Sweet Music in Harlem

By Debbie Taylor
Illustrations by Frank Morrison

Debbie Taylor photo

On a Harlem morning in 1958 some of the most famous jazz musicians of the time gathered on the stoop of a brownstone to pose for Art Kane, a photographer on assignment for Esquire magazine. Years later, when author Debbie Taylor's husband wore a T-shirt featuring that photograph, Debbie Taylor would get the idea for the story that led to her picture book debut, Sweet Music in Harlem.

Taylor had only just begun to learn about jazz when she began writing Sweet Music in Harlem. "One of the things that surprised me most was learning that jazz was improvised," says the author. "That means every time a jazz artist plays a song, it can sound different!" Taylor researched some of the jazz musicians in Art Kane's photograph by watching videotapes, reading transcripts of interviews, and reading and listening to their music. "The musical contributions of the particular group featured in the photograph could fill volumes," says Taylor.

Taylor says that one of the most challenging parts of writing Sweet Music in Harlem was picking just three neighborhood places for C.J., the young protagonist to visit while searching for his uncle's hat. "There were so many rich possibilities," says Taylor. "A pawn shop, police station, grocery store, various nightclubs, restaurants, and more." The author comments that generating the places that C.J. visited was exciting. "At times, I imagined myself actually in Harlem on that particular day, smelling the food from the restaurants, listening to the conversations of the people, hearing the music in the clubs. I enjoyed finding the right dialog and unearthing the unique expressions of each character."

There are many aspects of this story that appeal to the author, but what she likes best is the way that C.J. is encouraged to grow and pursue his endeavors. "C.J. is encouraged to work hard, and his friends express confidence in him," says Taylor. " The support of family and friends is important to any artist. I'm fortunate that my family has always supported my aspirations, whether it was learning to write cursive letters in elementary school or pursuing a sport or completing a story." Taylor's other favorite part of the story? Harlem. "I identify closely with the spirit of camaraderie and community." she comments. "For me, this book captures the spirit of our large family reunions and frequent smaller gatherings with my sisters, brothers, and their families."

Taylor works as an administrator at the University of Michigan's College of Engineering. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her husband.

About This Title

Guided Reading:




Interest Level:

Grades 1 - 4

Reading Level:

Grades 3 - 4


Neighbors, Music, History, Friendship, African/African American Interest


English Fiction Grades 3-6, Fluent Dual Language , Fluent English, Historical Fiction Grades 3-6, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6, Realistic Fiction Grades 3-5, Jazz Collection, Father's Day Collection, African American English Collection Grades 3-6, Community Collection, African American Collection English 6PK, English Guided Reading Level O, Juneteenth Webinar Collection

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