‘A Blue So Blue’ and ‘Jazz ABZ’: How Blue Can You Get?

AT a time when standardized tests and a renewed emphasis on the three R’s have led school boards around the country to eliminate, not just cut, studio art and music from curriculums at all levels, the serendipity of engaging books for children that beautifully combine music and art is more valuable than ever.

The trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis’s “Jazz ABZ” is not a child’s quest for the perfect musical note or the dreamiest jazz musician of the 20th century — although Marsalis could easily have had these dreams. Instead, his collaboration with the illustrator Paul Rogers is a witty, stunningly designed alphabet catalog of jazz’s great talents and a demonstration of how visual art has interpreted this interpretive music. The biographical sketches and notes on poetic forms by Phil Schaap are concise and genuinely informative.

The cover and endpapers of the book look like 1930’s and 1940’s 78 r.p.m. album covers and sleeves, references that will probably go over the head of youngsters and younger adults, who might think 78 RPM is a rock band.

Rogers’s pastiche full-page portraits, his use of expressive typography and the smaller vignettes he sprinkles throughout are bound to heighten any reader’s appreciation of both the musicians and the music. Each portrait includes a typographic interpretation of the musician’s name that smartly reprises the mannerisms of the earliest album cover artists and designers, including Alex Steinweiss of Columbia Records, the first to illustrate classical and jazz album covers, as well as other leading record and poster artists. Rogers thanks many of them by name in the acknowledgments, including Jim Flora, David Stone Martin, Paul Colin, Miguel Covarrubias and Al Hirschfeld. Each of his images symbolizes the style of both the era and the musician.

Some time ago Rogers challenged Marsalis to come up with text for the jazz alphabet book he wanted to illustrate. The trumpeter’s clever (and sometimes silly) poems, wordplays, odes and limericks celebrate Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Nat King Cole, among others. Marsalis says he wrote them on the road while traveling around the United States. They are stylistically jazzy and probably not easy for younger children to follow on their own. But what fun to read with a parent!

How about this one, about Sarah Vaughan: “A vital, vast, vivacious vernal voice / with violet, velvet virtues sings to me. / Some hear a vaunted vixen’s soul rejoice / in vain. I hear the voice of verity.” Tricky, yes, but Marsalis’s words and Rogers’s images are a wonderful way to introduce classic jazz and American design to children.

by Steven Heller
Source: The New York Times

By Wynton Marsalis.
Illustrated by Paul Rogers.
With biographical sketches by Phil Schaap.
Unpaged. Candlewick Press.
$24.99. (Ages 8 and up)

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