Nearly 60 years ago, Langston Hughes, one of the earliest developers of jazz poetry in the 1920s and a voice of the Harlem Renaissance, created an innovative way to bring jazz to new generations. The 1920s are long past now, and jazz's mainstream appeal has been eclipsed by the rise of pop music. But jazz has a rich culture and an incredible impact on modern music that Hughes explains and dives into in his 1955 children's book First Book of Jazz.
It's a throwback, sure, but the illustrations and the knowledge Hughes imparts are timeless. Hughes works through the musical context of jazz from "African Drums" and "Old New Orleans" to "The Blues" and "Ragtime," and creates a history of jazz that's just as interesting for adults as it is for children.
The First Book of Jazz was part of a series Hughes worked on that included The First Book of Rhythm and The First Book of Negroes, which are very patriotic in tone and their reverence of American culture. Some say the patriotism of these books is in direct response to Hughes's 1953 trial in which he was accused of being a Communist. Each book was illustrated by a different artist; this one was done by Cliff Roberts.
As Josh Jones wrote for Open Culture, "As [Hughes] 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."
First Book of Jazz might be intended for children, but with its deep explanation of the history and techniques of jazz music, it's just as fruitful of a read for adults. You can read the whole book online here.