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Five questions for Roxane Orgill

roxane orgillArt Kane’s spectacular 1958 photograph of fifty-seven jazz greats, Harlem 1958, was the inspiration for Roxane Orgill’s poetry collection Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph (Candlewick, 6–9 years), illustrated by Francis Vallejo. With equal measure warmth and humor, confidence and awe, Orgill’s poems capture a thrilling moment in music history.

1. You mention in your author’s note that you “hope the poems contain the sound of jazz music.” Did each musician’s individual style affect the way you structured the poems? Or is it more that the book as a whole is collectively influenced by the sound of jazz?

RO: If I was writing about a particular musician I listened to his or her music, but from no later than 1958, the year of the photo shoot. Thelonious Monk had recorded the album Misterioso with his quartet at the Five Spot Café downtown just days before the shoot. I had to listen to that. Since Count Basie was a regular at Birdland at the time, with the second edition of his big band, I got familiar with that music. I couldn’t very well write about Willie “The Lion” Smith and his competitor-friend Luckey Roberts without listening to recordings of stride piano, the style they originated. And so on. I don’t know exactly how the music influenced the writing, but I have no doubt that it did.

2. What was your favorite biographical tidbit that didn’t make it into the poems?

RO: Art Kane said, when the contact prints were delivered to him, “They look like real pictures!”

It’s not biographical, but I wanted to write something about all the places in New York where the musicians were playing right around then. The poem didn’t work out, but the list is wonderful: Minton’s, Birdland, Hickory House, The Metropole, Half Note, Nick’s in the Village, Pink Angel, Five Spot.

orgill_jazz day3. Francis Vallejo’s illustrations are just astounding. Did you share your research with each other?

RO: No, and we had no direct contact until we met at a Burger Heaven in Manhattan shortly before publication, on the occasion of a Society of Illustrators show in which several of the pieces from Jazz Day were displayed.

I was shown the art as it developed and invited to comment and suggest changes as I felt necessary, but this communication was all via the editors at Candlewick Press.

4. What’s your favorite part of the photograph?

RO: That’s really hard to say. I love: Dizzy clowning, Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams chatting, Count Basie sitting on the curb but looking very elegant (in contrast to the scruffy boys also sitting on the curb), and the overall shape of the group, what I called the “upside-down T.”

5. What do you recommend for a playlist to accompany the book?

RO: I slipped a bunch of tunes into the poems, so that would include:

Thelonious Monk Quartet, “Misterioso”

Maxine Sullivan singing “Loch Lomond”

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, “Red Carpet”

Rex Stewart (with Ellington & His Orchestra), “Boy Meets Horn”

Also, totally at random: Count Basie: “One O’Clock Jump” from the 1930s and “Shiny Stockings” from the 1950s. Duke Ellington: “Ko-Ko” and “Mood Indigo.” A young Lester Young in Basie’s small band: “Lester Leaps In.” Dizzy Gillespie: “Salt Peanuts.”

From the April 2016 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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