The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph
Written by Roxane Orgill; Illustrated by Francis Vallejo
Published by Candlewick Press, 2016
ISBN # 978-0763669546

Grades 3 and up

Book Review

The year was 1958, and jazz music was everywhere in full force. Graphic designer and jazz enthusiast Art Kane pitched an idea to Esquire magazine to gather as many jazz musicians as possible for a morning photo shoot in Harlem. Esquire, planning a special issue about the golden age of jazz, commissioned the photo and circulated invitations throughout the New York City jazz scene. In her latest picture book about jazz, author Roxane Orgill adeptly chronicles not just the excitement surrounding the concept that would result in the legendary photograph known as Harlem 1958, or A Great Day in Harlem, but also the complexity and unpredictability involved in engineering the photo shoot. How many musicians would show up? Who would be there? And would Art Kane, who had never taken a professional photograph before or even owned a camera, be able to pull it off? Paying tribute to the expressive musical genre, Orgill records the day with rhythmic verses that voice the perspectives of various people in the photograph. Vallejo’s acrylic and pastel paintings reflect the vibrancy of not just the occasion, but an entire artistic epoch. Back matter includes an illuminating author’s note, biographies about individual musicians, the cultural significance of the photograph, and source notes for further research. Like the photograph and music it honors, Jazz Day is an astounding orchestration of content and creativity to share with students.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

  • Behind the Scenes of A Great Day in Harlem. After reading Jazz Day, have students list the questions they have about the impact of the photograph, the musicians within it, Art Kane, and the era to which the photograph and the Esquire issue aimed to pay homage. Watch the 1995 Academy Award nominated documentary A Great Day in Harlem, which delves deeper into the historical and cultural significance of Kane’s photo. After viewing the film, engage students in a discussion about the answers to their questions.
  • Iconic Photographs. What does it mean for something to be iconic? What makes a photograph so special that is reaches icon status and  then gets cemented into popular history? Share some iconic photographs with your class, first making sure they are appropriate for your students to view. A good resource might be the book Photos Framed, by Ruth Thompson, which provides historical and artistic information about each photograph along with reflections from its photographer. You might also select iconic photos from the National Archives digital photography collections. Provide students with iPads or other camera devices, and have them recreate the iconic photos they study in class. After the photo shoots, engage them in a discussion about the complexity of taking such a photo. Older students might try photographing various events during the school day and then select one they would deem iconic of their school, community, or generation. Have students present their arguments in an essay or oral presentation. 
  • All About Jazz. Read aloud Jazz Day as a way to entice students to learn about jazz. As students listen to the individual poems and learn about the historical photograph, have them write down questions about the music and the musicians that pique their curiosity. Watch the PBS miniseries Jazz by Ken Burns, invite local jazz musicians (see the Smithsonian Jazz Appreciation Month website to find a local jazz society), celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month (April), listen to jazz music, and explore some of the informational websites listed in Further Explorations below to help students explore the genre, find answers to their questions, and pursue further inquiries about jazz.
  • Jazz Poetry. Jazz poetry is a genre in which the poet uses jazz as the inspiration for the poem’s content and style. Some well-known jazz poets include Langston Hughes, Jayne Cortez, and Sterling Brown. Have students closely read Orgill’s text to determine if it qualifies as jazz poetry. If so, how? What similarities and differences do they see between jazz and Orgill’s verses? What about among jazz poets? Invite students to write their own jazz poetry, inspired by the events in Orgill’s book, Kane’s photograph, or something else related to jazz.
  • Close Reading of Photography. Have students closely examine the famous photograph, paying attention to the individual details and expressions of the subjects, as well as the composition of the photograph. What do they notice, and what do those discoveries lead them to think? How might applying artistic principles—such as proportion, line, light and shadow—help them appreciate the photograph? Use the A Great Day in Harlem website to project an interactive version of the photo for your class.
  • Jazz and the Arts. The reach of jazz in the arts is far and wide. From paintings to fashion and film, the improvisational and expressive qualities of jazz have inspired artists in a variety of fields. Share some of these jazz-inspired artistic creations with your students. You can find some examples and contextual information on various museum websites, such as the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. You can also find teacher’s guides across the Internet that offer lessons, curricular units, and ideas for exploring the relationship between jazz and other art fields. Challenge your students to create their own works of jazz-inspired art with the media of their choice.
  • Famous Jazz Musicians. Ask students to identify which jazz musicians in Kane’s photograph are familiar to them, as well as those that they might know who were not in the photograph, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Invite them to select one of those musicians to research, either in small groups or as individual projects. Have students present their findings, including samples of their selected artist’s music and distinguishing characteristics of the musician’s style. After the presentations, engage students in discussions that compare and contrast the musicians and their music to draw conclusions about their influences and appreciation of one another’s talent and music.
  • Jazz Today. What characterizes jazz music today? How is it similar and different to the jazz music of 1958? How is it similar and different to its origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Have students listen to samples of contemporary jazz music or attend a local jazz performance. Compare and contrast those samples with the music of some of the musicians from Kane’s time. Read for further discussion and reflection on the evolution of jazz.
  • Jazz Musicians Text Set. With the help of your school or local librarian, procure a set of books about various jazz musicians. Some picture book biographies of famous jazz musicians are listed below in Further Explorations, and some are explored more deeply in previous Classroom Bookshelf entries, such as Trombone Shorty and Josephine. Roxane Orgill has also written other picture books about jazz musicians, so you might want to create a text set based on her work. Have students read the titles in the text set you create to compare, contrast, and draw conclusions about the musicians as individuals and as part of the evolution of jazz. What do students learn about the musicians’ musical training, style, and inspiration? What do they learn about the close community of jazz musicians throughout time?
  • Jazz Cities and Festivals. A number of cities across the world are hubs for jazz music and host annual jazz festivals, including New Orleans, Kansas City, and Cape Town, South Africa. Invite students to research how cities celebrate jazz. What is the history of jazz in that city? Who are the jazz musicians who live there or called that city home? What are the popular venues for attending jazz concerts? Have students create travel brochures or websites persuading others to attend the jazz festival in that city.
  • A Great Day in (Your Town). Other cities across the world have emulated Art Kane’s iconic photo, gathering a number of their local jazz musicians or specified artists to create their own A Great Day photograph. For example, in 2007, Seattle photographed its own version with around 300 jazz musicians on the steps of City Hall. A version with hip-hop artists was photographed in New York City in 1998, and Paris paid homage to the photograph in a version with its own jazz musicians in 2008. Do an Internet search for some of these photos, and share them with students to compare and contrast them. Have students organize their own A Great Day photo by first researching the kinds of professional artists who live locally and then deciding which to invite for a photo shoot. Help students create and compose the invitation, as well as pitch the photo to their school or local newspaper, similar to how Art Kane proposed the idea to Esquire magazine.
  • Poems from the Boys’ Perspectives. Sprinkled throughout the book are poems narrated by Alfred, a fictional identity given to the boy in the suspenders, as he observes the events of the historical photo shoot. Using Alfred’s verses as mentor texts, have students compose poems from the perspective of one of the other boys in the photo. Make sure they note how Roxane Orgill has Alfred observe and react to what the adults say and do, as well as voices what Alfred thinks about jazz and the photo shoot itself. Have students perform their poems aloud, perhaps as spoken word or perhaps as reader’s theater.
  • What Genre is This? Jazz Day contains literary elements that characterize various literary genres, including fiction, poetry, biography, and informational fiction. Review the qualities of these literary genres, and have students closely analyze Jazz Day to determine which genre(s) it resembles. Use some of the books listed below in Further Resources to compare and contrast the content and genre characteristics to help students support their argument about Jazz Day’s genre.

