Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hopkins Award Poetry: Jazz by Walter Dean Myers

Bibliography –

Myers, Walter Dean. 2006. Jazz. Ill. by Christopher Myers. New York: Holiday House, Inc. ISBN – 9780823421732.

Critical Review –

Father and son team up in this poetic and artistic salute to jazz music which celebrates its origins, history and spread throughout the twentieth century in a brilliantly illustrated eighteen poem collection. Each poem with the exception of one poem is on a two page spread. The exception is actually a triplet of poems entitled “Three Voices” with the individual poems titled, “Bass,” “Piano,” and “Horn,” respectively. Myers introduces his collection with a detailed explanation of what jazz is and how it has grown over the years. His first poem, “Jazz,” poetically defines the music of jazz. After the poems, Myers has a glossary of jazz terms and a timeline of jazz music to explore the topic further. While the poems and illustrations alone convey the rich heritage of jazz music, the additional information on jazz contributes to make this book a wonderful addition for the study of jazz.

True to the tradition of poetry, Walter Dean Myers uses powerful language and creates rhythmic poems that echo the sounds of jazz. His use of figurative language and allusion in “America’s Music” express not only the sorrow that gave birth to jazz, but also the deeply religious influences that shape it. Myers crafts figurative language like “Strings crying like midnight widows” to reverberate the sorrow found in jazz. Likewise, “Horns tearing down Jericho walls,” alludes to the deeply religious beginnings of jazz.

However, his most powerful use of language is in the genuine jazz rhythms he creates using alliteration, line lengths, and spacing. The best example is in his triplet poem, “Three Voices.” In each of the three poems, he creates a rhythm that matches the title instrument. In “Bass,” the reader hears the thumping of the enormous bass fiddle. Then Myers shifts to lighter rhythms that sound like someone tickling the ivories on a piano. Myers rounds out the triplet by the long haunting rhythms of “Horn.” The reader can hear just how these distinct rhythms merge together to create jazz music.

Like father creates a poetic tribute to Jazz in words, Christopher Myers the son does so with artistic expression. His illustrations in black ink on acetate and placing it over acrylic produce ethnically authentic images without being stereotypical. Each illustration is large, bright, and bold showing stark contrasts of color inviting the reader to further explore the world of jazz. The instruments, voices, and moods of jazz are prominently displayed in each picture. The illustrations and poems work perfectly together to create jazz in print. Below is a poem from this collection to share with students.

America's Music
by Walter Dean Myers

What did the world see?
What did the world hear?
Black men sweating in 4/4 time
Behind the beat around the beat
Bending the in-between
Strings crying like midnight widows
Horns tearing down Jericho walls
A clarinet sassing
Its way through
a Sunday-night sermon

And the chorus call out blues!
And ragtime!

And jazz!
From Mississippi to Harlem
While the folks across the ocean
were just saying


Kid Connection –

Have some jazz music playing softly in the background and lead the children in a discussion on what is jazz music. Elicit from the children all they know about it, such as, instruments, musicians, history, etc. Fill in with additional information as needed. Have the music continue to play while reading the poem “America’s Music.” Ask for student volunteers to share the similarities they hear between the music playing and the poem. As a follow-up, have the students find a poem and match it up to some instrumental music. They may select from any music that is instrumental form only like classical, jazz, religious, or even modern instrumental versions. Finally, have students share why they feel the music they selected matches the poem that they selected.

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