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Profile of 2016 CSK Illustrator Award winner Bryan Collier

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In 2012, I met two men whose talent and generosity would change my life: Trombone Shorty and Bryan Collier.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews found a broken trombone when he was four years old and taught himself how to play. By the seasoned age of six, he was leading his first band. A true musical prodigy, he earned his nickname because his trombone was once twice his height. Yet he’d be the first to tell you that the reason he succeeded as a musician was because he practiced every day. He felt that as long as he kept playing music, good things would happen to him.

Trombone Shorty has since toured the world, performed for the president of the United States, been nominated for a Grammy Award, starred in the HBO show Treme, and currently plays the coveted closing set during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival each year. But as impressive as his musical talent is, his philanthropic contributions to the city of New Orleans are just as dazzling. In 2010, he launched the Trombone Shorty Foundation and the Trombone Shorty Music Academy to provide music education, instruction, mentorships, and scholarships to underserved students who are gifted in music. Part of the mission of the foundation is to preserve the rich musical traditions of New Orleans and pass them down to the next generation.

After being so immersed in his work with the children of New Orleans, Trombone Shorty wanted to continue to inspire young people in another way — by creating a children’s book that affirms: it doesn’t matter where you come from or what talents or advantages you were born with; as long as you work hard, you can succeed.

When I received Trombone Shorty’s book proposal, I was, unsurprisingly, smitten by his story. A picture book about his life began to take shape that celebrated the sights, sounds, and smells of New Orleans, and one boy’s determination to follow his dreams. But I knew that the book’s illustrations would have to make the project truly sing — I needed to find an artist who was a visionary equal to its subject, to communicate the extraordinary sounds that float out of Trombone Shorty’s horn and the pride he has for NOLA. There was only one choice. There was no back-up plan. In my mind, the book only existed if Bryan Collier wanted to illustrate it.

andrew_trombone shortyHaving worked in children’s books for nearly eighteen years, I was very familiar with Bryan’s work. From Dave the Potter to Rosa Parks, I loved the humanity and intensity that Bryan’s portraits evoked. His mixed-media pieces done in pen-and-ink, watercolor, and collage swayed and shook with a rhythm of their own. I knew that no other artist could interpret Trombone Shorty’s story, one that was both totally contemporary yet also steeped in such a complex musical history. But Bryan is always in high demand. With so many existing commitments already on his plate, how would I get him to say yes? I sent Shorty’s proposal off to Bryan’s agent and waited to hear back.

Trombone Shorty happened to be playing in New York City with his band Orleans Avenue that December of 2012. His collaborator and foundation director, Bill Taylor, offered tickets, and so I invited Bryan Collier and his agent, Marcia Wernick, to join me and Abrams creative director Chad Beckerman for the show. It was my first time meeting Bryan, and never has a “business” meeting been so much fun. Together, we basked in the exhilaration of Trombone Shorty’s performance, each song more stirring than the last. The concert was unlike anything we had heard before — part rock-and-roll, part hip-hop, funk, and jazz — and we enjoyed what Trombone Shorty has termed his special breed of “SupaFunkRock.” About halfway through the concert, I nervously turned to Bryan and asked how he was feeling about taking on the project. He said, “I’m in.”

From that moment on, Bryan was completely devoted. Not only did he log many, many hours at his drafting table, but he also traveled many, many miles. While Trombone Shorty continued to tour around the globe, Bryan toured New Orleans. Bill Taylor showed Bryan the neighborhood of Tremé where Shorty had grown up, and they wandered around Jackson Square, the landmark that had served as Shorty’s first stage. Bryan’s process of researching and conceiving his artwork required full immersion in order to capture the reverence that the locals have for their city. Bryan was generous with both his time and in his commitment to getting it right.

And Bryan never missed an opportunity to see Trombone Shorty perform live. Whether in Midtown during a blizzard or in Central Park on a hot summer night, Bryan and I had many memorable evenings together sitting back and listening to Shorty’s transcendent music.

Bryan would regularly visit the Abrams office to go over sketches with Chad and me or to discuss how the art was coming along. In his preliminary work, images of balloons kept appearing in his compositions. Chad and I found it curious at first, but we trusted that Bryan had a vision for these balloons, as well as the other circular motifs that floated out of the illustrations of Trombone Shorty’s horn. Sure enough, over the course of the book, these balloons transformed into something fantastical — a giant hot-air balloon that transports Trombone Shorty around the globe to share his gift of music. Bryan’s metaphor beautifully communicated how, with a lot of hard work and dedication, Trombone Shorty was able to make his dreams take flight.

The project culminated in a trip to New Orleans for all of us, where we launched the finished book, Trombone Shorty, with a signing under a tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Bryan, Chad, and I walked the sandy track of the Jazz Fest grounds listening to jazz luminaries and Cajun music greats. We feasted on gumbo and fried oysters prepared six different ways. We strolled the buzzing streets of the French Quarter, looking at galleries, sometimes stopping for a Pimm’s Cup. Together we experienced the music and culture of a city that we had celebrated with this very special book, and, along the way, we became friends.

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Tamar Brazis, Bryan Collier, Troy Andrews, and Chad Beckerman at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, May 2015. Photo courtesy of Tamar Brazis.

When Trombone Shorty was a child, he used to parade down the streets of Tremé with his friends, pretending that he was in a Mardi Gras brass band. The kids didn’t have real instruments, so they made them from whatever was lying around — empty bottles or a box from a twelve-pack of soda. In Trombone Shorty, Bryan depicted these children with diaphanous crowns on their heads. He said that because they had created music and magic from nothing, he felt that they were royalty. For me, Bryan Collier is also royalty. I’m honored to have worked with an artist who has showed such talent, commitment, and generosity toward his audience. For Bryan to have won both a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and a Caldecott Honor for this passion project reminds me of how lucky we are to do the job we do. Because of the tremendous work Bryan Collier has created, perhaps another child who finds a broken trombone or a frayed paintbrush or a tattered book on a shelf will believe that he, too, can make his dreams take flight.

Bryan Collier is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Trombone Shorty, written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and published by Abrams. Read Bryan Collier’s 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award acceptance speech. From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016.

Tamar Brazis About Tamar Brazis

Tamar Brazis is editorial director of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

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