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  • Picturing Jazz:Jazz Biography and Children's Literature
  • John P. McCombe (bio)

The history of jazz can be depicted in a fairly lurid fashion. Much like America's other great contribution to twentieth-century culture, the Hollywood cinema, the mythical origins of jazz appear distinctly lowbrow. When an art form is raised in the brothels of New Orleans and comes of age in the speakeasies of other prohibition-era cities, the road to cultural respectability is filled with obstacles. By the 1970s, however, jazz had become reputable enough to find a place in academia. So much so that institutions such as my own alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, had hired a professor of Jazz Studies and had begun regularly offering classes not only for practicing musicians but also course work in the history of jazz.1 And by the end of the century in which it was born, jazz had steadily filtered into the curriculum of most other segments of America's school system.

The present essay will trace the first tentative steps in presenting jazz history through the picture book. I say "tentative," because the project is fraught with difficulties. In the words of jazz historian and Duke Ellington biographer Barry Ulanov, for most of its history, "jazz, rejected in its homeland, has had consciously to seek survival, conscientiously to explain and defend its existence" and has been "variously banned and bullied" (4). The frequent rejection has occurred because, the "swing era" aside, jazz has never been synonymous with American popular music. Fairly or not, jazz has been viewed by some as elitist, as difficult, and as a language best understood by musicians. For others, a persistent, racially motivated bias has often led to the undervaluation of an art first created by African Americans. Finally, some jazz histories emphasize its most salacious (and extra-musical) elements: the tortured jazz genius whose lack of artistic acceptance leads to a downward spiral of addiction and premature death. Such is the story of figures such as Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker, or Chet Baker, the latter a man quite familiar with the prison system both in America and abroad and whose thirty-year battle with heroin addiction culminated in a mysterious "fall" from an Amsterdam hotel window.2

Nevertheless, in the last decade, children's literature has begun to broach the story of jazz. A number of recent books have illustrated the lives of jazz pioneers, discussed the impact of social issues such as racism on the development of the music, and introduced children to the aesthetic pleasures of jazz. In the course of my essay, I will examine the diverse range of approaches to jazz biography through the picture book, as well as how the analysis of these texts foregrounds important and more general issues in the field of children's biography and historiography: namely, distinguishing history and biography from "the truth" and the related issue of the very constructed nature of biographical and historical writing. In addition, the jazz picture biography provides opportunities for presenting biographical subjects with a balanced attention to both their aesthetic achievements and their often complex and contradictory human behaviors. Finally, such works also allow readers to challenge the "great man" version of history and, instead, recognize the truly collaborative nature of jazz performance and composition.

Constructing Satchmo's Story

In his research for a 1997 essay published in The New Advocate, critic Lawrence Sipe surveyed an extensive body of post-World War II discussions by writers of children's historical and biographical works. Sipe concludes that one of the most salient issues for such writers is a faithfulness to the historical record (247-48). But the historical record is especially slippery where Louis Armstrong is concerned, an issue that can be highlighted by analyzing two recent fictional biographies, Alan Schroeder's Satchmo's Blues (1996) and Roxanne Orgill's If I Only Had a Horn (1997). When both biographers confront "Satchmo" as a subject, they must contend not only with the many scholars who have preceded them, but also with the contradictions presented by Armstrong's own biographical writings. Both works draw upon the range of Armstrong's memoirs, and, consequently, each depicts similar historical...


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