The First Book of Jazz by Langston Hughes

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Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Historical works on the development of jazz are often suited for older readers and frequently tie the music to sociopolitical conditions; Amiri Baraka’s Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) and Black Music (1967) are examples. Langston Hughes’s treatment, however, is clearly suited for younger readers and is strikingly free of rationales embedded in a sociopolitical context. While this stance strips jazz of important aspects of its roots, it does put the music itself center stage. Inevitably, sociopolitical factors hover just beneath the surface, such as the fact that virtually all the African American originators of this distinctly American art form were poverty stricken in their youth, but the music and its creators are what this book is about. That Hughes—a keen observer and re-creator of human language and foibles, a short-story writer, a poet who frequently used a blues structure for his poetry, and a stellar light of the Harlem Renaissance—should extend his writing about “his people” to write specifically about jazz musicians was both natural and fortunate. What is less fortunate is the occasional oversimplification that creates a feel of superficiality. The author’s repeated insistence, for example, that “jazz is fun” ultimately grows tedious. The implication, uncharacteristic for Hughes, is that these talented, passionate jazz musicians who battled poverty and racism throughout their lives were happy-go-lucky party lovers, out for a good time.