To me, jazz is a montage of a dream deferred.
— Langston Hughes, “Jazz as Communication,” 1956
On December 26, Peter and I retrieved our mail from the post office after time up north. There was a slim package from our friends, Ruthann Godollei and Craig Upright — a gift to ESFL! Out slipped a de-accessioned copy of Langston Hughes’s 1955 The First Book of Jazz, illustrated by Cliff Roberts. What a find, what a gift! Some library’s loss is the East Side Freedom Library’s gain!
The First Book of Jazz. The title announces Hughes’s modesty approaching his subject, as if he’s trying out what he knows in the presence of The Greats. The vintage illustrations suggest 50s magazines, or even children’s books. In fact, if children picked up the book (as they surely have by the thousands), they read Hughes’s deeply informed personal essay about jazz histories, how jazz came up in fields, on street corners, at work sites. They read about the influences on jazz from African music traditions, about musical cousins of jazz like jubilees, blues and boogie woogie. They could memorize the “Ten Basic Elements” of jazz that Hughes lays out, and make their way, their whole lives long, through a list of 100 of Hughes’s favorite jazz recordings.
Reading First Book…, its short chapters enlivened by black and white cartoon-style drawings, a reader encounters Louis Armstrong in almost every chapter. Hughes invokes Armstrong’s boyhood, great-grandmother’s stories of Congo Square, father’s work in a turpentine factory, all the influences that poured into “Little Louis” and all that Armstrong became, and therefore all that jazz became, America became. Hughes became. A reader can imagine Hughes listening to jazz as he writes, perhaps to Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, the 1954 studio tribute by Louis Armstrong and his All Stars to the earlier-generation blues composer and musical scholar, Handy. As he wrote, Hughes would have heard Armstrong and his fellow musicians interpret Handy’s blues tied to place — St. Louis, Memphis, Atlanta –, family, love and loss. That record would have been refuge and inspiration for Hughes, who had been yanked before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, his loyalties called to account. Writing First Book of Jazz may have been a re-emergence, like writing a “teaching piece” from his furious heart to the grossly misinformed or yet-unschooled in America. In First Book…, Hughes declares in many ways that jazz is American music. Since writing was, for Hughes, a writing of jazz into words, then he was re-declaring himself American. Fully American with, yes, dreams deferred.
Visitors to ESFL can peruse this gift, The First Book of Jazz, throughout January. It will be on the Resources Table for lucky audiences at any of three live concerts. The first, “Calling the Light,” is on Saturday, January 12, 7:30 – 9:30 p.m. This concert features the All Star line-up of Douglas Ewart, Steve Hirsh, Babatunde Lea and Donald Washington — each a significant musician in his own right, together in one concert! Players among you may want to come back and sit in on the Open Jam Session with Steve Hirsh and Le Voyage on Sunday, January 20, from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. Or just come as audience and enjoy! Lastly for January, and marvelously, Davu Seru and the No Territory Band will hold a “Performance and Info Session for the Black Understudy Program” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, January 21, starting 3:00 p.m.
Hughes’s The First Book of Jazz will hold pride of place through all concerts, alongside other great books on jazz, blues, African American history, and civil rights history that we’ll pull onto the Resources Table for interest and context. Visitors can look at our collections in the library, or through our online catalogue. Many of the music titles you will find are shelved in the Fred Ho Collection — Fred was a jazz saxophonist and composer, activist and writer, who passed from the world too young. ESFL proudly hosts the collection he sent us, of books, sheet music and some original scores.
Yet another way to browse ESFL’s collections is to come on the first Sunday of any month for “Book Geek Happy Hour(s),” where you can bring a book or find a book and read in perfect quiet. Then, you can tell others about what you read, and interest them in your book.
Perhaps I’ve done that here, in praising Langston Hughes’s The First Book of Jazz. Come in from the cold and see! And stay for the great jazz.