Jazz Books Capture an American Art Form

Book Links: January 2000 (v.9 no.3)

by Bryan Sinclair

Recent books on or inspired by jazz represent some of the most creative and compelling works for children and young adults. Their words and images truly sing, swing, move, and groove to the beat of a different drummer—that unmistakable jazz drummer. These works introduce their readers to a whole new musical landscape, a mostly urban scene with its own language, expressions, and values. Although jazz music and culture may be foreign to many younger readers, jazz is a distinctly American art form that is accessible to anyone: black, white, young, and old.

A blending of African and European styles, jazz sounds are ingrained in the culture of our nation. Jazz has flavored our creative and artistic expression—from literature to dance to the visual arts—over the last century. Some have gone as far as to call jazz “America's classical music.” Just as European classical music boasts such masters as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, American jazz has its own pantheon of great composers, many also recognized by single names: Duke, Bird, Monk, and Miles (and the list goes on). These new masters, like their classical predecessors, are revered by fans and musicians the world over.

Lately, thanks in part to media campaigns such as VH1’s Save the Music and the work of artist-spokespersons such as Wynton Marsalis, there has been an increased awareness of the importance of music in children's lives and a resurgence of jazz education in the schools. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to music at a young age increases brain development. In addition, exposure to music in school has been linked to improved academic performance in math, science, and reading.

Jazz books can open the door to a whole new world of music appreciation. Symphonic instruments, including brass, woodwinds, strings, piano, and percussion, come alive for young readers and are presented in a “hip” fashion. Often, these books discuss rhythm and tempo and how these elements affect mood—a tune may be “cool” or “hot.” In some books, musical terms such as syncopation, intonation, and improvisation are introduced. The following books capture some of the fun and excitement of jazz, introduce some of the elements and people that helped to shape jazz’s distinctive sound, and help turn kids on to a true American art form.

Young Readers

Picture Books

Arrhenius, Peter. The Penguin Quartet. Illus. by Ingela Peterson. 1998. 28p. Carolrhoda, $14.95 (1-57505-252-0).
Gr. 1–3. Max, Miles, Herbie, and Charlie are penguin dads who set out for New York City to play jazz in the big city's clubs. The quartet's fame and notoriety spread until the four’s penguin babies start to hatch, prompting their hasty return to the South Pole.

Duncan, Alice Faye. Willie Jerome. Illus. by Tyrone Geter. 1995. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $15 (0-02-733208-X).
K–Gr. 2. Although Willie Jerome's mama and big brother and the folks in his neighborhood dismiss his rooftop trumpet playing as noise, his sister hears it as "sizzlin' red hot bebop." When Mama takes time to listen, she too is moved by her son's music.

Gray, Libba Moore. Little Lil and the Swing-Singing Sax. Illus. by Lisa Cohen. 1996. 30p. Simon & Schuster, $16 (0-689-80681-7).
K–Gr. 2. When Uncle Sudi Man hocks his swing-singing saxophone to buy Mama Big Lil her needed medicine, Little Lil sets out to rescue the horn from the dingy, cluttered shelf of the pawnshop. She knows that it is Uncle Sudi Man's sax playing, more than anything else, that will help her mother feel better again.

Grifalconi, Ann. Tiny's Hat. 1999. 32p. HarperCollins, $14.95 (0-06-027654-1).
K–Gr. 2. Using the childhood experiences of jazz singer Billie Holiday as inspiration, Grifalconi explores the blues, both as a feeling and as a genre of music. Tiny is sad when her daddy is out "on the road," playing his trumpet, for long periods of time, but she learns how to deal with her loneliness by singing the blues away.

Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Florence Robinson: The Story of a Jazz Age Girl. Illus. by Robert G. Sauber. 1997. 123p. Silver Burdett, $14.95 (0-382-39644-8); paper, $4.99 (0-382-39656-6).
Gr. 3–5. The Robinson family seeks a new life in Chicago during the 1920s, when the racism of its small Mississippi town becomes too much to bear. In the big city, daughter Flo discovers the exciting new rhythms and sounds of a music called jazz, created by transplanted African Americans like herself.

