.

Background material for this post came primarily from Volume Two of Arnold Rampersad's definitive biography The Life Of Langston Hughes: 1941-1967 I Dream A World.

For other books in the First Book series by Langston Hughes, see:

The First Book of Negroes
The First Book of Rhythms

Coming soon: Langston Hughes's The Story of Jazz

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.