by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Keith Mallett, Charlesbridge, 2019
As a lifelong jazz lover, it warmed my heart the day my 7-year-old came home from school and asked, “Daddy, have you ever heard of Charlie Parker?” He is lucky to have a remarkable music teacher at school, who has introduced them to so much great music this year. So he was more than ready for Barry Wittenstein’s wonderful Sonny’s Bridge, with bold and whimsical illustrations by Keith Mallett.
Sonny’s Bridge tells a story that I lapped up in my teens—before Google, before YouTube—of how, at the height of his fame, Sonny Rollins retreated from the limelight to work on his craft, practicing every day on the Williamsburg bridge. In my early twenties I made a pilgrimage to the spot. Twenty years later, it’s a delight to have a version of the story to share with my children.
Wittenstein’s prose is rhythmic and playful; it mirrors the music. In the opening pages, we discover the atmosphere of Harlem during the Rennaisance; in plain and powerful terms, we glimpse African American political struggles—“Soldiers overseas defending de-mo-cra-cy./Return home, still fighting for freedom: their own”—and the birth of bebop: “a musical language nobody ever heard before.” By this point not only my son, but also my 3-year-old daughter, are gripped. The vividness of Mallett’s illustrations bring Sonny to life on the club stages of Manhattan.
But then, suddenly, Sonny stops playing. “Why, Daddy?” they both ask. “Looking in the mirror,/doesn’t like what he sees./Name bigger than talent./That’s some hard truth to swallow.” The world sings his praises, but the highest standards are his own. This was an easy way in to a conversation about perseverance, and the importance of keeping on working at any talent one has. Up on the bridge, “So much sound, so much silence, so much space./‘This was heaven. This was heaven.’” My daughter points excitedly, “Daddy, why is he playing on a bridge?”
The book ends with Sonny recording The Bridge, his comeback album, nourished by his years of work up there on the bridge. Before I know it, I’m playing them the recording, watching them tap their feet to “Without a Song.” And then we are on YouTube, watching him play “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” “Daddy, he’s amazing!” my son exclaims. I tell them I’ve been lucky enough to see Sonny Rollins play live … and I long for the day when we can all go to concerts again.
This wonderful book helps me to explain to my children the complexities of a country that is theirs but not mine, through the music that I love more than any other music in the world.