Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jazz According to Hegel?

The philosopher Hegel is still frequently credited with the theory described as "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis"; but his version was actually more internalized, both simpler and more complex. Yet whoever originated it, the idea of differing opinions, even rival philosophies, leading to a better compromise solution easily took hold in popular thought, and was soon applied not only to human endeavor but to natural forces as well. Evolution was pondered and revolutions begun, history reexamined and trilogy novels penned...hell, even our useless, disfunctional Houses of Congress once operated according to such principles!

Life may be more complex than the triadic system allows, but the general idea refuses to disappear. Recently I was going through several shelves packed with children's picture books, and I was pleased to find three devoted to Jazz greats. Then I realized the three formed a perfect "Hegelian" argument. As odd as that probably sounds, allow me to explain...

The books were intended as simple introductions to individual musicians--Duke Ellington, published in 1998 by the writer-and-artist, wife-and-husband duo of Andrea Davis and Brian Pinkney; Chris Raschka's 1997 solo gem introducing Mysterious Thelonious; and from 2001, Lookin' for Bird in the Big City by Robert Burleigh and illustrator Marek Los. All three are brilliantly colored and beautifully rendered, but their overall approaches are as different as night and day and "magic hour" (i.e., the golden light pre-sunset).

The two antithetical works are those presenting Duke and Monk. Both pianists took their basic styles from Harlem's great stride players, but their individual techniques drifted worlds apart. Yet that's not the governing antithesis of these books; instead it's the look and "sound" of the non-musician artists involved. The Pinkneys appear to be verbal and visual traditionalists. The woman writes well enough, but at misjudged length, self-consciously mixing historical statement and stylized slang as she tries to entertain but be biographically factual too, telling the Ellington story from his birth in 1899 up to 1943's highbrow success at Carnegie Hall. Here's a sample of her prose (note that the book is supposedly aimed at ages 6 to 9):

Yeah, those solos were kickin'. Hot-buttered bop, with lots of sassy-cool tones. When the band did their thing, the Cotton Club performers danced the Black Bottom, the Fish-Tail, and the Suzy-Q. And while they were cuttin' the rug, Duke slid his honey-colored fingertips across the ivory eighty-eights.

Another passage (I'm excerpting from several paragraphs) points to husband Brian's stylized illustrations and use of vibrant colors, and in effect alerts the reader to let his pictures speak louder than her words:

Duke painted colors with his band's sound. He could swirl the butterscotch tones of Tricky Sam's horn with the silver notes of the alto saxophones. And, ooh, those clarinets. Duke could blend their red-hot blips with a purple dash of brass from the trumpet section... Most people called his music jazz. But Duke called it "the music of my people"... Duke composed a special suite he called Black, Brown, and Beige. A suite that rocked the bosom and lifted the soul... Outside, the winter wind was cold and slapping. But inside, Carnegie Hall was sizzling with applause. Duke had become a master maestro.

Ms. Davis Pinkney is simply outclassed, by the size of the subject and the look of her husband's candy-swirl paintings.

In opposition to the Pinkneys' over-worked solution--however accidentally--is Raschka's tribute to Monk published a year earlier. Oh my, it is a sight for bleary eyes and a song for weary ears, all peripheral stuff stripped away, the pages become fields of color with minimal illustration, the words mostly reduced to repeated syllables. Cool Papa The, onliest Monk man himself, dances across the pages, bopping up, dropping down, popping back with signs showing a single syllable, as the "text" does the same (allowing just four syllables/words per page), all the while working to make visible the up-down single-note melody of a Monk piece ("Misterioso" maybe; I haven't checked):

This is a stor-
y a- bout The-
lon- i- ous Monk
and his mu- sic.
There were no wrong
notes on his pi-
a- no had no
wrong notes, oh no.
This is a stor-
y a- bout the
love- ly mu- sic
of Mis- ter Monk.
He played not one
wrong note, not one.
His pi- a- no
had none, not one.
He played the mu-
sic of free- dom.
Jazz is the mu-
sic of free- dom.
This is a pic-
ture a- bout his
mu- sic...

The jacket flap explains the intent thus: "To create the art for Mysterious Thelonious, Mr. Raschka matched the twelve musical tones of the chromatic scale, e.g., do, re, mi, to the twelve color values of the color wheel, then set paint strokes for notes and color washes for harmonies to see what it would look like."

It looks great--suitably weird, and note perfect; a work of Monk and a work of art.

The spare simplicity of Raschka's book may be an extreme opposite of the Pinkneys' Duke but finally it seems aimed less at kids than at art-loving adults. The middle ground that most modern-day picture books aim for has been synthesized by Burleigh and Los. Their solution is to tell a single anecdote rather than a life story--with some boppish scatting added for fun--and to allow the paintings of Los to convey most of the history. Lookin' for Bird portrays the fabled trip to New York City by a certain teenage trumpeter from St. Louis... yes, young Miles Davis journeys to the Big Apple to find Bop mainman Charlie "(Yard)Bird" Parker, searches high and low, on fire escapes and bridges, at subway stops and basement clubs, even accosts people on the street (52nd Street, that is, known as "The Street That Never Sleeps" in its Jazz-rich heyday) to ask where Bird might be found. Although several of the illustrations show Parker in the distance, Miles doesn't spot him and usually lingers somewhere playing his trumpet regardless. Then just when he's ready to give up, he finds Bird appearing at yet another club, gets to sit in, plays well enough that Bird invites him to take a solo... and the rest is history.

Burleigh's words are rhythmic, rhyming here and there; lightly witty, yet kept simple enough for a third grader to grasp. And the paintings by Los, slightly soft-focus, somewhat amorphous, offer moody cityscapes and empty concrete canyons, vibrant reds and yellows and, of course, blues. The two are well-matched, just like Miles and Bird. Here are two passages that link up well:

I was lookin' for Bird,
lookin' for Bird,
lookin' for Bird,
and heard
he might be jamming at a place
called Triple Doors.
But no.

Dip-dip, da-dee, bop-bop-daweeba, dooby-do...

"Bird been here?"
I asked the doorman at the New Cafe.
"Not today," he told me,
and so I waited under the awning,
in the rain,
and felt my horn in my hand,
and dreamed I was playing
notes for all the faces that went past,
hurrying, heads bent,
this way and that way,
'cause just like Bird,
from first to last,
I wanted the whole world in my music.

Dop-dop, skitteree, tic-tic, do-do-be-do.

"Bird, Bird, Bird,
where you gone?"
Don't know, don't know.
And so,
I sat up in my room
and watched the darkness coming on,
with notes as blue
as shadows on the walls,
and jazzy as the blink
of yellow building lights,
'cause I knew he was out there,
listening, too.

Ubadee, scat-skit, bopereebop, bop, ba-do.

With the Los illustrations riffing on Burleigh's verse, it's maybe the hippest that New York has looked across the sorry decade, and a solid example of what children's picture books can aspire to be.

Bird lives. Miles smiles. (Do-be, dop-bop, dawoo.)

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