Friday, February 20, 2009

Jazz by Walter Dean Myers

Time for a Poetry Book Review!

Poetry for Children and Young Adults
Texas Woman’s University
Professor: Dr. Sylvia Vardell

Module 2: POETRY BOOK REVIEW: MULTICULTURAL-- A book of poetry for children or teens by a poet (or poets) of color published since 1995

Jazz, by Walter Dean Myers, makes your feet tap and your fingers snap. Myers’s poetry is filled with scenarios reflecting revolving themes of triumph and despair molded by music. With the focus on jazz, and an intermingling of blues, the voices of the instruments are the stars of Jazz. The trumpet, the bass fiddle, the drums, the tinkling keys on the piano - they allow the music to shine through the poetry. The illustrations, by Myers’s son, Christopher Myers, portray the characters that give voice to the instruments.

The rich and vivid illustrations make you want to touch them lightly with your fingertips and then gently rub your hands over them. They are filled with bold and brilliant colors depicting African Americans bigger than life. The backdrop colors of primary red and yellow, colors of deep purple, royal blue, and burgundy permit the musicians to jump out as each page is turned. Myers created the illustrations using black ink on acetate and placing it over acrylic. One musician per page is all it takes to shout out the rhythm of the poem. However, marching bands and dancers grace several pages.

The imaginative renderings fit perfectly with each poem. The poetry of music emanates from the elongated fingers of the musicians. The first poem, “Jazz” features a man listening deeply to the sound in his head, and a drummer with his muscled back facing away from the reader. Turning the pages reveals musicians; some dressed in military uniforms playing oversized stringed instruments and horns, and classily dressed men and women. Their attire is reminiscent of pictures I’ve seen of Billie Holiday, of “Lady Sings the Blues” fame. The mood and feel throughout is nightclub swing.

One might ask how an individual from another culture can fully experience what the poet wants to project. My reply is to read the poems, because music speaks to all people. It’s possible when people not of the African American culture read the poems, or those not familiar with jazz; the feel, the cadence, or the intonation might escape them to some degree. I would suggest reading the poems aloud; envisioning Nat King Cole’s or Johnny Mathis’s deep, resonating voices articulating each line.

However, I understand about feeling timid reading these wonderful poems to students. When I read “America’s Music” aloud, I didn't feel I orally interpreted the poem the way Myers intended it to be read. But the story and message behind the poem is unmistakable. Although my reading didn’t sound as soulful as others could have read it, there is no doubt the poem is about pride in the role of jazz in America. The following poem, “Oh, Miss Kitty” rolls off the tongue. The imagery of the fiery ceiling in two of the lines creates a visual sight, and the interjections of “Tickle them ivories, boy!” and “What that saxophone man doing?” gives the poem a strong beat.

The variations in the fonts make for lively readings, although certain young people might find some of the text difficult to read. Ideally, the poems will be read aloud. The words are fast moving, and in deference to the poems, grooving! Unconventional rhyme patterns are found in most of the poems, but it seems that the story each poem tells is its strength. The first poem is the window into the others as it speaks of jazz, love, rhythm, heart, and soul. The next poem asks Louie why he plays so sweet. This can be none other than Louie Armstrong. The timeline provided in the back of the book confirms it. A glossary of jazz terms assists the reader, describing words used in the poems; for example, Chops: Technical ability. “Man, his breath is bad, but he’s got some good chops!”

The lively mood changes at “Good-Bye To Old Bob Johnson” to a somber one rightly so because it’s a funeral; the poem is a dirge. Turning the page to the poem’s ending, and faster moving pace, (it evens reads “Faster”) reveals a celebration for Bob Johnson. Everybody’s dancing for Bob!

“Twenty-Finger Jack" appears adjacent to a soulful looking man who hands, shown on the piano keys, give the impression of twenty fingers. The first stanza goes like this:

Well, the walls are shaking,
and the ceiling’s coming down
‘Cause twenty-finger Jack
has just come back to town
The keyboard’s jumping,
and the music’s going round
and round
If he had any sense,
he left it in the lost-and-found
He here go
Be ba boodie, be ba boodie, boo
Be ba boodie, be ba ba ba, boodie, boo

Myers not only writes, “Be ba boodie,” but he also pens the poem “Be-Bop.” What stands out in this particular poem is the onomatopoeia. The star of this poem is the saxophone that Myers calls, “. . . the ax that I’m grinding / And the melody I’m finding.” The melody of the ax resides in these lines, “Goes screa——min’, / goes screaming, / goes screa——screa—screamin’ / to the moon!” The expression on the face of the saxophone player on the next page says it all.

Towards the end of the book are the poems of “Three Voices,” personified words that match and accompany the instruments depicted, not revealing if it’s the musicians or the instruments feeling the call of the sound. Three Voices: bass, piano, and horn are metaphorically tied together as “Three souls on fire.”

Myers poetry book, Jazz, celebrating the history of jazz and blues in America is poetry to be enjoyed by any age, but young adults might understand the poems better than children; there are some mature themes; for example, sultry love between a man and a woman, or Miss Kitty loving the piano man, a “slitty-eyed gangster.” The poetry is born from the roots of jazz, and this is the celebration that young people should know about.

References

Myers, Walter Dean. 2006. Jazz. Christopher Myers, illus. NY: Holiday House.

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