Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane

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Young John Coltrane was all ears. And there was a lot to hear growing up in the South in the 1930s: preachers praying, music on the radio, the bustling of the household. These vivid noises shaped John's own sound as a musician. Carole Boston Weatherford and Sean Qualls have composed an amazingly rich hymn to the childhood of jazz legend John Coltrane.

Before John Was a Jazz Giant is a 2009 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book and a 2009 ...

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Young John Coltrane was all ears. And there was a lot to hear growing up in the South in the 1930s: preachers praying, music on the radio, the bustling of the household. These vivid noises shaped John's own sound as a musician. Carole Boston Weatherford and Sean Qualls have composed an amazingly rich hymn to the childhood of jazz legend John Coltrane.

Before John Was a Jazz Giant is a 2009 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book and a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Weatherford’s evocative poem traces Coltrane’s influences simply and stunningly. Qualls’s muted palette of rich hues suggests the smoky jazz moods he would create.”

School Library Journal

“Even children who are unfamiliar with jazz in general and John Coltrane in particular may find their interest piqued.”

Horn Book

“Will echo with contemporary children, who will recognize the music in their daily lives.”


“This is as much a subtle invitation for children to listen to their own worlds as it is a Coltrane biography.”

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Horn Book

Even children who are unfamiliar with jazz in general and John Coltrane in particular may find their interest piqued.
Children's Literature - Marilyn Courtot
Yes, I still have some of my John Coltrane vinyl records—it is hard to part with your favorites even if the medium is no longer in favor. Much as I loved his music, I really knew very little about the musician. Weatherford has taken an approach that should resonate with young readers. She looks at John's life before he became an adult. What were the sights and sounds that influenced him, and how did he become one of the great jazz musicians? His home was filled with music and sounds. He heard the rhythm of his grandfather's Sunday sermons, his mother playing hymns for the choir, and he played a clarinet in a band. He also knew great sadness due to the loss of family members and separation from his mother and aunt. He was drawn to the saxophone, and it became his solace. He listened and developed his own rich and unusual sound. What is really amazing is how much information Weatherford conveys in her concise poetic text—her song of John Coltrane. The artist has amplified her words to show an appealing young boy absorbing all the sounds around him and finally producing his own signature sound. The author's note recaps John's brief life and his contribution to jazz. There is also a discography, several books and a reference to a web site where readers can learn more about this artist's life. Consider pairing it with Chris Raschka's John Coltrane's Giant Steps. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
School Library Journal

Gr 3-6- "Before John was a jazz giant,/he/was/all/ears." He heard "hambones knocking" in a pot on the stove, steam engines, tap dancers, preachers, sobs, cheers, and birdsongs. And he heard music-his father's ukelele, the family Victrola, church hymns, the community band, jitterbug music, and big bands playing on the radio, "blue notes crooning his name." So he picked up the saxophone and poured all the sounds he'd heard into music all his own. Weatherford's evocative poem traces Coltrane's influences simply and stunningly, her redolent voice as smooth and vivid as jazz itself. Qualls's double-page, full-bleed illustrations combine acrylic, collage, and pencil in surrealist renderings of young Coltrane soaking up the sounds surrounding him. A muted palette of rich hues suggests the smoky jazz moods he would create, the sounds dreamily dancing through the air amid streaming ribbons of music. A full-page biography of Coltrane concludes the volume, along with a list of recommended listening and further reading, making this picture book appealing to all ages studying jazz or African American history. Pair it with recordings of Coltrane for added appeal to a wide audience.-Joyce Adams Burner, Hillcrest Library, Prairie Village, KS

Kirkus Reviews
Weatherford's compressed poetic homage to Coltrane's early influences relays biographical details through metaphors evoking sound: "Before John was a jazz giant, / he heard Grandpa's Sunday sermons, / Mama playing hymns for the senior choir, / and the scoutmaster's call to join a band." Five other stanzas, each beginning with the titular phrase, both convey 1930s references (Bojangles, big bands) and presage Coltrane's musical arc to come ("he heard . . . a saxophone's soulful solo, / blue notes crooning his name." Qualls's mixed-media full-bleed spreads employ a color palette (blue, sienna, ochre, white) and sonic iconography similar to (and not exceeding) his much-praised work in Dizzy. Circles and bubbles populate each spread, standing in for the emanations of Grandma's cooking pots, the setting-sun sadness of a family funeral and sweet possibility, as John "picked up that horn." Layout conspires nicely to deliver Weatherford's final couplet over two full spreads: "Before John was a jazz giant, / he was all ears." (author's note, selected recordings, reading list) (Picture book/biography. 5-8)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805079944
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
  • Publication date: 4/1/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 32
  • Sales rank: 301,044
  • Age range: 5 - 9 Years
  • Lexile: AD1090L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 8.47 (w) x 10.18 (h) x 0.34 (d)

Meet the Author

CAROLE BOSTON WEATHERFORD wrote the Caldecott Honor book Moses: When Harriet Tubman Lead Her People to Freedom. She lives in North Carolina.

SEAN QUALLS illustrated the widely acclaimed biographies The Poet Slave of Cuba and Dizzy. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

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Reading Group Guide

Introducing Soft and Loud, High and Low

Ask the class to speak softly, then loudly. List soft and loud sounds they hear everyday. Speak with a high, squeaky voice and then with a low voice. Ask the class to do the same. List high and low sounds they hear everyday.

