A Visit with Artist Keith Mallett

h1 August 4th, 2015 by jules


“And let’s say one day when you were a little older,
you sat right down at a black piano and you commenced to play …”


 

There’s a new picture book biography on shelves, Jonah Winter’s How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, June 2015), illustrated by Keith Mallett (pictured right). The book opens in a tremendously inviting way:

Here’s what could’ve happened if you were born a way down south in New Orleans, in the Land of Dreams a long, long time ago.

Let’s say you had a godmother, and she put a spell on you because she was a voodoo queen. …

Voodoo queen? Hoo boy, my attention is piqued.

Author and illustrator go on to lay out the musician’s early life and rise to fame, as well as his contributions to jazz. They address the whole who-invented-jazz conundrum—“And, to tell the truth of it, maybe Mister Jelly Roll didn’t invent jazz, not exactly, ’cause it took a lot of cooks to make that stew … but he sure did spread it around the towns”—and in an informative closing author’s note [“How Jelly Roll Morton (Might Have) Invented Jazz”], Winter goes into more detail about this and what distinguished Morton from his fellow musicians. Robin Smith captured the book well in the Horn Book’s review: “Much like jazz itself, Winter has created a book filled with ebbs and flows, rhythm and rhyme, darkness and light, shadow and sunshine.”

This is Mallett’s first picture book, though he’s been an artist and designer for more than thirty years. His acrylic paintings in this bio, bustling with energy and filled with beguiling shadows, are rich and reverent. He’s visiting today with some art (sans text) and early sketches from the book — and to talk a bit about his work. He even shares a bit of other art (not from this biography). I thank him for visiting.

* * *

Keith: From the time that I first saw Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, I dreamed of illustrating a children’s book. But my career took me in a different direction. I became an artist working mainly in the fine art print industry. About ten years ago I was asked to illustrate a children’s book, but I realized the time it would take, so due to my busy schedule I had to decline.

Once I retired, I had plenty of time, so when Neal [Porter] reached out to me to illustrate Jonah Winter’s new book, I was thrilled.

 


“And let’s say that when you were a baby, your godmother brought you to an old saloon and set you down on top of the bar, which is not a place for a little baby. Let’s say that some trouble broke out, and she got arrested and thrown in jail,
and you got tossed in the can as well.”

(Click to enlarge spread)


 

When I first read Jonah’s unconventional manuscript, I felt a little intimidated. The script was beautifully written, kind of like a jazz riff with some linear storytelling, some rhyming, and even a bit of stream-of-consciousness thrown in. Both Neal and Jennifer [the art director] pointed out that, because the story was so unusual, I would have a lot more freedom with my interpretation. So I dove in.


“And let’s say you just wouldn’t stop crying unless all the roughnecks sharing your cell commenced to singing—’cause music was the only thing that calmed you down.”


 


Early sketch
(Click to enlarge)


 

Doing the research for Jelly Roll was fun. I loved reading about early New Orleans and the dawn of the Jazz Age. The Library of Congress was a great resource for the architecture of New Orleans at the turn of the century; I also scoured the Internet in search of the clothing styles of the late 1800s. Jennifer helped me understand the importance of accuracy in interpreting details, even as small as the style of an early New Orleans police badge.

 



Early sketch and final art: “… and you learned to play so well that soon you were playing with grown-ups, sneaking out when the evening sun went down, playing in bars, surrounded by lowlifes and dangerous people and folks who loved to hear you play,
and making more dollars a night than you knew what to do with.”

(Click each to enlarge)


 

I chose to do the book using acrylic paints because of their fast drying time. They allow you to quickly do numerous glazes and easily build up texture. I also like printing aquatint etchings on my press.

I’d love to do another book. It was fun illustrating this one.

 


“… and only one thing, just one thing in the world, could make the crying stop: And this is why and this is how a thing called JAZZ got invented by a man named Jelly Roll Morton. Leastwise, that’s what I thought I heard Mister Jelly Roll say. Sing it …”
(Click to enlarge spread)


 



Early sketch and final art: “If you’d been Jelly Roll Morton you would’ve known that the only way to rise up and fly away was one piano at a time. One piano note at a time you’d show the folks in New Orleans who was the best. You’d show the folks in
New Orleans how it was done—jazz, that is.”

(Click sketch to enlarge)


 



 


Above: One of Keith’s aquatint etchings


 


Above: One of Keith’s open edition fine art prints


 



 

* * * * * * *

HOW JELLY ROLL MORTON INVENTED JAZZ. Copyright © 2015 by Jonah Winter. Illustrations © 2015 by Keith Mallett. Published by Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, New York. All images here reproduced by permission of Keith Mallett and the publisher.





One comment to “A Visit with Artist Keith Mallett”

  1. Can’t wait to read, and review, this book! Neal Porter is at it again.
    Thanks for the heads up


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