Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Poetry: JAZZ, by Walter Dean Myers


Myers, Walter Dean.  2006. Jazz.  Ill. By Christopher Myers  New York, NY: Holiday House, Inc.

ISBN 978-0-8234-1545-8


This collection of fifteen poems by Walter Dean Myers celebrates the music of jazz, the city of New Orleans, and the role of black Americans in both. Mr. Myers begins with an introduction, describing jazz and a summary of its development.  The book also includes a jazz timeline and a glossary of jazz terms.  The poems address the music of jazz, specific jazz musicians, specific instruments and more.


Walter Dean Myers offers poems that leap off the page with the quick-moving, unexpected pacing of jazz itself.  Syncopated rhythms roll throughout the poems, with enough rhyme mixed in to make the words simply trip off the tongue.  A few slower paced poems are also included, such as, “Blue Creeps In.”  Onomatopoeia effectively captures the sounds of jazz in several poems, such as in “Three Voices” which begins:  “Bass:  Thum, thum, thum, and thumming/ I feel the ocean rhythm coming.”

Myers uses the design of the pages thoughtfully, with some poems written diagonally across it, creating a sense of movement even in the typed words.  In the poem, “Now I Come In,” two columns show how musicians interact with each other in jazz.  The second column begins lower from the top of the page, beginning, “And now I come in/ This horn in my heart/ And I’ve got to play my part."  The ending of this column is a line in a scrawled font that simply says, “And then you come in,” dropping lower to the corner of the page with each word.  


The font changes frequently within the same poem, emphasizing certain words over others.  For example, in the poem, “Oh Miss Kitty,” her name is always written in a semi-cursive, italicized lavender font, repeated throughout the poem that honors her. In "Stride," the lines alternate with white text followed by just two words in a black, cursive font that come from the line above it, culminating in two orange words at the bottom.  The font, colors and arrangement all play a role in the poems.


The illustrations, by Walter Dean Myer’s son, are integral to the book. The vivid, rich colors, swirling like musical notes in the air, capture the sultry mood of New Orleans and the sounds of jazz.  Emerald green, maroon, eggplant, cobalt and bursts of sunflower yellow combine in such a way that every turn of the page brings a dazzling change of color while always fitting the Mardi Gras color scheme.  The art is simply stunning, with strong brushstrokes that conveys movement even when just filling in the background.  


This is a great book to share aloud, both because the vibrant artwork demands attention and because the poems are so rich when read aloud, with fun sounds and strong rhythms that are a delight to hear and to read: “There’s a drummer rat-a-tatting/ There’s a patent shoe that’s patting / While a laid-back cat is scatting/ About flying to the moon” (from “It’s Jazz.’)  As Dr. Vardell says in Children's Literature in Action, “Personally, I believe the key is sharing poems out loud and getting the kids to participate” (110).  This book can really help us share the power of poetry with children and teens, as well as introduce them to a style of music that may be new to them.


“Middle-graders will feel the sound of the words and pictures working together, and younger kids will hear and see that connection when adults share the book with them.” -- Booklist, September 1, 2006

“Following a lively, informative introduction that offers an explanation and brief history of jazz, Walter Dean Myers offers fifteen poems that bring the music to life in a fusion of rhythm and words.”  --Cooperative Book Center Choices, 2007

“A cycle of 15 poems and vivid, expressive paintings celebrate that most American genre of music: jazz…. This offering stands as a welcome addition to the literature of jazz: In a genre all too often done poorly for children, it stands out as one of the few excellent treatments.”  --Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2006

“Walter Dean Myers infuses his lines (and the rests between them) with so much savvy syncopation that readers can't help but be swept up in the rhythms.” - Publishers Weekly, September 2006

Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2007, Honor Book Illustrator United States

Golden Kite Award, 2007, Award Book Picture Book Text United States


  •  Invite a jazz musician to come play at the library!  Have a jazz night and read these poems between songs! 
  • Study other works by Walter Dean Myers, such as Here in  Harlem: Poems in Many Voices.  He is a very prolific writer.
  • Use this book to make other African American poetry connections:  I, Too, Am American, by Langston Hughes:, Roots and Blues:  A Celebration, by Arnold Adoff, Hopscotch Love: A Family Treasury of Love Poems by Nikki Grimes, Words with Wings:  A Treasury of African American Poetry and Art, compiled by Belinda Rochelle.  This could be used during Black History Month or any time of the year
  • These poems are great for read-alouds, specifically group reading.  Ask someone to read every word that is in a different color, for example, or have one person read one column of text while the other person reads the second column.  Shared poetry reading would work well for many of the poems in this book.  Some poems that come to mind are, “Twenty-Finger Jack,” “Stride,” and the opening poem, “Jazz.” 
  •  Have the children write their own poetry about jazz or another type of music.
  • Let students play on instruments:  drums, stick sets, recorders, triangles.  They could also make their own instruments, using beans in cans or even inside of two paper plates. 


In his Introduction, Walter Dean Myers points out, “Not all jazz will be loved by all people,” and I am proof of that.  Jazz is not my kind of music.  However, I loved the art right away.  The poems took longer for me to appreciate.  I suspect that anyone who plays jazz would immediately understand the way the words work together to evoke the musical style of jazz.  After several readings, though, I could really see his clever use of words, rhythm and rhyme to make each poem really sing.

Works Referenced

Adoff, Arnold.  2011.  Roots and Blues:  A Celebration.  New York, NY:  Clarion Books.

Grimes, Nikki.  1999.  Hopscotch Love: A  Family Treasure of Love Poems.  New York, NY:  Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books.

Hughes, Langston.  2012.  I, Too, Am American.  Ill by Bryan Collier.  NY:  Simon and Schuster. 

Myers, Walter Dean.  2006.  Jazz.  Ill by Christopher Myers.  New York, New York:  Holiday House.

Myers, Walter Dean.  2004.  Here in Harlem:  Poems in Many Voices.  New York, NY:  Holiday House.

Rochelle, Belinda (ed). 2001.  Words With Wings:  A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art.  New York, NY:  HarperCollins.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

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