A Quartet of Jazz Legends | By the Book

The music and lives of four jazz greats in words and pictures.

As Barry Wittenstein notes in Sonny's Bridge,  a whole generation of 20th-century musicians were "inventing a musical language nobody ever heard before./Painting rhythms with colors nobody ever seen before." Introduce this art form to children and teens through these recently published books, and follow-up with the sounds. 

BERMAN, Kathleen Cornell. Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound. illus. by Keith Henry Brown. 40p. Page Street. Apr. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781624146909.
Gr 3-7–From a very early age, Davis was captivated by the music and rhythmic sounds around him. Nestled up to the radio to hear jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Davis longed to make his own kind of music. For his 13th birthday, he received a trumpet and never looked back, though his rise to fame was not easy. He faced discouragement in his ability to make the trumpet produce the particular sounds he wanted and exhaustion from attending Julliard while also playing in night clubs in order to learn from other musicians. His big break came when Dizzy Gillespie left Charlie Parker’s band and Davis stepped in. Bebop wasn’t enough for him; he yearned to develop his own style, eventually forming his own band to play music that was “cool, relaxed, with a lighter, lyrical feel.” At this point in the narrative, the author references the “dark days” when Davis nearly gave up his craft, but no details are provided. The book ends after Davis receives an invitation to play at the Newport Jazz Festival where he stuns the massive audience. Within the text, the word listened is italicized every time it is used to emphasize how intently Davis engaged with the sounds he heard. The author effectively sprinkles in Davis’s own words in larger, darker font. The lyrical prose is written in short stanzas that beg to be read aloud. Brown’s art is warm, stylized realism that, along with the text, conveys the earnestness and enthusiasm of Davis’s beginnings. ­VERDICT A great introductory biography to this musician’s beginnings through age 29.­–Maggie Chase, Boise State University, ID

redstar DAOUDI, Youssef. Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution. illus. by Youssef Daoudi. 352p. First Second. Sept. 2018. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781626724341.
Adult (Books for Teens)-The hiss of cymbals. The vibration of a trumpet. The clickety clack of piano keys. Teens will hear music the moment they begin this graphic novel on jazz great Thelonious Monk and his friendship with writer and jazz patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild heiress who chafed at the restrictions placed on her by her family and society. Daoudi covers Monk's struggles with mental illness and his shattering of barriers for musicians of color. More than anything else, though, the artist's skill and passion shine here. The panel layout forces readers to stay focused, and the artwork is beautiful, with colors that are somehow at once vibrant and muted. The author's choice of words is careful, immersing readers in Monk's life and times. VERDICT A thorough and superb biography, for most nonfiction collections. Mariela Siegert, Westfield Middle School, Bloomingdale, IL

POWELL, Patricia Hruby. Struttin’ with Some Barbecue: Lil Harden Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz. illus. by Rachel Himes. 96p. bibliog. chron. glossary. notes. Charlesbridge. Dec. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781580897402.
Gr 3-6–This biography in verse tells the story of Lil Hardin Armstrong, the first lady of jazz and Louis Armstrong’s first wife. While the book starts with Hardin Armstrong’s birth, most of the text focuses on her time as a jazz pianist in the 1920s and her influential role in Louis Armstrong’s success. The poetry is free form and peppered with bits of scat as an ode to early jazz, and it works well as a vehicle to tell the story of such a strong figure in this movement. Hardin Armstrong’s life is compelling, and readers will be inspired by her perseverance and rise to success in a male-dominated field and in the face of segregation. However, details about her life are less realized than in a typical biography partly because of the book’s lyrical format. Thankfully Powell includes a variety of back matter including more information on Hardin Armstrong, jazz music, and the rise of jazz clubs in the 1920s. The charming illustrations nicely enhance the text. VERDICT Recommended for most libraries, especially where biographies circulate well.–Ellen Conlin, Naperville Public Library, IL

redstar WITTENSTEIN, Barry. Sonny’s Bridge: Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins Finds His Groove. illus. by Keith Mallett. 40p. notes. Charlesbridge. May 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781580898812.
Gr 1-4–The life of jazz legend Sonny Rollins pulses with the rousing spontaneity of his music in Wittenstein’s free verse biography. Readers witness Rollins’s career as an acclaimed musician followed by his explosive success and the subsequent reincarnations of his art. When Rollins feels like his career is one out-of-control improvisation, he ducks out of the limelight, devoting days and nights to playing his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge. On that bridge, he does some soul-searching; after two years, he returns to the spotlight as a more confident, grounded musician. Wittenstein’s verse replicates the swift tempo of bebop, interspersing rhyme and combining informal vernacular with a sense of extemporization in the rhythm. Some words, such as “per-co-lat-ing,” are punctuated at every syllable, each striking like a staccato note. Others are emphasized in all caps and are onomatopoeic (“BOOM BOP BEBOP!”). Mallett’s smooth, bold illustrations are rendered in dusky purples, moody blues, and earth tones: colors suggesting notes of jazz swirling through a thick night sky. An ­author’s note, liner notes to Rollins’s seminal album, The Bridge, a time line, and additional content provide an opportunity for further exploration. ­VERDICT Pair with Rollins’s music to introduce children to this legendary musician and to the rhythmic exuberance of jazz.–Melissa ­Williams, ­Berwick Academy, ME

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