Nonfiction Monday: Grit and Gumption in Marilyn Nelson and Jerry Pinkney’s “Sweethearts of Rhythm”

For Nonfiction Monday today (which is hosted by Camille from A Curious Thing), our contribution is in keeping with our Poetry-filled Yuletide-Cheer theme – it’s a picture book in verse that I have discovered a few months back: Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-girl Swing Band in the World.

I delayed writing the review since I wanted to share it after I have visited New Orleans so that I can interweave my travel photos with the lovely illustrations already found in the book.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Author Intentions and Notes. I usually reserve this section somewhere in the latter part of my review but this time around, I thought that I might as well begin with the words of three-time National Book Award Finalist and winner of Poets’ Prize, Marilyn Nelson about how she managed to turn this book over on its head and how she played with perspectives:

… instead of having the Sweethearts speak, or having the poet (me) tell about them, I followed my brother Mel’s suggestion that I write in the voices of the instruments. I imagined that all of the instruments the Sweethearts played – Tiny Davis’ trumpet, Ina Bell Byrd’s trombone, Roz Cron’s tenor saxophone, Johnnie May Rice’s guitar, Pauline Braddy’s drums – had somehow ended up in the same pawnshop in New Orleans.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Talk about creativity being taken to a different dimension altogether – clearly depicts the mind of someone who is limitless – without boundaries in its pursuit of aching truths and wailing voices. And this is perfectly matched by Jerry Pinkney’s vivid illustrations that evoke a powerful sense of rhythm and unparalleled beauty, wounded as it is.

Jerry Pinkney describes his process in his Artist’s Note:

The era was layered, the music was layered, the art needed to be layered. After two years of sketching, it all became clear. I needed to create my art as it had always been executed, then find a way to suggest the sound and magic of the music. I constructed a collage over my art with squares, different shapes of brilliant and textured colored papers, and torn pieces of the photocopied music sheets. later, I began adding pieces from maps of the U.S. to suggest travel, and flowers to speak to the beauty found in the Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Photo is originally from the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University - and cited in The Artemis Media Project of the National Endowment for the Arts - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

This is a videoclip of Jerry Pinkney describing his artwork and process:

Grit and Gumption: “Soldiers of Music.” What I loved most about the book was how these female musicians were portrayed to show grit and gumption. At a time of social unrest, racial intolerance and hate crimes, and unspeakable discrimination against women – this all-girl first-ever-integrated band was literally rockin’ and rollin’ – galvanized into being ‘soldiers of music.’

Soldiers of Music indeed.

Reminds us never to take anything for granted. And that what we are enjoying now is paid for in full by people who came before us.

I have to warn teachers and parents though to not let the colorful illustrations and the verses fool you – this is not a book for very young children. This is an extract from one of the poems found in the book entitled: “Black and Tan Fantasy: Johnnie May Rice on Guitar”

It was solace, then, that swing music gave those crowds?
You and your sweethearts were really “soldiers of music,”
living like tumbleweed, bathless and underpaid,
to uplift the nation’s fallen morale with acoustics?
 
Were you generating resilience as you played
that bouncy rhythm defined by its trill-filled time?
Was an antidote found, in jitterbugging like mad,
to the middle of the century defined by progress and crime?
 
Was it democratic music, making every toe tap
and every heart lift toward courage again, over fear?
Was it music more of transcendence than of escape:
each tune a tiny little victory over war?

Photo was from George Moonoogian as cited by The Vocal Group Harmony - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

As can be seen from the lines – there is a certain level of maturity required to have one understand the textured rhythm of Nelson’s voice – her choice of words reflect this sensitivity to the sociopolitical struggles and realities of that period. If you wish to know more about their research, their creative process, and the interweaving of the artist and the author’s collaborative energies – click here to be taken to a downloadable pdf link that details an in-depth interview done by children’s literature assembly.

Breathtaking illustrations by Pinkney.

Music as a form of Healing. I have always been thankful that I have an ear that is able to sensitively filter layers of music and a spirit expansive enough to embrace tunes and words both discordant and harmonious. In a recent conversation I had with one of our premiere Filipina musician, she shared that music has the power to heal, and I agree unreservedly.

Whether it was protest music that America needed to hear at the time or swing-big-band-jazz music that would drown anyone’s voices – is immaterial. This was also reflected in one of the poems entitled: “Take the ‘A’ Train: Ernestine ‘Tiny’ Davis on Trumpet”

Whose music is “truer”? Your bald-eyed protest songs,
Or the waves of joy in which people drowned their despair?
Forgetfulness, or a recitation of wrongs?
Shoot, taking the ‘A’ train was a form of prayer.

