The First Book of Jazz by Langston Hughes

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(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The 1955 edition of The First Book of Jazz was updated in 1976 by publishing company Franklin Watts, well after Langston Hughes’s death in 1967. Both editions present the history of the development of jazz, discuss seminal figures in that history, and identify key elements of the form itself. The earlier edition incorporates lively drawings by Cliff Roberts, one double-page spread of head shots of jazz greats, and lists of famous jazz musicians and recordings. The 1976 edition eliminates the drawings and the lists, substituting black-and-white photographs of musicians in action and of posters advertising musical events, liberally distributed throughout the book.

Both editions incorporate lyrics of worksongs, spirituals, and jubilees associated with the development of jazz and selected lines of music itself. Those readers able to read music could actually play a few bars, for example, of boogie-woogie and get a sense of the sound. They could play a line of the “straight” version of “Loch Lomand” and then play a line of the “swing” version to hear the impact of the introduction of the elements of jazz on a traditional Scottish song. For those unfamiliar with musical terminology, a glossary appears at the end of the later edition of the book. Both editions have an index for handy reference to the wealth of information presented.

Hughes’s organizational pattern for the book is loosely chronological. He begins the presentation of historical information with a discussion of the rhythms of African drums and the cultural significance of drumming, explaining how drumming came to Congo Square in New Orleans from West Africa. Hughes then takes readers to the worksongs, field hollers, jubilees, and spirituals that form the bedrock of the blues. He includes minstrel shows in his history, focusing on the musical aspects of these productions. The jazz forms of blues, ragtime, and boogie-woogie are explained, and a whole section is devoted to the role of the trumpet in the development of jazz, with expansive reference to Louis Armstrong. The uncertainty of the origin of the term “jazz” and various speculations are discussed.

Several central elements of jazz—such as improvisation and syncopation—are identified, with emphasis on the fact that jazz musicians may not read music and that jazz improvisation allows for a basic melody to be played differently each time that it is performed. Hughes also addresses the introduction of different musical instruments to jazz playing and the changes in the size and makeup of the jazz band.

The author discusses the swing music of the late 1920’s and 1930’s, with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and others featured during this era in which black and white musicians began to play together in the same bands. The 1940’s brought bebop, with revolutionaries Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young. The 1955 edition of The First Book of Jazz concludes with Hughes’s treatment of bebop, while the 1976 edition continues with the “cool,” or progressive jazz of the 1950’s, as played by Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Stan Kenton. It then moves into the jazz rock of the 1960’s, with Davis shifting...

(The entire section is 760 words.)