An artist and musician in his own right, Gary Golio has penned picture-book biographies of rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. In Spirit Seeker, he draws on his experiences as an addictions therapist to write about another music icon: jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. This week, Golio chatted with Kidsbiographer about his love of Coltrane, Coltrane’s oeuvre, and picture books for older readers.
Kidsbiographer: I’m curious about your experiences with John Coltrane’s oeuvre. When did you first encounter his music, and how has writing Spirit Seeker changed the way you listen to A Love Supreme and his other work?
GG: I bought my first Coltrane record as a teenager, probably because I thought jazz was supposed to be cool and I wanted to be cool. (Sigh.) Listening to it, however, required that I grow bigger ears, and there’s no one like Coltrane to make that happen. In my mind, he has this amazing ability to take you on far-reaching musical adventures – sometimes way outside of your comfort zone – and bring you back safely, but hopefully changed by the experience. As for listening to A Love Supreme now, knowing about Coltrane’s childhood and his lifelong search for meaning makes it a different experience every time. That’s a piece of music—fortunately – that I can never get a full grasp on, because it’s so very expansive. ALS is also very much about Coltrane’s gratitude –for having recovered from drug use and emotional pain, and been given the chance to develop and share his talents. As for the rest of Coltrane’s work, I am continually amazed by his range, from swing to bebop-like moments, to classic jazz, and as far out as you can get at times. Yet there’s always that Coltrane heart at the core, and that’s why his music remains so alive and powerful.
Kidsbiographer: How did jazz in general and Coltrane’s music in particular influence your stylistic choices in Spirit Seeker?
GG: The story I’ve written is meant to reflect the depth and tenderness of Coltrane’s life and struggles. There’s nothing particularly jazz-like about the format, but it does run the spectrum of emotional color – in dealing with both the bright and dark parts of Coltrane’s life. For me, that’s akin to what jazz players like Billie Holiday and Coltrane do in certain songs, when they refuse to shy away from the pain and heartache, but still give voice to the joy and beauty. Rudy Gutierrez’s paintings, similarly, embrace the full experience of color, and they’re very jazzy in their spontaneity and balance of elements.
Kidsbiographer: What was the most surprising fact or insight you discovered about Coltrane while conducting your research?
GG: I was surprised by how successful Coltrane was before he recovered from alcohol and drug use. In the Spring of 1957, at the age of 30, he had already played with some of his musical heroes (Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges, among them), and was then part of Miles Davis’ band, at the top of the jazz ladder. When Miles fired him, Coltrane had to rethink everything he was doing, and fortunately, his passion for music and deep connection to his spiritual side won out. Remarkably, once he was sober and clearheaded again, he began playing – really studying – with the great Thelonius Monk, and then went back to Miles (for Kind of Blue). Once he composed and recorded all the pieces for Giant Steps, he had really made some giant personal leaps himself, and it was all up from there.
Kidsbiographer: As I point out in my review of Spirit Seeker, the picture-book biography is not appropriate for the youngest readers; Clarion is marketing the book for children aged nine and over. I know I would have loved this book in my early teens, the period when I first became interested in many of its themes: music, world religions, and social justice. As a reviewer, I encounter a number of picture-book biographies that are not suitable for the youngest readers because of subject matter, length, or complexity. Do you think readers and editors are becoming more receptive to picture books that are not for preschoolers and early elementary students? Is there a place for shorter, illustrated works that tell a story for older children or even adults?
GG: It’s always seemed odd to me that pictures and text, joined together, are often intended only for children. The Japanese know better (they have for a long time), but Americans are only beginning to appreciate the beauty of graphic novels, animated movies with adult content, and so-called “picture books” (illustrated stories/novels) that are read and enjoyed by teens and adults. Clarion chose at the outset to make Spirit Seeker a 48-page book for readers who are middle-grade and older, with illustrations – paintings by the great Rudy Gutierrez – that were both challenging and exquisite in their emotional and visual content. Because of its length, and because of its themes, Spirit Seeker is not for a young picture book age audience, but kids who are 8 and older can definitely understand Coltrane’s struggles, and how a person who’s lost his way can find it again. Hopefully, there are more and more editors like Lynne Polvino of Clarion, who see the need for enlarging our vision of the so-called picture book.
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Spirit Seeker?
GG: That Rudy Gutierrez’s illustrations are mind-blowing, with incredible color, symbolism, and a striking balance of the realistic and expressive, all in service to the text. For me as the author, he was a godsend.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
GG: I’m not one for passing up on a little self-promotion! A few months ago I sold a picture book text called Bird & Diz, about the creators (Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker) and creation of Bebop, which will be illustrated by Caldecott-winner and friend Ed Young. I also just submitted a picture book manuscript about Charlie Chaplin – and his London childhood – to my agent, who’s shopping it around. As for what I’m working on now, let’s just say that thinking inside of the box can be a lot of fun….