The making of a photograph. I can’t recall that I’ve ever seen a picture book about the story behind the creation of one, single photo, but readers now have such a book in Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, written by Roxane Orgill. And what a superb picture book it is, a blend of poetry and nonfiction and the debut from illustrator Francis Vallejo.
On a sunny morning in 1958, photographer Art Kane had the idea to capture in one photo for Esquire magazine as many jazz musicians as he could on the steps of a brownstone on a street in Harlem. This is that classic photo, called Harlem 1958, sometimes called A Great Day in Harlem. As you can read at that link, the photo was even the subject of a documentary film by Jean Bach.
Orgill, who has penned several children’s book biographies and writes about music, surprised herself (as she describes it in the book’s closing Author’s Note) by penning a set of poems about that day. She writes:
I wanted to tell the story of how the photo got made and of some of the people who
happened to be in it. What I didn’t expect was that I’d begin writing poems. I write prose,
not poetry. But this story demanded a sense of freedom, an intensity, and a conciseness
that prose could not provide.
Most of the poems in the book are free verse, and Orgill varies her perspectives across the board. The first poem opens with the photographer’s point of view (as he calls for a formation of all the people gathered that day), but we also hear from drummer and sideman Eddie Locke; the young boys on the curb who ended up in the photo (in the end, we hear from one of those boys as he first sees the photo in the cerulean-covered issue of Esquire); a young girl who stares out the window, hoping everyone will leave to “give back / the street / free the concrete / for stickball / stoopball / anyball”; bassist and amateur photographer Milt “Fump” Hinton, who also had his Canon 35 on him that day (“Honey, just aim and press the button,” he told his wife); and more. Orgill’s bibliography notes the many sources she consulted for her poems—from the documentary itself, but also many books, articles, and websites. For a poem called “How to Make a Pork Pie Hat”—in which Lester “Pres” Young, tenor saxophonist, demonstrates for folks on the street how to perfect one’s own “porkpie”—she consulted a 1949 Ebony magazine photo essay where Young explains his technique with the hat. (How great is that?)
It is in these ways that she captures the camaraderie of the musicians, the moments leading up to the actual camera click. She even captures a rough-and-tumble argument the boys on the curb have, as they patiently wait.
There’s an infectious, jazz-like rhythm to many of the poems. In one of the final ones (“Some Kind of Formation, Please!”), Orgill captures the exact moment Kane takes the photo: “’Some kind of formation, please!’ / a plea so desperate / it’s melodic / shuffle / climb the stoop / fan out on the sidewalk / talk-laugh-roar / smoke-slap-turn ….” (That “fan out on the sidewalk” is spaced just so on the page to mimic a line of people fanning out.) These are poems that beg to read aloud, best appreciated perhaps by older students, especially those interested in poetry and/or music. She captures the personalities of the magicians, both the bold ones and quieter ones, with seeming ease – and she also captures a particular time and place in Harlem and the jazz scene. “’I’ll be in Scotland before ye’ / (imagine a black girl singing that),” she writes about the great Maxine Sullivan.
Vallejo teaches illustration at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. This is his first picture book. May heaven above bless Candlewick Press for teaming him with Orgill for this set of poems, and I certainly hope there are many more picture books in his future; his acrylic and pastel illustrations for this book are sublime. He nails the portraits of these singular musicians and manages to capture as a whole the feeling of elation that surely marked this momentous gathering. His artwork is detailed, textured; in some instances, the folks gathered in the background of a scene are but sepia-toned line drawings, and everyone up close so finely drawn and painted, they nearly leap off the page. (Also, be absolutely sure to remove the dust jacket to see the wonderful cover underneath.)
The book closes with a gatefold of the actual photo (what a treat this is), and the informative backmatter includes the aforementioned Author’s Note and Bibliography. There is also a guide to who is who in the photo; there are brief biographies of each musician; there’s a list of films, books, other photographs, etc. in which this famous photo appears; and there’s a list of Orgill’s Source Notes, as well as a Bibliography.
This will be on shelves in early March, and it’s a keeper. Don’t miss it.
JAZZ DAY. Text copyright © 2016 by Roxane Orgill. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Francis Vallejo. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.