When music and poetry take the form of prayer – you know then that it has the power to heal and transform.

Visual Tour of New Orleans. Naturally, I use this as an excuse to post photos I have taken during my recent visit in the lovely city that is New Orleans. Oh yeah, I was deeply charmed. I hope you enjoy them along with the youtube videoclips I was able to find of the Sweethearts of Rhythm! Happy Nonfiction Monday!

I thought it would be good to make this a little sepia-toned. Taken while strolling the streets of New Orleans.

Enjoying the cool air.

Enjoying the jambalaya rice, muffuletta, and seafood gumbo! With two of my friends who came to see me in Cajuntown. Professor Tuting Hernandez, a Linguist from the University of the Philippines and Dr. Francis Bambico, a Neurobiologist from Yale University and McGill University.

Reminded me of True Blood. Trust me when I say I was on the lookout for vamps and werewolves.

No other way to do it. It’s got to be a jazz funeral.

Just look at that building - exquisite.

And yet another one.

Enjoy these videoclips!

PictureBook Challenge Update: 125 (120)

PoC Challenge Update: 52 (25)

Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-girl Swing Band in the World. By Marilyn Nelson and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Published by Dial Books: An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2009. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos were taken by me.

15 Comments on Nonfiction Monday: Grit and Gumption in Marilyn Nelson and Jerry Pinkney’s “Sweethearts of Rhythm”

  1. Myra,
    I saw this title in my library and I should check it out. Thank you for your wonderful posts. I really like the personal touch with your photos from New Orleans.

    Like

  2. Hi Myra! Yes! I have the same thoughts as Jeff. Wow! That’s terrific that you wove in your photos and thoughts from your visit to New Orleans. i love the poems and illustrations in this book — so glad you reviewed it.

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  3. Wow, Myra…so much to take in!! I definitely have to have this book – unusual topic and Jerry’s immitable art work,too. I love the way you wove this post together – all the threads that make a creative effort. Thanks, Myra!!

    Like

  4. What a treat that time in New Orleans must have been!! There was a lot of love and passion in this post. Isn’t Grit and Gumption such a great title?! Marilyn Nelson has the capacity to make a written text sing!

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    • Hi Joanna, yes, we had a grand time in New Orleans! Great food, great city, wonderful company! Couldn’t ask for anything more.

      As I was thinking of a possible title for my post, I recalled the term ‘grit’ as used by Jerry Pinkney in his Artist’s Note and I added ‘gumption’ to it – one of my favorite words of all time – thus Grit and Gumption – perfect two words to describe “America’s Sweethearts of Rhythm.” 🙂

      Like

  5. I had the privilege of hearing Marilyn and Jerry speak about this lovely book at a conference shortly after it released. I also happened to read it around the same time I read the touching Ninth Ward. When I visited NOLA for Annual this past June, I went to the Hurricane Katrina exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum. So powerful!

    Your post is thoughtful and was wonderful to read. Thanks!

    brenda

    Like

    • Hi Brenda! That must have been such a lovely experience – hearing both Marilyn Nelson and Jerry Pinkney talk about this wonderful collaboration. I received Ninth Ward as a book prize for my participation in the Persons of Color Reading Challenge but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Your comment has reminded me that the book is lying around in my bookshelves waiting to be devoured. Hahaha.

      I tried linking to your site, by the way, but there was an error and I couldn’t see your post unfortunately. 😦

      Like

  6. I agree with all! A great way to weave in the personal AND some great shots of one of my favorite cities. My university was only about 4 hours away — so often on a Friday would leave after classes and be in Nawlins for dinner.
    Plan to get a better look at this great book.
    Bob

    Like

  7. Hi Myra,
    I just came across this article and wanted to let you know that director, Judy Chaikin, has made a film about female jazz instrumentalists, featuring The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and extensive interviews with its members! It will be screening at the Dubai International Film Festival shortly (more details here: http://www.TheGirlsintheBand.com). You can check out the trailer here: http://bit.ly/qLzzWH

    Please let us know what you think!

    Cheers,
    Erin

    Erin Li
    Associate Producer, THE GIRLS IN THE BAND
    http://www.TheGirlsintheBand.com

    Like

    • Hi Erin, thanks so much for dropping by. I’m so glad to know that a movie about The International Sweethearts of Rhythm is coming out! About time! I love the entire concept. Will let my friends who live in Dubai know about the film festival. 🙂

      Like

  8. Myra, this is a powerful book, and I agree with you about the maturity level of the reader. I would probably only use this with 8th grade or higher. Thanks for directing me to your review!

    Like

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