Langston Hughes Presents the History of Jazz in an Illustrated Children’s Book (1955)


I can imag­ine no bet­ter guide through the his­to­ry and vari­ety of jazz than Langston Hugh­es, voice of the Harlem Renais­sance and poet­ic inter­preter of 20th cen­tu­ry black Amer­i­can cul­ture. Hugh­es’ 1955 First Book of Jazz is just that, a short primer with a sur­pris­ing­ly high degree of sophis­ti­ca­tion for a children’s book. I would, in fact, rec­om­mend it as an intro­duc­tion to jazz for any read­er.

Hugh­es thor­ough­ly cov­ers the musi­cal con­text of jazz in brief chap­ters like “African Drums,” “Old New Orleans,” “Work Songs,” “The Blues,” and “Rag­time.” He then “dis­cuss­es the mechan­ics of jazz,” writes author and blog­ger Ariel S. Win­ter, includ­ing “impro­vi­sa­tion, syn­co­pa­tion, per­cus­sion, rhythm, blue notes, tone col­or, har­mo­ny, break, riff….” Through it all runs the life and career of Louis Arm­strong, whose sto­ry, Hugh­es states “is almost the whole sto­ry of orches­tral jazz in Amer­i­ca.”

Old New Orleans

The book is very patri­ot­ic in tone, a fact dic­tat­ed by Hugh­es’ recent appear­ance before Sen­a­tor McCarthy’s Sub­com­mit­tee, which exon­er­at­ed him on the con­di­tion that he renounce his ear­li­er sym­pa­thies for the Com­mu­nist Par­ty and get with a patri­ot­ic pro­gram. Hav­ing fall­en out of favor with the pub­lic, Hugh­es began the non­fic­tion children’s series to win back read­ers, also writ­ing the quaint­ly named cul­tur­al his­to­ry First Book of Negroes and the Whit­manesque First Book of Rhythms. All of the books were illus­trat­ed by dif­fer­ent artists. The First Book of Jazz received spe­cial treat­ment from pop­u­lar illus­tra­tor Cliff Roberts, who made its pages close­ly resem­ble clas­sic album cov­ers by artists like Jim Flo­ra.

Jazz Pianists

Although Hugh­es may have been some­what con­cil­ia­to­ry in his atti­tude toward inequal­i­ty, he nonethe­less makes the ori­gins and impor­tance of jazz clear:

A part of Amer­i­can music is jazz, born in the South. Woven into it in the Deep South were the rhythms of African drums that today make jazz music dif­fer­ent from any oth­er music in the world. Nobody else ever made jazz before we did. Jazz is Amer­i­can music.

“The par­tic­u­lar Amer­i­cans in ques­tion,” writes Win­ter, “are unde­ni­ably black,” and “when Hugh­es cov­ers the vast array of Amer­i­can styles that went into jazz, they tend to be (as they should be) black inter­pre­ta­tions of each musi­cal form.” But as he had always done, whether under pres­sure from McCarthy­ism or not, he proud­ly declares jazz yet anoth­er invalu­able con­tri­bu­tion African-Amer­i­cans, as well as Euro­pean immi­grants, made to the nation­al cul­ture. How­ev­er far left his polit­i­cal sym­pa­thies, Hugh­es was always a patri­ot, in the best sense, an admir­er of his country’s achieve­ments and gen­uine lover of its peo­ple.


Although it is a children’s book, Hugh­es’ First Book of Jazz is still a schol­ar­ly one, with a host of ref­er­ences in the Acknowl­edge­ments, and a list of famous jazz musi­cians, and their instru­ments, at the end. Also round­ing out the short course on jazz his­to­ry and musi­cian­ship is a two-part list of “Sug­gest­ed Records for Study” and one called “100 of My Favorite Record­ings.” Hugh­es even con­vinced Folk­ways records to release The Sto­ry of Jazz, an LP Hugh­es nar­rat­ed with exam­ples of each style of jazz he dis­cuss­es. You can read the full First Book of Jazz at Winter’s Flickr, where he has post­ed scans of every page. Vin­tage copies can be pur­chased online. See a gallery of Roberts’ full page illus­tra­tions here.

First Book

via Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Child’s Intro­duc­tion to Jazz by Can­non­ball Adder­ley (with Louis Arm­strong & Thelo­nious Monk)

Watch Langston Hugh­es Read Poet­ry from His First Col­lec­tion, The Weary Blues (1958)

Charles Min­gus Explains in His Gram­my-Win­ning Essay “What is a Jazz Com­pos­er?”

The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s High­ly Con­tro­ver­sial Film on Jazz & Race in Amer­i­ca (With Music by Sun Ra)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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