There Once was a Jazz Musician Who Came Here from Saturn
Author and Illustrator Chris Raschka wants his new children’s book to teach kids about the icons of jazz.
Most book signings don't feature much dancing, but the subject of Chris Raschka's new children's book—Sun Ra, a jazz musician who often claimed to be from Saturn—got people moving. Raschka, a New York City-based author and illustrator, recently appeared at the National Museum of American History to promote The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy is Enlightening, published by Candlewick Press. His story about the late musician had children singing and dancing to Sun Ra's music in the museum's Flag Hall, where visitors queue up to see the Star Spangled Banner.
Sun Ra died in 1993. A pianist, composer and bandleader, Sun Ra outfitted himself in fanciful costumes and carried a passport that said he came from Saturn. In the 1980 documentary A Joyful Noise, he spoke of how "music is a spiritual language," one that is universally understood. This year marks what would have been his 100th birthday, and so Sun Ra and his catalog have been in the news lately. A National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, Sun Ra was the recent subject of a New Yorker article, and in May, iTunes released 21 of his albums, some of which had previously been unavailable digitally.
Jazz music is a recurring subject for Raschka, who has written and illustrated children’s books on John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Raschka has twice received the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations and was a 2012 nominee for the biennial, international Hans Christian Anderson Medal. Smothsonian.com's Joann Stevens spoke with Raschka about the new book and why children should know about jazz music.
Why did you want to write a children’s book about Sun Ra?
I wanted to write about Sun Ra because he steps outside the boundaries of traditional jazz more than anyone. I was aware of him in high school because he was so far out there, even rock ‘n’ roll teens like myself knew about him. When his selection of singles came out I was even more struck by the breadth of his interest in all kinds of music. It was my experience with Sun Ra’s own openness to things that made me more open to him.
And why did you want to expose kids to Sun Ra’s openness?
Openness is something any teacher strives to instill in his or her students. I think all of my jazz books about the four musicians I’ve written about so far, are about people that most ten year olds have never heard of. My hope is to let kids hear these names early, so that when they are teens or adults the door is already just a little bit open. When they hear people talk about these musicians, they will have a context to put them in. That, I feel, is the first step in art appreciation of any kind. Your brain needs to have a way of experiencing and understanding people you’re learning about.
Discuss the style of art you used for this book to support the story.
With any book I try to find where the manner of the making of the book is appropriate to the matter of the subject. Since Sun Ra is so experimental and free form, I tried to find a way of working that was very uncontrollable on my own part.
I painted on very thin Japanese rice paper and used pretty intense watercolors and inks that ran and bled all over the place. I would do many different versions of each page, each image, let them dry and then go at them a little more. At the end, the tissue paper was very wrinkled and saturated with color. Then I took these pieces of art and ripped them and glued the fragments onto brite white Bristol board using spreadable glue.
There’s a page with an image of Sun Ra soaring as an astronaut. As I tried to glue it down it kept tearing. This isn’t going to work, I thought. But then I realized the tearing was consistent with Sun Ra’s own approach of experimentation, of allowing for mistakes. Eventually it worked as I glued on other ripped pieces. They added to the feeling of flight. It felt akin to composing music.
You seem to use improvisation in your book presentations—playing musical instruments, getting kids to sing and dance with you.
With Sun Ra, that’s the most dancing I’ve ever tried with kids in a presentation. When I present the Charlie Parker book, I do a call and response that works quite well. With the Thelonious Monk book, I play the music and work with kids in a group to create a color wheel and show how the wheel can be mapped on a 12-tone chromatic scale. I definitely always try to get kids moving and doing something.
The Sun Ra book was released on his 100th birthday. What are your hopes for this book?
I hope Sun Ra becomes more widely known to people, especially kids. And with the centenary I think it will happen. So far it has all been very positively received. I hope it can have a life of its own this little book and find a place, and also find a place for Sun Ra.
What does Sun Ra teach that you would like kids and adults to understand?
I think kids are very pragmatic. I think kids would sort of say, "No one comes from Saturn." But I also think kids are quite open to different possibilities of how life might be.
With Sun Ra there was always a twinkle in his eye, throughout his whole life. Anytime you hear him speak, there is such a charm in his voice, and such a twinkle. There’s nothing menacing about Sun Ra’s out-there otherness. He is so much fun and joyful. We need more of that. The fact that Sun Ra did whole records based on Disney songs are examples of him just enjoying the world, and being excited about things that kids are excited about, like rockets or the Cosmos. When we are six, seven and ten years old, we think about things like that. And if you are Sun Ra you think about them your whole life.
I think Sun Ra is perfectly suited to being a good teacher for American kids. Any teacher in the arts and sciences has to maintain a sense of childlikeness to be truly inventive.
Why do you want to teach kids about jazz?
Basically I think it’s American classical music. Also from an artistic point of view, jazz is one of the most important contributions of American culture to the world. There is so much that can be learned about the United States when you study jazz. Some of that is touched on a little bit in the Sun Ra book.
Give me some examples.
Civil rights history, matters of fairness and equality—Jazz is ahead of everything else in matters of equality in this country and was a positive force in healing this country. Artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were social-cultural diplomats.
Jazz has been hugely positive and important for this country. But kids aren’t exposed to jazz except maybe as performers in beginning jazz bands in middle school or in high school. That should be there, of course, but kids should also learn the historical and social parts of jazz, and about individual figures in jazz. I believe these are very worthy subjects for elementary and middle school education.
From where did your own jazz connection arise?
I had a good European classical education in music. Had a wonderful orchestra that I played in in high school. But I always knew that my education was lacking. I knew plenty about rock ‘n’ roll as a typical, Midwestern teen kid.
My dear Aunt Vesta of Washington, D.C. was a great supporter of the Smithsonian. She gave me her Smithsonian Classic Jazz record set. The booklet and records were my first serious, conscious way of starting to listen to jazz. I remember quite vividly those records and how hearing Charlie Parker play on those first sides was too much for my ears. I could not decode them. They were harmonically more complex than anything I had ever dealt with before.
I remember Thelonious Monk pieces that struck a chord in me. When I came to New York and listened to jazz on the radio I began to understand more.
Any thoughts about your next project?
I’m always thinking about whom I might profile next. I’ve been thinking about Mary Lou Williams. I think it’s a joyous thing to celebrate this wonderful music. And with Sun Ra, I think his life of living as he saw fit despite criticism from mainstream America, and mainstream jazz America, is instructive. He didn’t fit the mold. He didn’t fit any kind of mold. The dedication of [Sun Ra bandmates] John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, such brilliant musicians who could have fronted bands and played with anyone, is inspiring. They dedicated their lives to him [Sun Ra] and his music.