Isadora, Rachel. Ben's Trumpet. 1979. 32p. Greenwillow, $16 (0-688-80194-3); paper, $5.95 (0-688-10988-8); Live Oaks, audiobook, $22.95 (0-87499-433-0).
Preschool–Gr. 2. From his fire escape, Ben listens to the hot sounds coming from the Zig Zag Jazz Club, and every day after school he stops by the club to watch the musicians practice. Drawn to the sound of the trumpet, he tries to imitate the horn player, who in turn takes a special interest in the boy. This book was named both a Caldecott Honor Book and an ALA Notable Children's Book.

London, Jonathan. Hip Cat. Illus. by Woodleigh Hubbard. 1993. 32p. Chronicle, $14.95 (0-8118-0315-5); paper, $6.95 (0-8118-1489-0).
K–Gr. 4. Oobie-do John the Sax Man Scat Man decides to set out for the big city to blow his horn and make that "jazzzzzzy music." He plays at different jazz joints, but cannot make any money, until he finally gets his big break at Minnie's Can Do Club.

Medearis, Angela Shelf. Rum-A-Tum-Tum. Illus. by James E. Ransome. 1997. 32p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1143-5).
K–Gr. 3. In this tribute to the people, culture, and rhythms of turn-of-the-last-century New Orleans, as they are perceived by a young girl, Medearis and Ransome re-create a colorful, exotic world of sights and sounds, culminating in the "finger-snapping, toe-tapping" beat of a hot jazz parade.

Schroeder, Alan. Satchmo's Blues. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 1996. 32p. Doubleday, $15.95 (0-385-32046-9).
K–Gr. 3. This fictionalized account of the life of trumpeter Louis Armstrong was inspired by his early experiences growing up in New Orleans, his musical influences, and his childhood desire to own his own horn. Rich, warm-toned images in artwork by Floyd Cooper add to this book's overall appeal.

Shaik, Fatima. The Jazz of Our Street. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 1997. 29p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037- 1885-3).
K–Gr. 3. Brother and sister join in a neighborhood street celebration to the sounds of a New Orleans brass band. As they dance and move to the "second line beat," they feel a sense of connection to their community, and, to a greater extent, their African American cultural heritage.

Innovative Formats

Igus, Toyomi. i see the rhythm. Illus. by Michele Wood. 1998. 32p. Children's Book Press, $15.95 (0-89239-151-0).
Gr. 2–up. The diverse rhythm and movements from the musical heritage of African Americans is chronicled through a time line. Ragtime, swing, bebop, and cool jazz come alive for the reader, as do the early musical influences of slave songs and gospel and the later developments of rock, funk, and hip-hop, in this Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award–winning book.

Raschka, Chris. Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. 1992. 29p. Orchard, $16.99 (0-531-08599-6); paper, $5.95 (0-531-07095-6).
Preschool–Gr. 2. The onomatopoeic text, bold illustrations, and subtle humor explore the sounds of bebop and pay tribute to the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.

Raschka, Chris. Mysterious Thelonious. 1997. 27p. Orchard, $13.95 (0-531-30057-9).
Gr. 1–up. Using the classic composition "Mysterioso" as inspiration, Raschka places text syllables in color blocks that move around the pages to approximate musical notes on the chromatic scale in this homage to the jazz great Thelonious Monk, capturing the essence of his life and music. Older children with some background in reading music and adult fans of Monk will enjoy this, too.

Shange, Ntozke. I Live in Music. Illus. by Romare Bearden. 1994. 32p. Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, $15.95 (1-55670-372-4).
K–up. Rhythmic, visual, and provocative as only the pairing of Shange and Bearden could be, this is a perfect blending of poetry and images inspired by the sound and spirit of jazz. This one can be read aloud and enjoyed by audiences of any age.


Hughes, Langston. The First Book of Jazz. Illus. by Cliff Roberts. 1982. 59p. Ecco, $15 (0-88001-424-5); paper, $12 (0-88001-552-7).
Gr. 2–up. The historical development of jazz in America is recounted by one of our country's greatest poets. Hughes traces the roots of jazz from African drums, to old New Orleans, where "little Louis Armstrong" picked up his first trumpet, to the later sounds of swing and bebop. Along the way, the techniques and elements of the jazz idiom are discussed.

