PPBF – Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

As we head into the most-American of holiday weekends and what, for many, is the true start of the summer season, I thought a picture book about a very-American genre of music set where family and friends gather on steamy summer days would be perfect. I hope you agree!

0763669547.medTitle: Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

Written By: Roxane Orgill

Illustrated By: Francis Vallejo

Publisher/date: Candlewick Press, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes/Topics: Non-fiction, Jazz, Harlem, 1950s America, photography, poetry

Opening: from the introduction, “In 1958, Art Kane had a crazy idea. Gather as many jazz musicians as possible in one place for a big black-and-white photograph, like a kind of graduation picture.”

Brief Synopsis: A book of poems that tell the story of Harlem 1958, a photograph of the largest gathering of jazz musicians on the steps of a Harlem, NYC brownstone.

0763669547.int.3Links to Resources:

  • Find a photograph of family, friends, or any other group. Try to tell a story about that picture: why is everyone there? What are they wearing and why? What else is in the picture and what does it tell you about the people or the photographer?
  • Listen to Jazz music.

Why I Like this Book:

A picture book that starts with an image – nothing unique about that. But what’s unique about Jazz Day is precisely that image, an actual photograph of 57 of the greatest jazz musicians in 1950s NYC (Harlem 1958), and how the author of this picture book determined to tell its story.

Rather than write what may well have been a plodding, dry account of this historic photograph that appeared first in Esquire magazine, Ms. Orgill tells the story in poems – short, jazz-infused vignettes of the events leading up to and through the morning. By choosing poetry as her medium, Ms. Orgill is able to highlight the special aspects of the story embedded in the photograph and share some of the backstory, about Harlem 1958 and the lives and careers of the musicians pictured and Art Kane, the man who dreamt up and organized it all.

Speaking of backstory, this much longer-than-average picture book (55 pages, plus endpapers) contains an Author’s Note, biographies of several people photographed, a note about Harlem 1958’s legacy, source notes, a bibliography and perhaps best of all, a two-page spread of the actual photo. No wonder Jazz Day is Boston Globe-Horn Book’s choice for Picture Book of the Year.

The illustrations of debut picture-book illustrator Francis Vallejo vibrantly capture the excitement of the morning and the spirit of these great musicians, and they add greatly to the appeal of this book.

A Note about Craft:

In an Author’s Note, Ms. Orgill shares that she started with the photograph, Harlem 1958, an image of which she’d been aware for as long as she’s been listening to jazz. She “wanted to tell the story of how the photo got made and 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, and intensity, and a conciseness that prose could not provide.” (p 44)

What medium best captures the story you’re trying to tell? If a story isn’t working, perhaps try another viewpoint, or even think out of the box, as Ms. Orgill did, and try a totally different approach.

3 responses to “PPBF – Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

  1. What a beautiful celebration of jazz musicians. I’m embarrassed that I’m not familiar with the photo, so I’m very curious about the story of how and why the photo was taken. I can only guess. I like your suggested activity for kids to find an old family photo and tell a story. Thanks for sharing.

    • You aren’t alone! I wasn’t aware of it either. My husband, a huge jazz fan (who played in jazz bands when younger) knew it & loved the poems, illustrations & bios.

  2. Pingback: PPBF – Sail Away | Wander, Ponder, Write

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