I spent the last week in bed with a really bad cold. The sinus pressure was so awful I couldn’t look at a screen– computer, phone, tablet, Kindle — it didn’t matter! I spent my time laying in bed snoozing or reading paper books. Thankfully, I had a plethora to keep my company. So, while I was a bit silent online (thank goodness for pre-scheduled blog posts!), I still got a lot accomplished in the world of books. No rest for the weary… or, uh, something like that. It was nice to pick up a collection of physical books, most of them featuring heavy illustrations, and get lost in the written word.
The first book on this journey is a beautifully illustrated book of poems inspired by real-life events. Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph is an incredible book. Bringing together two genres of books children tend to avoid (poetry and non-fiction) Roxane Orgill takes us on a beautiful journey into the minds and experiences of American greatest jazz players on August 12th, 1958.
Art Kane worked for Esquire magazine in 1958. The magazine was releasing a special supplement titled The Golden Age of Jazz. Kane’s idea was to gather as many jazz musicians as possible to a single place for a photograph in front of an “absolutely typical [Harlem] brownstone”. He found one and got permission from the police to block off the street for a few hours in the morning of Tuesday, August 12th. He borrowed a camera. Esquire put out the word to studios, musicians unions, nightclub owners- anyone: A photoshoot, no instruments required.
But Kane had no idea if anyone would show up.
The result? Harlem 1958 – a now iconic photograph with 58 jazz musicians which took 5 hours to shoot. A piece of history:
Sadly, I hadn’t heard of this photograph before reading Jazz Day (apparently, this photograph is the reason Tom Hank’s character flies to America and gets stuck in the airport in the film The Terminal — I am so out of the pop-culture loop). As someone with a music degree, this is a bit embarrassing. I adore Jazz. I am obviously just not as up on the history, sadly. Thank goodness I found this book! This is a gorgeous collection of poems and corresponding illustrations.
Jazz has always been compared to poetry. It’s fluid and ever changing; not sticking to strict form in most senses. This book felt perfect as a collection of poems. It embodied the personalities of some incredible jazz greats. This group of people requires freedom, not structure.
Francis Vallejo’s illustrations match perfectly. The acrylic and pastels show movement- like these cats can’t sit still. Which, my guess is, they couldn’t– there’s a reason it took 5 hours to take this shot. There’s a bit of a comic-panel style in some of these illustrations as well, which really appealed to me. I appreciate how the illustrations aren’t necessarily traditional. Just like Jazz, the art felt free to be what it needed to be in the moment.
My favorite poems:
- So Glad about Milt “Fump” Hilton, bassist and amateur photographer who wanted his wife to also capture the film
- Late about Thelonious Monk, pianist
- She’s Here! About Maxine Sullivan, singer
- Esquire, 60 Cents about Alfred, a fictional boy who was hanging around that day of the photograph
Lastly, I was blown away by the notes at the end of the book. Orgill provides some background into her inspirations. There is a collection of mini biographies for each musician who is featured in a poem, along with the corresponding illustration by Vallejo. There are source notes and an extensive bibliography. Never in a poetry book have I seen a bibliography– but this just shows that Orgill did her work thoroughly.
This is an incredible snapshot of history in beautiful words and illustrations. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has a passion for history, poetry, jazz, or just a well-crafted piece of work.
What do you think?
- Have you heard of this photograph, Harlem 1958?
- Did you enjoy reading non-fiction or poetry as a child? If so, any recommendations?
- Do you listen to jazz? Who are your favorite artists?