Mitchell, Barbara. Raggin': A Story about Scott Joplin. Illus. by Hetty Mitchell. 1987. 55p. Carolrhoda, $14.95 (0-87614-310-9); paper, $5.95 (0-87614-589-6).
Gr. 2–4. This title in the Creative Minds series tells the story of the talented ragtime musician who, inspired by the musical influences of his family and church in a small Texas town, went on to compose such famous pieces as "The Entertainer" and "Maple Leaf Rag."

Monceaux, Morgan. Jazz: My Music, My People. 1994. 62p. Knopf, $22 (0-679-85618-8).
Gr. 3–up. Portraits composed in words, pastels, and watercolors depict leading jazz musicians over the last century. Monceaux covers the many composers, instrumentalists, bandleaders, and vocalists who influenced his life and left their indelible mark on the jazz world. A foreword by Wynton Marsalis adds another authoritative voice to this title.

Orgill, Roxane. If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong. Illus. by Leonard Jenkins. 1997. 32p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-75919-6).
K–Gr. 3. From the first time he heard the legendary trumpeter King Oliver play, young Louis knew that he wanted to be a musician. This picture book tells of Armstrong's early musical influences and his time in a New Orleans reform school for poor boys, where he got the chance to play his first cornet.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra. Illus. by Brian Pinkney. 1998. 30p. Hyperion, $15.95 (0-7868-0178-6).
K–Gr. 3. At a young age, Edward Kennedy Ellington heard the "umpy-dump" of ragtime music and was hooked. It was not long before he had his own swing orchestra, composing and playing with some of the most talented musicians around and elevating jazz to the concert stage. This picture book was named both a Caldecott Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Honor Book for 1999.

Thomas, Roger. Jazz and Blues. 1998. 32p. Heinemann, $14.95 (1-57572-643-2).
Gr. 1–3. Part of the Instruments in Music series, this is an overview of the types of instruments found in the jazz band, including the saxophone, clarinet, brass instruments, piano, and bass. Photographs illustrate how each instrument is held and played in the jazz combo.

Older Readers


Collier, James Lincoln. The Jazz Kid. 1995. 216p. Holt, $15.95 (0-8050-2821-8); Puffin, paper, $4.99 (0-14-037778-6).
Gr. 6–9. When 12-year-old Paulie overhears the sounds of jazz in a Chicago club, he is immediately hooked. He learns to play the cornet in the style of the 1920s jazzmen, but his devotion to his craft eventually leads him down a seedy path filled with gangsters and all-night speakeasies.

Curtis, Christopher Paul. Bud, Not Buddy. 1999. 245p. Delacorte, $15.95 (0-385-32306-9).
Gr. 4–8. Fleeing the cruel conditions of foster-home life in Depression-era Flint, Michigan, Bud sets out on a humorous journey to find the man that he believes to be his father, a jazz musician and club owner in Grand Rapids. The aging jazzman is wary of the boy, but Bud finds a sense of family among the colorful members of his father's band.

Newton, Suzanne. I Will Call It Georgie's Blues. 1983. 197p. Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14 034536-1).
Gr. 5–9. Struggling to cope with a demanding father who is a minister in the small town of Gideon, North Carolina, as well as dealing with an emotionally troubled younger brother, Georgie, and other family pressures, Neal must conceal his love for jazz piano. But a caring music teacher encourages his love for jazz and helps him discover his hidden talents.


Brown, Sandford. Louis Armstrong: Swinging, Singing Satchmo. 1993. 144p. Watts, paper, $6.95 (0-531-15680-X).
Gr. 7–12. This entry in the Impact Biography series traces the emergence of this extraordinary musical figure from his roots in the jazz world of New Orleans to great fame and influence. As a preface, the author presents an insightful history of jazz in America.

Collier, James Lincoln. Jazz: An American Saga. 1997. 98p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-4121-4).
Gr. 5–up. Young adult author and jazz critic Collier looks at the evolution of jazz from the complex rhythms of West Africa to the modern styles of the musical art form as heard today. All the greats are covered here.

