The First Book of Jazz Critical Essays

Langston Hughes


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

A feature that is likely to contribute strongly to a successful literary experience for the young readers of either edition of The First Book of Jazz is that Hughes relates musical history in terms of the people involved. Using his considerable insight into the workings of the human mind, he fleshes out facts in incidents in which musicians appear as accessible, real people. Young readers are especially likely to be personally engaged by stories of the musicians as children, compelled by some inner longing to make music. The book begins with seven-year-old Louis Armstrong “singing for pennies on the streets of New Orleans.” In a sentence, Hughes pinpoints the city most closely associated with the birth of jazz, identifies one of the most influential jazz greats, and entices young readers to identify with that individual through vividly setting a scene depicting Armstrong as a child.

Hughes uses the great Louis Armstrong, nicknamed “Satchmo,” as a throughline for his exploration of jazz history. After appearing first as that seven-year-old on page 1, he reappears regularly throughout the text, often to introduce a chapter. The choice of Armstrong to perform this role for the text is especially appropriate, since his career stretched almost from the beginnings of jazz itself until the late twentieth century.

The author’s depiction of the development of jazz seems somewhat romanticized. Repeatedly, the people who make music are referred to as doing it “just for fun,”...

(The entire section is 620 words.)