Monday, November 06, 2006


By Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers. Here is another gorgeous picture book with poetry for text. Walter Dean Myers does a nice job giving the historical background for the development of Jazz in American, starting from the African music brought over to our shores with the slave trade. In the introduction he explains just what Jazz is by saying:

When we use the term jazz, we are talking about an approach to music that is exciting and creative – one that relies on improvisation and spontaneity. American in its origins, today jazz is played throughout the world in performances that celebrate both the history of this rich music as well as its immediacy.

The jazz musician might begin with a well-known melody and then interpret it according to his or her own personality and musical training. In every instance, improvisation is a key element of jazz.

The second major element of jazz is rhythm. Early jazz often served as dance music, but even as the music and performances grew increasingly complex and abstract, its strong rhythm continued to pull in the listener.

A blending of two musical traditions, African and European, contributed to the development of jazz.

He goes on to explain how that blending developed and how jazz is an expression of the American experience of African and European cultures together. I have listened to jazz with great appreciation for the last 20 years or so, and I never knew a lot of what is contained in this volume. I wish this book came with a CD of jazz to listen to while exploring the poems and the historic information. I have a sound track in my head but I would appreciate the real thing too.

The body of the book is a series of poems focusing on the different styles of jazz (blues, be bop, rag time, fusion, etc.) and the major instruments (horn, piano, sax, drums…). Black experience and emotion shout off the pages. The illustrations, done by Meyers’ son Christopher, move with the passion and color of the music. Bold color and contrast of light and shadow bring out the emotion and hint at the drama of the music. My favorite lines come from the poem "Twenty-finger Jack”:

Well, the walls are shaking,
And the ceiling’s coming down
‘Cause twenty-finger Jack
Has just come back to town
The keyboard’s jumping,
And the music’s going round
And round
If he had any sense,
He left it in the lost-and-found
Here he go
Be ba boodie, be ba boodie, boo
Be ba boodie, be be be be, boodie, boo

At the back of the book are a glossary and a timeline of jazz development. For music students this book would be an excellent resource. For all music lovers and for all Americans it is a beautiful tour of one aspect of our national treasury.

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