Collins, David R. Bix Beiderbecke: Jazz Age Genius. 1998. 112p. Morgan Reynolds, $18.95 (1-883846-36-6).
Gr. 5–10. One of the hottest young trumpeters on the scene in the 1920s in Chicago was Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke. Along with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, this horn player helped to elevate jazz to a respected musical form, until his death at the age of 28. This title is part of the Notable Americans series.

Crisp, George R. Miles Davis. 1997. 144p. Watts, $23.60 (0-531-11319-1); paper, $9.95 (0-531-15865-9).
Gr. 6–up. This title in the Impact Biography series takes a tough and honest look at the life and career of a true American artist. It deals frankly with many of the controversial elements of Miles' career, including his long bout with drugs and other personal problems, while highlighting his particular musical genius.

Gourse, Leslie. Billie Holiday: The Tragedy and Triumph of Lady Day. 1995. 127p. Watts, $23.60 (0-531-11248-9); paper, $8 (0-531-15753-9).
Gr. 6–12. A title in the Impact Biography series, this presents a portrait of the renowned jazz singer known as Lady Day. Through her sometimes tumultuous journey, this lady of jazz made incredible contributions to American music and influenced many jazz instrumentalists.

Jazz Stars. Edited by Richard Rennert. 1994. 60p. Chelsea House, $16.95 (0-7910-2059-2).
Gr. 5–8. With profiles of eight jazz greats, this collection of biographies in the Great Black Americans series examines the lives of African Americans who made major creative contributions to the field of jazz. It includes an introduction by Coretta Scott King.

Jones, Hettie. Big Star Fallin' Mama: Five Women in Black Music. 1995. 129p. Viking, paper, $4.99 (0-14-037747-6).
Gr. 6–12. Tracing the history of African American music through the lives of five women, this volume focuses primarily on the influence of the blues. Biographies of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin chronicle each woman's rise to stardom and fame.

Lee, Jeanne. Jam! The Story of Jazz Music. 1999. 64p. Rosen, $17.95 (0-8239-1852-1).
Gr. 7–12. Concentrating on African traditions and culture as providing the necessary groundwork for jazz in this country, the author examines the major figures and elements of the musical form over the last century. This title is part of the Library of African American Arts and Culture series.

Marsalis, Wynton. Marsalis on Music. 1995. 171p. Norton, $29.95 (0-393-03881-5).
Gr. 5–up. Although presented as a companion to the public television series of the same name, this book with accompanying audio CD is an essential purchase for all school libraries, regardless of whether or not they own the PBS video series. Marsalis defines and explores the fundamentals of music in a "hip" language that young people can understand.

Selfridge, John. John Coltrane: A Sound Supreme. 1999. 96p. Watts, $24 (0-531-11542-9).
Gr. 6–10. This engaging biography follows the creative process of the innovative saxophonist through several periods of jazz. Selfridge captures the complexity of ’Trane by focusing on his inner struggles and inspirations. A complete bibliography and discography are included, as well as a foreword by Branford Marsalis.

Wyman, Carolyn. Ella Fitzgerald: Jazz Singer Supreme. 1993. 128p. Watts, $23.60 (0-531-13031-2); paper, $6.95 (0-531-15679-6).
Gr. 7–12. An Impact Biography series title, this is an up close and personal story of the African American woman and jazz singer, whose career spanned several decades, from her performances at the height of the Harlem Renaissance to a later life filled with numerous honors and awards.

The Art of Jazz Series

Focusing on various areas of musical specialization within jazz, the following titles view the talents and techniques of leading jazz players and vocalists:

Gourse, Leslie. Blowing on the Changes: The Art of Jazz Horn Players. 1997. 144p. Watts, $24 (0-531-11357-4).

Gourse, Leslie. Deep Down in Music: The Art of the Great Jazz Bassists. 1998. 144p. Watts, $24 (0-531-11410-4).

Gourse, Leslie. Striders to Beboppers and Beyond: The Art of Jazz Piano. 1997. 144p. Watts, $24 (0-531-11320-5).

Gourse, Leslie. Swingers and Crooners: The Art of Jazz Singing. 1997. 144p. Watts, $24 (0-531-11321-3).

Bryan Sinclair is the user-education coordinator and public services librarian at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.