Art Works Blog

Jazzing Up the Big Read

Like peanut butter and jelly or red wine and cheese, music and books are often enhanced when enjoyed together. So with the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony and Concert coming up on Monday, we thought it would be fun to pair our Big Read books with what felt like complementary jazz tunes. Have your own favorite song/book pairing? Let us know in the comments!

Song: “Ysabel’s Table Dance” by Charles Mingus
Book: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

Given that much of Into the Beautiful North takes place in the borderland between the U.S. and Mexico, “Ysabel’s Table Dance” by Charles Mingus seemed like the perfect fit. The song is from Mingus’s 1962 album Tijuana Moods, which translates the bassist’s experience in the border town into gorgeous, Latin-fused compositions. With its castanets and upbeat tempo, “Ysabel’s Table Dance” is the perfect accompaniment to the novel’s cross-cultural adventure, which follows 19-year-old Nayeli in her quest to lure back the men of her village, most of whom have left in pursuit of American opportunity.

Song: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” by Harold Arlen (music) and Ted Koehler (lyrics)
Book: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

When Billie Holiday recorded her version of “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” in 1939, the star-crossed singer created the perfect soundtrack for another woman who had seen her share of troubles: Janie Mae Crawford, the fictional protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Abandoned by her mother, forced to marry at 16, and eventually losing the only man she ever loved, Janie’s right to sing the blues was earned as painfully as Billie’s, whose notoriously harrowing childhood was followed by an adult life filled with drugs, alcohol, and abuse.

Song: The Charleston” by James P. Johnson (music) and Cecil Mack (lyrics)
Book: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

If The Great Gatsby is the defining novel of the glittering, raucous Jazz Age, then “The Charleston” has become the quintessential song of the same era. It’s not too difficult to imagine the guests at Jay Gatsby’s all-night parties dancing the Charleston while guzzling champagne and swinging from the chandeliers.

Song: Way Out West” by Sonny Rollins Book: True Grit by Charles Portis

The Old West isn’t usually associated with jazz, and perhaps that’s what makes the album Way Out West so intriguing. The record’s title track reinterprets the Western spirit captured in True Grit, which tells the tale of 14-year-old Mattie Ross as she treks across the unsettled territories of 19th-century America to avenge her father’s death.

Song: “Reflections” by Billy Bang
Book: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Just as Tim O’Brien channeled his experience as a Vietnam veteran into the acclaimed war novel The Things They Carried, Billy Bang drew on his own service in Vietnam to create the albums Vietnam: Reflections and Vietnam: The Aftermath. Not only do these pieces complement each other beautifully, but they demonstrate how the same painful episode can be transformed into works of art across the disciplines. 


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