Langston Hughes Reveals the Rhythms in Art & Life in a Wonderful Illustrated Book for Kids (1954)


If you have to ask what jazz is, Louis Arm­strong sup­pos­ed­ly said, you’ll nev­er know. But the poet Langston Hugh­es, who in his 1955 First Book of Jazz reveals him­self as a great enthu­si­ast of Arm­strong indeed, seems to have oper­at­ed on a very dif­fer­ent premise. Hugh­es pitched that book, which we fea­tured last month, toward chil­dren, an audi­ence that, at their best, embod­ies inquis­i­tive­ness: they have to ask what every­thing is. And before Hugh­es could explain jazz to them, he had to explain rhythm.


“Rhythm is some­thing we share in com­mon, you and I,” Hugh­es writes in 1954’s The First Book of Rhythm, “with all the plants and ani­mals and peo­ple in the world, and with the stars and moon and sun, and all the whole vast won­der­ful uni­verse beyond this won­der­ful earth which is our home.” It does­n’t just belong in music, he says; it belongs pret­ty much every­where, from the realm of nature to those of ath­let­ics, machines, fur­ni­ture — every­thing in “this won­der­ful world,” in his view, has its own rhythm.


If explain­ing jazz to kids strikes you as a daunt­ing task, then just imag­ine explain­ing this more abstract foun­da­tion­al qual­i­ty of jazz, find­ing it in a host of dif­fer­ent domains, and then lay­ing it all out in terms that will engage an ele­men­tary school­er. But only such a mas­ter of lan­guage and lover of sound like Hugh­es could do it with such over­all vital­i­ty and con­ci­sion, even if the sub­ject, as Ariel S. Win­ter writes at We Too Were Chil­dren, Mr. Bar­rie, moves Hugh­es to get “too lyri­cal, too abstract, caught up in his song of the world,” some­how drift­ing from an obser­va­tion of the rhythm of knit­ting nee­dles to the con­clu­sion that every­one “should arrange her hair to suit the shape of her face.”


You can read The First Book of Rhythm in its entire­ty, and gaze upon Robin King’s detailed and well-inte­grat­ed illus­tra­tions, in this Flickr pho­to set. (You can also buy old copies on Ama­zon.) Per­haps you once wrote your­self off as hope­less­ly rhythm­less, unable even to say for sure that you know what rhythm is. If so, Langston Hugh­es has writ­ten the book for you — no mat­ter your age, just your curios­i­ty.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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

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

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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