Critical Literacy

  • Women in Jazz. Though Kane’s photograph features only three women, women have been central to jazz throughout its development. Why aren’t female jazz musicians’ accomplishments as well known as their male counterparts? Read the NPR article and listen to the NPR podcasts that spotlight female jazz musicians. Have students research some of these musicians further and present their findings in a multimedia presentation that showcases samples of their music along with biographical information.
Further Explorations

Online Resources

A Great Day in Harlem photo

A Great Day in Harlem documentary film

Jazz – Arts America

Jazz Education Network

Jazz at Lincoln Center

All About Jazz

New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park

National Jazz Museum in Harlem

A Brief Guide to Jazz Poetry

Women in Jazz – NPR


Andrews, T. (2015). Trombone Shorty. Ill. by B. Collier. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Cline-Ransom, L. (2014). Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson: Taking the stage as the first Black-and-White jazz band in history. Ill. by J. E. Ransome. Holiday House.

Cline-Ransom, L. (2016). Just a lucky so and so: The story of Louis Armstrong. Ill. by J. E. Ransome. Holiday House.

Golio, G. (2015). Bird and Diz. Ill. by E. Young. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Marsalis, W. (2012). Squeak, rumble, whomp! whomp! whomp!: A sonic adventure. Ill. by P. Rogers. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Marsalis, W. (2005). Jazz ABZ: An A to Z collection of jazz portraits. Ill. by P. Rogers. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Martin, J. B. (2009). Snowflake Bentley. Ill. by M. Azarian. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

McKissack, P., & McKissack, F. (2013). Louis Armstrong: King of Jazz. Enslow Elementary.

Orgill, R. (2002). If I only had a horn: Young Louis Armstrong. Ill. by L. Jenkins. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Orgill, R. (2010). Skit-Scat raggedy cat: Ella Fitzgerald. Ill. by S. Qualls. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Pinkney, A. D. (2006). Duke Ellington: The piano prince and his orchestra. Ill. by B. Pinkney. New York: Hyperion.

Powell, P. H. (2014). Josephine: The dazzling life of Josephine Baker. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Raschka, C. (1997). Charlie Parker played be bop. New York: Scholastic.

Raschka, C. (2000). Mysterious Thelonius. New York: Live Oak Media.

Raschka, C. (2002). John Coltrane’s giant steps. New York: Atheneum.

Rubin, S. G. (2014). Stand there! She shouted: The invincible photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Russell-Brown, K. (2014). Little Melba and her big trombone. New York: Lee & Low.

Thomson, R. (2014). Photos framed: A fresh look at the world’s most memorable photographs. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Watson, R. (2012). Harlem’s little blackbird. New York: Random House Books for Kids.

Weatherford, C. B. (2008). Before John was a jazz giant: A song of John Coltrane. Ill. by S. Qualls. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Weinstein, M.H. (2008). When Louis Armstrong taught me scat. Ill. by G. Christie. New York: Chronicle.

Winter, J. (2012). Jazz-age Josephine. Ill. by M. Priceman. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Winter, J. (2015). How Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz. Ill. by K. Mallet. New York: Roaring Press Books.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.