Picture books about jazz are the oddest little critters, aren’t they? There are a surprising number of them, first of all. Sometimes I think that all the rock and roll, blues, and opera picture books combined can’t compare in number to the sheer amounts of jazz-related texts that cross library doorsteps every year. Much of this, I suspect, has much to do with illustrators feeling a kinship with that particular style of music. If jazz is an improvisational art, then it must burn in the bones of many an illustrator to bring that very concept to life. So it is that Chris Raschka comes out with his Charlie Parker Played Be Bop and Mysterious Thelonious titles while Walter Dean Myers and his son extol the multiple virtues of Jazz itself. Sean Qualls has always taken a bent that I find more practical. First he illustrated Jonah Winter’s great picture book biography of Dizzy Gillespie Dizzy and now, with author Carole Boston Weatherford by his side, he has John Coltrane dead in his sights. Before John was a Jazz Giant won’t answer any child’s questions about what jazz is or why John Coltrane is important. At its core, it’s just a simple story of a boy growing to love music and how that affects him later when he’s an adult. And in a sense, that’s a concept for a jazz picture book that really makes a lot of sense.
The very first words on the page are, "Before John was a jazz giant," and there stands a man blowing on his horn, commanding a room. But long before any of that, the boy called John heard music every day in a different way. It came to him in, "hambones knocking in Grandma’s pots," or "Grandpa’s Sunday sermons." The sounds that filled John’s life weren’t always happy of course. "… he heard birds warbling at sunrise, the sobs of kinfolk at family funerals." But eventually he would pick up a horn. And eventually he would breathe, "every sound he’d ever known into a bold new song." The crux of the matter is this. "Before John was a jazz giant, he was all ears." Backmatter giving factual information about John’s life and work includes an Author’s Note, a list of CDs for Selected Listening, and some books for Further Reading.
Kids doing reports on John Coltrane will flip immediately to the back of the book and use the information found in the one-page Author’s Note. Even so, there’s no Timeline here. Just a brief biography, a list of recordings, and some references to some books on the subject. What Weatherford seems to be aiming for here, though, is a kind of Ben’s Trumpet but with scant concentration on the means by which John would eventually become a jazz giant. This is a story about how your family, your world, your experiences inform you and turn you into a "giant". Here’s a page that offers up a good example of this: "Before John was a jazz giant, he heard steam engines whistling past, Cousin Marry giggling at jitterbuggers, and Bojangles tap-dancing in the picture show." You are the sum of your parts. And Weatherford works in elements of John’s little known young life without lingering. The Author’s Note tells us that his grandmother, grandfather, aunt and father all died around the same time. So, in turn, the book mentions "the sobs of kinfolk at family funerals," and you know that that was a part of his existence too. This is a story of the impressions received over a young life. What happened after he grew up is fodder for another writer.
I do say with certainty that this is my favorite of artist Sean Qualls’ work. According to the publication page he used a combination of acrylic, collage, and pencil to create the illustrations here. The result is an interesting combination of swirls and perfect concentric circles. As with many jazz books, how do you render an audible concept visible? In this particular case, our first view of John is as an adult. A white circle gives all the appearance of a spotlight, highlighting only his head and shoulders. Beneath in silhouette is the saxophone. Its keys are red and from it pours music that looks more smoke than sound. Circles also burst forth. In fact, there are circles all over this book. Wherever there is sound, there are circles. The phonograph spits musical notes and circles. The tapping of pots and pans makes smaller filled-in spheres of a different hue entirely. Music here is all smoke rings and bubbles, overlapping, changing their colors when they mix with one another. It’s not a bad way to look at the music, really. And because Qualls works it in so seamlessly, I’d bet good money that a lot of people won’t even notice that those ubiquitous circles are there.
This is certainly one of Qualls’ more expressive books as well. Silhouettes get their due. I was pleased with the images of jitterbuggers as they dance against a rather mod backdrop of Rothko-esque red and orange squares. Bojangles too is just a black outline against the white of a spotlight. And I loved the callbacks. Who doesn’t like callbacks, after all? Any illustrator that can reward you for reading and then rereading a book is an illustrator worth knowing. In this book, when at last John picks up his instrument and blows you see images from his life. The church where his mother sang. The train that would run past his home. Even the very birds that may have flown over the funerals he attended. In Dizzy Qualls was all about the boy and how the world reflected him. With this book, the world informs his boy character, and the result is mod and angular, full of shapes and circular patterns and colored flames that lick off the performers’ bodies. Extra points too for having a different image on the actual book than is seen on the book jacket.
Libraries will put this book in their biography sections because John Coltrane’s name is in the title. The Dewey decimal cataloging record is 788.7 which instead puts it in the music section. But I would ask everyone to consider this a great picture book. Its back matter will be useful to kids doing reports, but I like the idea of putting it amongst the other stories in the collection. Put a book in a biography section and it will only be looked at when someone wants to do a report. Put a book in a picture book section and maybe someday a pair of curious hands will pull it down, look through it, and find something to read and to love. And unlike a book like Chris Raschka’s John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, this strikes a balance between a man’s music and a man’s life that kids will definitely dig. Jazz done young, done right.
- It was mentioned on Press Box Publicity.
- The book does very well on Top Pick lists. First it was the Bank Street College’s April Book Committee pick.
- Next it was a Newsweek Pick of the Week (shouldn’t that make it a pick of a Newsweek?).
- It even got a write-up in the Post.