Introducing Rhythm
Clap out rhythms to the syllables in the children's names.Clap out a simple rhythm like short-long, short-long and have the children repeat the pattern with their hands or with a pencil on a desk or other surface. Try other patterns like long-short-short, long-short-short, or long-long-short, long-long-short.

Introducing Melody
Fill 6 jars or glasses with different levels of water. Using a metal utensil like a spoon, demonstrate that the pitches vary. Strike one glass and then another. Ask the class if the second sound is higher or lower than the first.Label each of the glasses with a different color. Prepare a set of strips of construction paper using the same colors on the glasses. If the class is small, hand out a set to each child. If the class is large, form small groups and have the children do this activity together. Ask the children to arrange the strips in any order they like. Have them glue the strips on to a large piece of paper. Each child now has a "melody" made out of the colors.Play each child's melody on the glasses, striking the corresponding glass for each color strip. You can string together several children's sets of strips to create a longer musical piece.

Listening to Everyday Sounds
Ask the children to close their eyes, be very quiet, and listen to all the sounds in the classroom and outside the classroom for 30 seconds to a minute. List all the sounds they hear. Ask the class:
• Can you describe the sound?
• Can you imitate the sound?
• Do you know what is making the sound?
• Is the sound soft or loud? short or long? high or low?If possible, take a walk with the class outside, and explore sounds the children hear using the same questions as above.
• Ask each child to select one sound that they will describe, imitate, and draw about. With their eyes blindfolded, see if the children can recognize their classmate's individual voices.

Making Sounds with Everyday Things
Walk around the classroom, stopping at ordinary objects to see what kinds of sounds it can make (include crumpling and creating other sounds with paper, pencils, a pencil sharpener, a stapler, a book, chairs, clock ticking, venetian blinds, etc.) Ask one child to make sounds with each object. Have the children sit in a circle. Gather everyday things in the center of the circle (bubble wrap, beans or rice in a bag or container, wooden spoons, velcro on a sneaker, items found in classroom while doing the above activity.) Ask the children to close their eyes and identify the objects by their sound.Do a show and tell of objects found at home that make sound (for example, items you shake: a baby rattle, a jar full of beans.)

Using Your Body to Make Sounds
Ask the children how many ways their bodies can make sounds (clapping, snapping, tongue-clicking, slapping different parts of your body, foot stomping, making a kissing sound, etc.)Ask the class what sound do people make when they're happy or sad.

Activities to do While Listening to John Coltrane's Music
Play a John Coltrane recording from the "Suggested Listening" list in the book. Ask the class how the music make them feel. Happy? Sad? Excited? Sleepy? Ask the class to clap or move to the beat.Using the beat of the music, ask the class to move crayons or markers on paper. Do the same using another piece of music with a different beat. You can also do this activity with clay (tapping, making ridges, or pounding on it) or with fingerpainting.

Homemade Instruments

Kids love to make music. There are lots of simple instruments that kids can make. Here are a few ideas:

Use old tin foil pans to make cymbals, attaching strings as handles.Fill film canisters or other plastic containers with dried beans, popcorn, or rice to create a shaking percussion instrument.Make a harp from an old shoebox by stretching different sized rubber bands around the box. To make it into a guitar, attach a ruler or stick to the back of the box. Plucking the rubber bands produces different sounds.Use a paper towel holder as a tube that children can hum into to produce kazoo-like sounds. They can decorate the tube with markers, too.Make a tambourine using two paper plates. Have the children color the bottom of the plates. Then place beans, rice, or pebbles between them. Staple the plates together and shake!Make a comb buzzer by folding a piece of tissue paper over the tooth edge of a comb. To play, hum through the tissue paper.Ask the children if they know anyone who plays a musical instrument or sings.Ask the children to talk about family members that play instruments or sing.Have children describe the insturement and how it is played.If possible, ask the family member to demonstrate to the class.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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  • Posted May 28, 2012

    The Sounds from Little Musical Ears

    This is a story about the music artist John Coltrane and the way he heard and formed his own music while he was growing up during the 1930's, in the deep heart of the south. The sounds vary from church hymns and gospel songs, to new sounds on the radio, and even the sounds of the household. This is a kid-friendly book with delightful fonts and illustrations. It is easy-flowing with a rhyming schematic which allows the reader to follow along and see what the main character hears. I highly recommend this story, it is fun to read and will teach children about jazz.

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  • Posted May 18, 2011

    Before All That Jazz

    This book is like a simplified and informal biography of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Only comprising of seven sentences, the story has been written in such a way that author Carole Boston Weatherford is able to fit in many details of Coltrane's life with a few but still descriptive words. In addition, illustrator Sean Qualls is able to complement the selected details of Coltrane's life with somewhat abstract but very beautiful pictures. Such writings and illustrations allow readers to hear and see what Coltrane heard and saw in his earlier years. The Author's Note at the end of the story is also very helpful in tying together all that was stated before, providing a more detailed but still brief account of the life of John Coltrane.

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  • Posted October 27, 2010

    What I Heard....

    This is an amazing story of what inspired the legendary John Coltrane to play such soulful music. It tells of his everyday life sounds that brought forth his musical capabilities to turn them into a musical evolution. This story goes through days and periods in his life and what he heard that gave him the ear to hear and feel the music that he genuinely poured his soul into. I especially liked how the Author's Note at the end tells John's life story and even offers selected listenings for the reader. This touch offers the reader a clearer connection with this story.

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