Rent Party Jazz

By William Miller
Illustrations by Charlotte Riley-Webb

This story is set in New Orleans in the 1930s. Sonny and his mother are scraping by to pay their rent. Mama works in a fish canning factory, and Sonny works for the coal man before school each morning. When Mama loses her job, they no longer have enough money for the rent and fear that the landlord will turn them out. One day Sonny meets Smilin’ Jack, a jazz musician who is playing his trumpet in Jackson Square. Smilin’ Jack offers to play at a party at Sonny’s house to help raise money for the rent. The neighbors all come to sing and dance and before they leave, drop some coins in a bucket. Sonny learns how people can help one another “if they put their minds and hearts to it.”

Rent parties were often held in the South during the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in African American neighborhoods. Begun as fund-raising events for church groups, the parties developed into a way to help people in financial distress. In New Orleans, rent parties became a way for young jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, to develop their styles and hone their skills in front of audiences. In this way, the parties helped musicians prepare for the clubs in Chicago and New York in which they would someday appear. In later times, rent parties were held to raise bail for people unjustly jailed and for workers on strike. National events such as Farm Aid are more recent versions of these efforts. Another example would be the concerts to raise money after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

 Teaching Tip
 Rent Party Jazz is an excellent book to feature during your celebration  of Black History Month in February.

Before Reading
Prereading Focus Questions
Before introducing the book, share the background information with students. Then you may wish to set the stage for reading with questions such as the following.

  1. Why do you think people help one another? How do people in your neighborhood help one another?
  2. Have you ever heard jazz? What is it? How does it make you feel?
  3. Why are jobs important to people? Have you ever earned money? How?
  4. Why is education important? What are some advantages it gives you?

Exploring the Book
Display the book and discuss the title with students. Ask them what they think the title means. What might the book be about?

Point to the author’s name. Ask students if they have ever read any books by this author before. If so, what were they about?

Draw attention to the cover illustration. Ask students to tell what the people in the picture are doing. How does the picture make them feel? Why?

Setting a Purpose for Reading
Have students read to find out what a rent party is and how it helps people.

Draw a word web on the board and write the word MUSIC in the center bubble. Challenge students to find words in the book that are related to music and to write these on the web. Follow up by having students use each web word in a sentence.

Some possible words students might find are:

trumpet         horn tune       musician         jazz
banjo verses         chorus       blowing pluck
 Teaching Tip
 Tell students that authors sometimes write in a dialect to achieve a  certain effect such as authenticity. Point out the use of “mah” instead  of “my” in the coal man’s call and explain that when the coal man  speaks, the word “my” sounds like “mah”.

After Reading
Discussion Questions
After students have read the book, use these or similar questions to generate discussion, enhance comprehension, and develop appreciation. Encourage students to refer back to the book to support their responses.

  1. How can you tell this story takes place in the past?
  2. Why does Sonny work before school?
  3. What is a canning factory? Why is Mama let go from her job?
  4. What problems do Sonny and his mother face?
  5. How does Smilin’ Jack feel when he plays the trumpet?
  6. Why does Smilin’ Jack understand Sonny’s problem so well?
  7. How does Smilin’ Jack help Sonny?
  8. Why is a bucket important at the party?
  9. What can you tell about Smilin’ Jack from his actions?
  10. Why does everyone have such a good time at the rent party?
  11. What does Sonny learn from meeting Smilin’ Jack?
  12. How might a young musician’s career benefit from playing at a rent party?

Literature Circles
If you use literature circles during reading time, students might find the following suggestions helpful in focusing on the different roles of the group members.

  • The Questioner might use questions similar to those in the Discussion Question section of this guide to help group members explore the book.
  • The Passage Locator might look for lines that suggest the characters’ feelings.
  • The Illustrator might draw scenes not pictured in the book, such as Sonny at school or Smilin’ Jack playing in a club up North.
  • The Connector should provide a brief summary of each section that the group has completed.
  • The Summarizer should provide a brief summary of each section that the group has completed.
  • The Investigator might collect books about New Orleans and its jazz heritage.

