10 Music Books for Black History Month: African American Musicians

If you’re a serial children’s book purchaser like I am, you’re going to love this list! Just in time for Black History Month, I’ve composed a list of 10 engaging storybooks about 9 different African American musicians (Ella’s so awesome she gets two mentions!). My students always love story time. It helps to frame our lessons and is great for focusing the class, particularly at the beginning or end of their block.

Click on the pictures of the covers to be directly linked to the books.

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Skit Skat Raggedy Cat

Skit Skat Raggedy Cat is lengthy, but worth it! The book describes the life of Ella Fitzgerald starting from her childhood in Yonkers to her radio hit, “A Tisket, A Tasket” aged 21. Opportunities abound to talk about Harlem, the Savoy Ballroom, the Cotton Club, swing music and swing dancing, and, perhaps most importantly, the power of perseverance.

Fitzgerald’s success despite a chain of unfortunate events can serve as a mirror for your students who may find themselves relating to her and as a window to those who may not be aware of the hardships others may face. Use the book to introduce A Tisket, A Tasket, to teach about swing, or even to learn about scatting.

Ella Queen of Jazz

There can never be too many books about Ella! This book is much shorter than Skit Skat Raggedy Cat and begins in Fitzgerald’s adulthood. It talks about segregation preventing Fitzgerald from playing in many clubs… that is, until Marilyn Monroe intervened. This book opens the door for discussions about standing up for what is right.

Before John Was a Jazz Giant

As a boy, John Coltrane heard all kinds of music! But maybe not the kind of music you’re thinking of – pots and pans, steam engines, and giggles, to name a few! This short but sweet read would pair well with The Listening Walk to demonstrate how music is all around us and how the sounds of life can inspire the music we write and play.

Joseph Bologne Le Chevalier de Saint-George: The first black classical composer a.k.a. the black Mozart (a black history book for children) 

I’m excited to get my hands on this book this year! Personally, I didn’t learn about Joseph Bolonge until after college – a shame, although unfortunately not a surprise. Born in 1745, he is the first known Classical musician of African descent and composed chamber music, concertos, symphonies, and operas. He earned a place in one of France’s most prestigious orchestras, the Concert des Amateurs, and eventually became its concertmaster. (Apparently, he was also a star fencer!) It’s highly plausible that Bologne met Mozart while in Paris; apparently, Mozart was jealous of Bologne for his successes and there are theories that he used ideas from Bolonge’s violin concerto Op. 7, No. 1 in his K. 364.

Unfortunately, while Mozart is a household name even for non-musicians, it seems that very few people know about Bologne. The author was only 8 years old when writing this book and she did a wonderful job – just another way to show students that kids have the power to do whatever they set their minds to!

Charlie Parker Played Be Bop

You’ll be tapping your foot and dancing in your seat as you read this fun classic! I recommend adding some of Charlie Parker’s music in the background while reading. It’s less biographical, more about the feeling of the music, the rhythm of the words. This book would be a fun end of class song book or could even serve as an introduction to scatting!

Trombone Shorty

How did Trombone Shorty get his nickname? What does musical gumbo sound like? This book takes you to Troy Andrews’s (Trombone Shorty) hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, and shows how a little boy’s determination led him from simple beginnings to world fame. It features a lot of brass instruments – this would be a great opportunity to review a variety of instruments found in jazz! And before Trombone Shorty ever had a trombone, he and his friends made music out of what they could come up with. This is an especially important lesson in these times, where you may not be able to use all of your school instruments or run ensembles or may even have periods of virtual learning.

Bonus: Kids’ first question any time we learn about a new musician is whether they’re still alive today. They’ll be glad to know that Trombone Shorty is alive and well, and that they can follow his musical journey online or in concert – with parent permission, of course.

Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century

Price’s story is marked by the support of so many individuals helping her along the way to stardom: her parents, her college president, her voice teacher Florence Page Kimball, and, paving the way, famous African-American contralto Marian Anderson. The book repeatedly credits Anderson for cracking open the door that allowed Price and other talented Black musicians to reach new heights. Beautiful illustrations show Price throughout a variety of stage performances like Porgy and Bess, La fanciulla del West, Madame Butterfly, and Aida.

The story ends on an encouraging note, with Price finally receiving the well-deserved admiration of the audience in her first performance with The Met. In addition to studying Price as a person, this could tie in nicely to lessons about opera, a genre in which Black musicians remain underrepresented today.

Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her

What kid doesn’t love talking about pets? Billie Holiday had several dogs, but her favorite was Mister, who she dressed up in mink coats, fed home-cooked meals, and even brought to her performances. Mister follows Holiday throughout the book, quietly supporting her – whether it be by keeping overzealous fans at bay or by simply waiting in the wings, giving Holiday a silent confidence boost. I haven’t tried this yet, but I think it’d be really cool to use this as a catalyst to get students composing about their own pets, or maybe someone in their life who they lean on for support.

The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend

The Little Piano Girl is a heart-warming retelling of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams’s childhood. Williams was always good at the keyboard and her parents encouraged her love of it. When Williams encountered bullying in her new town of Pittsburgh, she used her playing to drown out the “bad sounds” with beautiful ones. Any time she played, Williams could get people to boogey down. This story reminds kids to stay true to themselves and to never give up.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

The text of this book dances beautifully off your tongue, just as Josephine Baker danced and sang. Baker’s career was mostly spent in Paris, France, where she found more freedom as a bisexual Black woman than she did at home in the U.S. She was known for her civil rights activism and became also a symbol of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. The book is split into periods of Baker’s life and is quite long, but for good reason – it goes into great detail about Baker’s entire life, from her struggles in the United States, to her success in Europe, her service in the Resistance, and her somewhat tragic final years. The book only briefly brushes over Baker’s “Rainbow Tribe” for about a page, so you can choose whether to discuss this further. I haven’t used this one with my classes yet; if you have, I’d love to know how you used it!

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