Today, I'm talking about a picture book biography by Robert Andrew Parker called Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum.
I'm jazzed about this book because, like Tatum, I really, really wanted to play the piano when I was a kid. And so I begged and got lessons and spent years and years learning and playing. (I still play, although it's been years since my last lessons.) Tatum, on the other hand, learned to play by ear, which is something I could never do. And he was a bit of a prodigy, which is something I never was.
Parker's illustrations inside the book are just as gorgeous as the cover I put up there for you, nice and big. And Parker chose to tell Tatum's story as a first-person narrative, told in present tense. In general, I would not advise anyone to tell a story in first-person, present tense because it can sound overly simplistic, and make the teller sound dull. It doesn't usually allow for nuance, and it can read like a baby book. And, in fact, the first couple of pages read that way, as Parker presents us a picture of Tatum's mother, and then father, accompanied by text that reads very simply (e.g., "This is my mother.").
But Parker manages to make the first-person, present tense work, and work well, as he moves through the book, adding different colors and notes to the simple sentences that start the book, introducing (if you will) the "theme" of the story: Tatum's family. Tatum's family factors large throughout the text, largely because they were so supportive of Tatum, a vision-impaired child who made up for his diminished sight with his wonderful ears and musical skills.
Here's a sample of the text (from further into the book) that demonstrates what a master Parker is with imagery and with words:
When I am at the piano, I close my eyes. I play clouds of notes, rivers of notes, notes that sound like skylarks singing and leaves rustling, like rain on a rooftop. I forget that my eyes aren't good. I have everything I need.
Bravo to Mr. Parker for his wonderful text and pictures, accompanied by a huge thanks for introducing children to Art Tatum, whose CD "Piano Starts Here", is still available in stores, and includes his trademark Humoresque, Tiger Rag, and a number of pieces that were recorded live and showcase his blisteringly fast fingerwork.
For more reviews, see Jules over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (who also has another piece of artwork from inside the book!) and the review I found at Proper Noun, which rightly points out that this book is as much about overcoming disability as it is about jazz. This book would pair nicely with one that I reviewed last January, Dizzy by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Qualls, which tells the story of Dizzy Gillespie, who overcame an abusive childhood to become one of the jazz greats. Another good companion text if you're interested in a study unit (personally or for school) would be Jazz A•B•Z• by Wynton Marsalis, illustrated by Paul Rogers, which gives a number of biographies in poetry.