The First Book of Jazz by Langston Hughes

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(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,” implying a triviality that workers in the fields, worshipers singing spirituals that implore release from the trials of everyday life, and jazz artists struggling to survive might find at odds with their own motivations for making jazz music. Although this book is intended for young people, a heavier dose of reality would be appropriate for today’s readers. Even its updating in 1976 could not bring the text in line with the sensibilities of the 1990’s. That drawback, along with the fact that the chronology of even the later edition ends with the late 1960’s, dates this book.

On the other hand, this volume provides a wealth of information that is accessible, easy-to-read, and presented in an engaging style for young readers. The various roots of jazz are identified clearly and accurately, and the elements that distinguish jazz from other music are presented in an understandable manner. The different forms that jazz has taken from its beginnings in the polyrhythms of African drumming through the field calls of enslaved Africans on Southern plantations to their...

(The entire section is 620 words.)