There are many resource books available with more information about organizing and implementing literature circles. Three such books you may wish to refer to are: *Getting Started with Literature Circles* by Katherine L. Schlick Noe and Nancy J. Johnson (Christopher-Gordon, 1999), *Literature Circles: Voice And Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups* by Harvey Daniels (Stenhouse, 2002), and *Literature Circles Resource Guide* by Bonnie Campbell Hill, Katherine L. Schlick Noe, and Nancy J. Johnson (Christopher-Gordon, 2000).

Reader's Response
Use the following questions or similar ones to help students engage with the story and personalize the text. Students might respond in reader’s journals, oral discussion, or drawings.

  1. Do you think Sonny ever sees Smilin’ Jack again? What might they say to one another at a future meeting?
  2. Do you think people might have a party like a rent party today? What would the party be like?
  3. What are some things in the book that seem unfair to you? Why?
  4. Why does Mama insist that Sonny stay in school? What advice would you give to Sonny about school?

Other Writing Activities
You may wish to have students participate in one or more of the following writing activities. Set aside time for them to share and discuss their work.

  1. Imagine that you have attended a rent party where Smilin’ Jack played his trumpet. Write a review of Smilin’ Jack’s performance.
  2. Write a letter to a friend in which you describe a rent party. Include details about what people do, eat, hear, and see.
  3. Design a leaflet or poster telling about an upcoming rent party. Include information about where, when, and why the party is being held.
  4. Write a paragraph explaining an idea you have for a way that people in a community can help one another.

ELL/ESL Teaching Strategies
These strategies might be helpful to use with students who are English language learners or who are learning to speak English as a second language.

1. Explain that some expressions in English have meanings other than their dictionary definitions. Give examples such as the following and have strong English speakers explain the meanings:

  • “You’re looking mighty down.”
  • “. . . the party heated up . . .”
  • “. . . he could blow a mean horn”

2. Make a tape recording of the story for students to listen to as they follow along in the book.

3. Break down large chunks of information into small chunks to foster comprehension.

4. Have ELLs dictate questions about the book. Set aside time to help students explore these queries.

Interdisciplinary Activities
To help students integrate their reading experiences with other curriculum areas, you might try some of the following activities.

Social Studies

  1. Locate a city map of New Orleans in an encyclopedia, from the Chamber of Commerce, or online. Have students find places mentioned in the story such as Jackson Square, the French Quarter, and the Mississippi River. They might also be interested in locating other places of interest such as the Superdome and Louis Armstrong Park.
  2. Create a bulletin board of contemporary “rent party” stories from newspapers, magazines, and online articles in which students, neighbors, or community members work together to help one another. Challenge students to bring in as many articles as they can to share with the class.

Point out the unique location of New Orleans on land that is below sea level and that lies between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. Have students use library resources and the internet to learn about the levees and drainage system on which the city relies. Then lead a discussion of what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in August 2005.


  1. Introduce students to New Orleans-style jazz by playing selections from an album of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
  2. Interested students might find out more about Louis Armstrong and plan audio-visual reports for the class.


About This Title

Guided Reading:




Interest Level:

Grades 1 - 4

Reading Level:

Grades 2 - 3


Sharing & Giving, Overcoming Obstacles, Neighbors, Music, Mothers, History, Friendship, Families, Cultural Diversity, Conflict resolution, African/African American Interest, Poverty, Empathy/Compassion, Optimism/Enthusiasm


English Fiction Grades 3-6, Fluent Dual Language , Historical Fiction Grades 3-6, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6, Jazz Collection, Community Collection, African American English Collection Grades 3-6, Realistic Fiction Grades 3-5, Kindness and Compassion Collection, Storyline Online Collection , African American Collection English 6PK, English Guided Reading Level Q, Trauma-Informed Collection, Fluent English

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