Jazz is a distinctly American art form. As explained by Walter Dean Myers in the introduction to his poetry collection Jazz, the form rose out of African and European musical traditions, and has at its heart a foundation of improvisation. To celebrate this unique form of expression, Myers has written a collection of poems inspired by jazz musicians and the musical form.
“Start with rhythm/ Start with the heart.” Myers opens his collection with the poem “Jazz” and infuses his words with rhythm and heart, as well as passion, energy and soul. Practically begging to be read aloud, the language sparks right off the page. Myers writes about the soul of jazz, and the history. In “America’s Music,” he writes, “What did the world see? / What did the world hear?” The poems create a wonderful avenue to talk about the historical context of jazz. Paintings by Christopher Myers further illustrate jazz’s roots. Images of black men in uniform accompany “America’s Music.”
The poems in Jazz range in mood and tempo. Some are loud and celebrational, like “Twenty-Finger Jack,” and some are more emotive and intimate, like “Jazz Vocal.” “Can you hear it just beginning/ or am I just imagining those precious sounds?” intones the narrator of “Jazz Vocal.” The familiar form of address brings the reader and listener in close.
The narrators and characters described in the poems of Jazz are all older, adults. For that reason, there needs to be something else to draw in the ears and attentions of younger readers and listeners. For this, Myers employs his language and his rhythm. Youngsters might not understand the personal longing of a poem like “Blue Creeps In,” but the long sounds at the end of each stanza in that poem create an audible sense of yearning and things unfinished.
Jazz is a very visually appealing book. Each poem is presented within or opposite a painting by Christopher Myers, the poet’s son. The art helps to bring the words to life with their vibrancy. In addition to the poet’s introduction, the book features backmatter that includes a glossary of jazz terms and a time line, making this a wonderful book in include in musical or historical instruction.
The poem “Be-Bop” made me think of Chris Raschka’s amazing picture book Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. Like Raschka’s book, Myers’ “Be-Bop” makes use of onomatopoeia to create verbal music. I would love to combine these two books with an activity with my patrons. Armed with my musical instruments, we could create music together, then use onomatopoeia words to create poems about our music.
Myers, Walter Dean. Jazz. Illustrated by Christopher Myers. New York: Holiday House, 2006. ISBN: 9780823415458