Some Sonic Adventures Before Breakfast

h1 October 25th, 2012 by jules

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“… One of John’s favorite musicians was Lester Young, who played tenor saxophone with the Count. Lester’s sound was bouncy but deep, laughter sprinkled with tears.”
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Today’s post celebrates two new picture books about one of my favorite things: Music. Good, sweet music. I’ve got Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, released by Clarion this month and written by the talented Gary Golio (who penned this other good picture book biography, as well as When Bob Met Woody, remember?). It’s illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (second spread above). And I’ve got Wynton Marsalis’s Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!, released by Candlewick in October and illustrated by Paul Rogers (the spread opening this post).

Let’s start with Golio’s book, an unusual picture book biography for older readers. I describe it this way, because—as the sub-title tells you—this is, in many ways, a spiritual biography, the story of a man who set out to speak to the souls of his fans — and ultimately succeeded in doing so. And it’s fascinating.

This biography, heavy on text and bursting with the eye-popping illustrations of Gutierrez, opens with the young Coltrane. It’s 1938 and he’s listening to his grandfather’s sermon at church. “Preaching from the Gospel,” Golio writes, “the Reverend spoke about the power of the Spirit to guide and heal each human being — no matter what. This was a promise John would never forget.”

Life for Coltrane as a boy, living with his grandparents, parents (both musicians), aunt and cousin Mary, was “like a little slice of heaven” — that is, until his grandfather died, followed by his father three weeks later. Within the span of two years, more family members passed, leaving John, Mama, Aunt Bettie, and Mary to fend on a much smaller income.

“With eyes like an owl, John watched Papa turn feelings into sound.”
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The book goes on to chronicle Coltrane’s rise to fame and includes his struggles with alcohol and drugs. (The book even closes with an “Author’s Note: Musicians and Drug Use.”) Golio writes about how inspired Coltrane was by other musicians of the time—Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, Miles Davis, etc.—and how he was invited to play onstage with many of them, yet “the sadness he’d known for years hung over him, dark and heavy, like an overcoat.” Continuing to “experiment with sound itself,” he simultaneously lost control of his body to his addictions, only to face a (successful) detox one day at the hands of his mother and his wife.

“And John had been given another gift—a beautiful, mysterious sound, like the heartbeat of the universe itself—that he heard in a dream and would search for the rest of his life. … Swing, blues, bebop, hot jazz, cool jazz, gospel, and classical—everything John had ever heard was blending together in his mind and heart. It was a heavenly mix of sounds, like what he had imagined years ago,
sitting in church as a boy.”

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Throughout the book, Golio notes the thread of spirituality in John’s life. Towards the book’s close, he writes about his journeys into …

science, psychology, ancient Egypt, African religion, and the sounds of India and China. Thinking that music might be a master key, John searched for clues to unlock the mysteries of life. And the more he read and studied, the more he believed in all religions—one God, called by many names. He prayed and waited, offering himself as servant and messenger.

Golio closes the book out with Coltrane’s composition of both Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, the latter “the ultimate expression of his spiritual search, a masterpiece, his offering to the Lord.” Golio writes with precision and reverence. This is “lyrically narrated,” writes Kirkus, “resplendently illustrated, and deeply respectful of both subject and audience.” Adds the Horn Book, “There have been other picture books about gifted jazz musician and composer John Coltrane that have focused on his music or his childhood, but this one dares to take on the complexity of Coltrane’s entire life.”

Guitierrez’s illustrations are a force of nature, with sweeping lines and a pulsating energy, as you can see in the spreads here today. In a closing “Artist’s Note,” he writes about using acrylic paintings “and some mixed media pieces done with colored pencils, crayons, and acrylics. Many of them started as charcoal drawings that were then layered with paint.” Interestingly, he also writes about having fasted for two weeks (vitamins and juices only), while focusing, praying, and meditating about this book — just as, he learned later, John had done before composing A Love Supreme.

Next up, let’s shift gears to much younger readers with Wynton Marsalis’s Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! Boy howdy and howdy boy, do I love to see the illustrations of Paul Rogers, who visited for breakfast way back in ’08 and collaborated with Marsalis back in 2005. This one is described on the cover as a “sonic adventure” from Marsalis, and it’s all about a young boy, as you can see in the spreads here, and the sounds he hears during his day — everyday sounds (“big trucks on the highway RRRRUMBLE” and “tluck. . . tlock tluck. . . tlock. . . .Our faucet needs a fix”) to the instruments he meets during his day in what appears to be New Orleans.

“Those onomatopoeic words,” writes the Kirkus review, “elegantly red-dressed in Caslon 540 Italic, will challenge readers and delight listeners. Marsalis’ choices seem just right. . . . Rogers’ hip, playfully cartoonish spreads pop with clever visual allusions to jazz tunes and players. . . . Loud and clear, the creators show how tuning into everyday sounds can inspire music.”

This is a book with a larger trim, with artwork gladly filling up entire spreads with cheer and rhythm, yet things are never cluttered. Let it be said that Rogers knows how to compose a spread with style. This one’s a joy.

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SQUEAK, RUMBLE, WHOMP! WHOMP! WHOMP! Copyright © 2012 by Wynton Marsalis. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Paul Rogers. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

SPIRIT SEEKER: JOHN COLTRANE’S MUSICAL JOURNEY. Copyright © 2012 by Gary Golio. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Rudy Gutierrez. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Clarion Books, New York.

2 comments to “Some Sonic Adventures Before Breakfast”

  1. A true celebration of art and music here today. Lovely, just plain lovely. Thanks, Jules.

  2. Paul Rogers makes me happy.
    We are discussing typefaces in my book illustration class today. What a great book to showcase~

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