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Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound Book Poster Image
Poetry and soulful pastel art bring musician to life.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Solid introduction to some jazz and bebop greats, with a bibliography and a brief list of recommended listening provided at the end.

Positive Messages

As Miles said, "the way you change and help music is by trying to invent new ways to play."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Miles' hard work, dedication to his craft, and eagerness to learn and improve are legendary and admirable. His darker later years are not covered in this book about his youth.

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound is a poetic picture book about the youth and early career of one of the towering figures in American music. The story avoids the darker details of Harlem's nightlife, instead focusing on Miles' coming-of-age in an era of exciting possibility and unbounded musical creativity.  

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What's the story?

BIRTH OF THE COOL: HOW JAZZ GREAT MILES DAVIS FOUND HIS SOUND tells the story of the musical development of one of the most influential artists of his generation. Beginning with his early days of listening to gospel choirs and iconic figures like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong in his childhood home in East St. Louis, the book follows young Miles' journey from school band standout to cool jazz innovator. Along the way, he hones his chops working with bebop originators Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, moves to New York City to get in the Harlem scene, and winds up making some of the most important recordings in jazz history. Every step of the way, Miles searches for his own style, following his father's advice: "Be your own man. Be your own sound." The story concludes with Miles' famous 1955 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. At the end of the book, short notes from the author, the illustrator, and contemporary jazz legend Wynton Marsalis provide additional context about the artistry and impact of Miles' work.

Is it any good?

First-time author Kathleen Cornell Berman's poetic free verse does a nice job of capturing a jazzy feeling while telling Miles Davis' story effectively. Quotes from Miles himself are interspersed and highlighted throughout the text, giving readers a taste of how he talked and wrote. The gorgeous, soulful pastel drawings by illustrator Keith Henry Brown breathe life into the book, offering a visual representation of bebop and mid-20th-century Americana.

While Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound doesn't delve into Miles' troubled personal life, it does briefly touch on the racial politics of the period and gives readers a sense of what New York's musical playground represented for African American artists. For parents looking to expose their children to jazz and one of the genre's finest practitioners, Birth of the Cool -- paired with the classic album of the same title -- is an excellent place to start.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about jazz culture shown in Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound. Where did jazz come from? What made it such a powerful force in its heyday? 

  • Why was bebop considered such a radical innovation when it was popularized in the 1940s? What made it different from other popular music of the period?

  • Check out a jazz recording online or in a music app. How is it different from the music you listen to? 

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For kids who love music and black history

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