Things to love about JAZZ A•B•Z• by Wynton Marsalis, illustrated by Paul Rogers, with biographical sketches by Phil Schaap:
1. The overall book design. Candlewick Press excels at this sort of thing, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, but let me give special kudos to book designer Jill von Hartmann on this one. You’ve seen the cover, of course (that’s Wynton on the cover, by the way – I can’t find something that says so definitively, but it sure looks like him, and it’s definitely not someone from inside the book).
When you flip it open, you’ll find end papers made of brown craft paper. Cut to look like the liner sleeve inside the record jacket of an actual vinyl 78 rpm record album. Followed by the title page, which puts all the information about in the center of a jet-black disk that’s nearly 10" in diameter (hence my decision to call it a 78, rather than a 33).
But wait – there’s more. The back cover of the book lists all 26 of the jazz artists who are the subject of the book, in alphabetical order by the letter of their name that they are associated with (more on that in a minute), followed by a single word that starts with the same letter. (E.g., "Louis Armstrong • almighty"). Inside the book, the artists are in the same order, but the table of contents is a teacher’s delight. Because the table of contents runs A through Z, followed by biographical sketches and notes on the poetic forms.
But wait – there’s still more: next to each letter of the alphabet is the name of the jazz musician associated with it, and next to that, the form of poem. Here’s a quick approximation for you:
A &emsp &emsp Louis Armstrong – Accumulative Poem
B &emsp &emsp Count Basie – Blues Poem
C &emsp &emsp John Coltrane – List Poem
D &emsp &emsp Miles Davis – Word Play
See what I mean about usefulness to teachers (or, for that matter, to students of poetry)?
2. The notes from Paul Rogers and Wynton Marsalis. Right after the table of contents is a two-page spread, each page containing a note from the illustrator and author. The illustrator comes first in this one, perhaps because the illustrations themselves came first in this particular project. Rogers explains how he got the idea for the paintings, and Marsalis explains how he got the ideas for the poems. And he makes clear that he’s a huge Yeats fan, something that’s not truly evident as an influence in his own work, but which shows that he’s a thinking man with an ear for language, nevertheless.
3. The spreads. Each poem is at least a two-page spread. The first one is A for Louis Armstrong. Wanna see it? Of course you do – et voilà!
What you’re seeing: Rogers’s artwork on the right, using bold, poster-like construction. Marsalis’s poem on the less, using alliteration like a mad fiend while constructing an accumulative poem that totally nails the idea of Louis Armstrong. I love the last line in particular: "Anybody asks, tell them Armstrong almighty is aglow amidst the angels above."
There are two four-page spreads inside the book. In each case, a fold-out is employed. The first is for the letter I, for "Abdullah Ibn Buhaina" (a.k.a. Art Blakey). On the right, the wonderful poster-like illustration by Rogers. On the left, a three-page fold out. This poem is listed as a Performance Poem, and man, is that correct. In order to perform it, one must establish a four-four beat, snapping on every even beat. And then, one vocalizes percussion noises – the "ting tinky ting" of cymbals. The "ch" of the snare. The "boom!" of the bass drum. A whole page composed of 14 measures of verbalized percussion noises. Okay – there are thirteen measures spelled out, but theres a blank space for one full measure of rest. And then, on the page turn, the poet speaks in the voice of Buhaina, interspersed with percussive iterations and snaps. It is freakin’ genius, and SO much fun to do aloud (as long as you’re willing to commit – I am, of course, willing to go the distance with this poem, but this is not a poem for the shy).
The second four-page spread is for Sidney Bechet. Again, the right hand page is the portrait of Sidney Bechet playing his soprano saxophone. And if you think that last sentence sounded sybillant, well – you should read the poem. It’s a long, screechy hiss of a poem, again on a three-page fold-out. Folks with a lisp should avoid this one. Theriously.
4. The poems. The poems are jazz, rendered into words. Walter Dean Myers wrote about jazz music in his wonderful book, JAZZ, illustrated by Christopher Dean Myers. (At the LA SCBWI conference, Walter Dean Myers said he felt he had to use that particular illustrator because he’d "slept with the kid’s mother." But I digress.) His poems had a jazz vibe to them, but were primarily poems. Marsalis has written jazz itself. Not poems about jazz – jazz, in words, on the page. These poems cry out to be read aloud, and with swagger.
Here’s an excerpt from the end of "X – Bix Beiderbecke" (a ballad):
He exalts in lyric sweetness,
Excites on zesty jumps,
Exhibits exclusive features,
Exudes that umpty-umph!
He travels on extensively,
Exports the jazz solo.
His records are exemplary,
But whiskey lays him low.
Exhausted, he goes home to fix
What tattered soul he has.
His folks reject his life’s love. Bix,
He exits blowing jazz.
That one gives me goosebumps.
5. The artwork. I wish I could show you all the artwork, right here. I can’t, of course, but I know someone who can: Paul Rogers. On one page of his site you can see bits of all the portraits in the book. And on the last page in his sketchbook, you can see three cityscapes that are used to run along the bottom of the pages containing the biographical sketches.
6. The biographical sketches of the musicians. Once you reach the end of the alphabet "the zenith, the alpha, Dizzy", you come to the prose portion of the book, written by noted jazz disc jockey, Phil Schaap, the "Dean of Jazz," who educates listeners and students on WKCR in New York (Columbia University’s station). Schaap has won eight Grammy awards for historical writing, producing, and audio engineering. Schaap is the Curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center. His biographies are brief, and primarily focus on the musical lives of the subjects (rather than on issues of their upbringing, civil rights work (where appropriate) or drug addiction (if applicable)).
7. Notes on the Poetic Forms. The twenty-seven forms are set out alphabetically, rather than in the order they’re employed in the book. So. Helpful. But wait, you say – weren’t there only 26 musicians in the book? The answer is yes, but some of the poems fit more than one category – an acrostic along with a calligram, for instance.
8. Other. First off, this book was a critical success. It got starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist and School Library Journal. It won 10 awards, listed proudly at the Candlewick website, all of the "notable book" variety. Some might say it is therefore not truly "under the radar." And in a sense, that's right. But in reality, it's all wrong, and here's why: Not all that many people buy all that many poetry collections. And this one is a shining gem for the totality of its package. And although it's a poetry book designed for kids, jazz fans of all age would like it for its images, both graphic and verbal. And I'm guessing that there are many, many teachers and librarians out there who don't know about this book as a resource for music, biography, history, and poetry (including the teaching of poetic forms). And they should.
You can see poems A through C and L at the NPR website, where the artwork and text for Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, and "Lady Day", Billie Holiday, are given. And you can click on links to hear Wynton Marsalis read "Louis Armstrong". Other readings include "Count Basie," "Lady Day," and "Sara Vaughn."
Here's a list of the other book selections today:
Here's the list of all the Radar Recommendations for today:
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy: A discussion of author Ellen Emerson White and why she is "under the radar".
Big A, little a: Ingo by Helen Dunmore.
Jen Robinson's Book Page: The Changeling and The Velvet Room both by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.
At Bildungsroman: Girl in the Box by Ouida Sebestyen.
Finding Wonderland: A Door Near Here by Heather Quarles.
Miss Erin: Girl With a Pen and Princess of Orange, both by Elisabeth Kyle.
Fuse Number 8: The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry.
Leila at Bookshelves of Doom talks about The Olivia Kidney series by Ellen Potter.
Chicken Spaghetti: The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe by Betsey Osborne.
The YA YA YAs feature Massive by Julia Bell.