Rent Party Jazz Activities and Teaching Resources

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, so we wanted to highlight our picture book Rent Party Jazz, by William Miller, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb.

rent party jazz

Purchase a copy of the book here

Chosen as a Notable Children’s Book by the American Library Association and a Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People by the National Council for the Social Studies/ Children’s Book Council, Rent Party Jazz captures the lively rhythms of New Orleans jazz in the 1930s.

Young Sonny Comeaux has to work before school to help his mother make ends meet. When Mama loses her job, Sonny is worried. Rent day is coming soon, and if they miss paying by just one day, the landlord will put them out on the street and sell off their belongings.

Sonny wanders sadly through Jackson Square after school one day. His attention is caught by Smilin’ Jack, a popular jazz musician. Sonny returns day after day, and soon finds himself explaining his problem to Smilin’ Jack. What Smilin’ Jack offers Sonny then—how to raise money for the rent while having the world’s best party—changes both their lives forever.

rent party jazz

According to the afterword in Rent Party Jazz, rent parties originated in the  south in the early part of the twentieth century and were common in African American neighborhoods. They started as fund-raising events for church groups and eventually developed into a way to help people in financial need.

Teaching with Rent Party Jazz

Our Teacher’s Guide for Rent Party Jazz offers great ideas for how to use this award-winning book in the classroom. Here are just a couple:

Discussion Questions:

  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?

Writing Prompts:

  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.

Interdisciplinary Activities:

  1. Social Studies: 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. Social Studies: 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.
  3. Science: 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.
  4. Music: Introduce students to New Orleans-style jazz by playing selections from an album of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Or encourage interested students to find out more about Louis Armstrong and plan audio-visual reports for the class.

Further resources to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month

Teacher’s Guide for Rent Party Jazz (PDF version here)

Book and Activity Suggestions to Match Your Summer Adventure: Outdoor Summer Concerts! 

Other blog posts featuring Rent Party Jazz

International Jazz Day: Seven Books That Celebrate Jazz

7 Core Values to Celebrate During Black History Month 

Mix It Up! 15 Books About Kindness and Giving

Book collections featuring Rent Party Jazz

Jazz Collection

African American English Collection Grades 3-6

Have you used Rent Party Jazz in your classroom, library, or home? Let us know in the comments below!