Each week of February — Black History Month — I’ll be posting a list of excellent titles for you to explore, grouped by topic. I’m starting out with a jazz theme. Learn and enjoy!
Jazz on a Saturday Night, by Leo and Diane Dillon published in 2007 by The Blue Sky Press
The Dillons’ introduction to jazz is a lovely place for anyone to begin learning about this iconic American musical form.
The text of the book is brief — a rhythmic description of an epic, fictional, jazz ensemble, made up of the greats who meet up for one cool performance. It’s a Dream Team with folks like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald. Brief bios of all 7 musicians are included in the closing pages, as well as a list of favorite recordings to get us started listening.
As always the artwork is phenomenal. The Extra Bonus Treat here is an accompanying CD made by the Dillons in which they teach us about what makes up a jazz ensemble. In under 20 minutes, the two of them talk to us conversationally — very much a Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood sort of feel — telling about each instrument. We get to hear the different kinds of sounds each one can make. Then we hear what kind of music happens when two of them play together, and then more. Finally, we hear the whole ensemble play a piece in which we can pick out the individual instruments — how clever that feels!
Kids as young as 4 or 5 can learn way more than you might guess from this understated, brilliant book. Then move on to learn about some African American jazz artists whose names are perhaps not quite as familiar, such as …
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills, words by Renée Watson, pictures by Christian Robinson published in 2012 by Random House
Florence Mills was born in 1896, the daughter of former slaves. She began singing and dancing in her childhood in Washington, D.C., and went on to become one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance.
Read the story of this talented and generous woman, accompanied by Christian Robinson’s exciting, sizzling art, with ages 5 and up.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrations by Frank Morrison published in 2014 by Lee & Low Books Inc.
Love this story of a little gal that picks up a mighty big instrument and then proceeds to dominate with it! Melba Doretta Liston was a legendary trombone player, composer, and arranger.
Hip, swingin’ artwork accompanies this upbeat story for ages 4 or 5 and up. A lengthy afterword fills in a lot more history for you, with a selected discography so you can hear her sound for yourself.
The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend, by Ann Ingalls & Maryann Macdonald, illustrated by Giselle Potter published in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children
Mary Lou Williams was a child prodigy with an uncanny ability to both learn and create music from a young age. She went on to travel and boogie with the “Kings and Dukes and Earls of jazz” for almost 60 years, a phenomenal success, a rare female jazz pianist for her time, and a kind mentor for others.
Giselle Potter’s naive illustrations are rosy-warm and appealing. Ages 4 and up.
Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum, written and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker published in 2008 by Schwartz & Wade Books
Art Tatum was another child who gravitated to music and the piano at an early age. Despite severely limited vision, which grew progressively worse, Tatum was playing professionally by age 16, and went on to play, improvise, travel, record, planting his star firmly at the top of the world of jazz.
This book is written as though Tatum is narrating his life story, with a sweetly personal tone. Parker’s watercolor illustrations also convey a lovely humanness, warmth, and joy. Ages 4 and up.
There are so many more exceptional biographies available at your library of other jazz legends, so don’t stop here!