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Making Miles For Kids

Keith Henry Brown By

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I received a beautiful script by first time writer Kathleen Cornell Berman which I felt thoughtfully captured the tone and feel of Miles’ early life and his development in a nuanced, poetic way.
Miles Davis has been many things, but had not yet been the star of his own children's book. That is what I realized after being contacted by Kristen Nobles, the smart, resourceful editor of the newly formed children's' picture book imprint, Page Street Kids. I had just barely decided to give it a go in the field of children's illustration and obtained an agent when I received a lively email:

"Dear Keith, I hope this email finds you well. We came across your work online and were immediately intrigued by your connections to the jazz world, and how your work is imbued with your love of jazz. We recently acquired the text Miles Davis Found His Sound, a lyrical, jazz-infused picture book biography about Miles Davis that recounts Davis' musical development, with a focus on his childhood and early professional years."

For a dude like me, it sounded like a dream assignment and couldn't have happened at a better time. But, even though I had been creating illustrations for magazines and album covers for years, I had never done a children's book so I had my fears. Could I really pull this off?

I received a beautiful script by first time writer Kathleen Cornell Berman which I felt thoughtfully captured the tone and feel of Miles' early life and his development in a nuanced, poetic way.

Kristen asked for samples of how I would draw the young and older Miles. I knew this would be important, as it would dictate the look of the book. They were accepted (whew!) and we were off to the races. I learned a lot about the process producing a children's book from this experience, as there are several steps.

The entire script must first be broken down in spreads with little thumbnails that dictated the action. This is hugely important, as it forms how the author's narrative will be paced as a reading experience.

I didn't want my drawings to be too tight or realistic. I wanted them to have some of the feel of jazz itself: precise, while sometimes loose, and slightly abstract. I never know when I draw images related to jazz if I've ever really achieved this to my personal satisfaction, because it's tough to be objective about one's own work. My greatest inspiration in the world of jazz illustration art is the great David Stone Martin, who created dozens of extraordinary album covers for jazz labels like Mercury, Asch Disc and most memorably from his longtime friend, record producer Norman Granz in the 1940's and '50s. In his iconic work, he exemplified what I have sought to do. The next step after thumbnails comes the finished pencil drawings. This is where much of the editing is done as well, I found. I drew each spread with more detail, depicting Miles' life from the moment he first heard music at home on his family's radio, to his father's sprawling ranch, to his first arrival to New York and soon after, meeting his musical heroes, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker in Harlem. Always on my mind as well was that I was tasked with telling the story with a very young reader in mind—someone who most likely wouldn't know these names. This is where I received the most notes from the editors, offering me suggestions on how best to tell the story, what to emphasize, and where to focus. This was challenging for me, especially since I was used to drawing single images, not necessarily tell stories. Historical details are also an highly important, (If not pesky) real concern.

After finalizing the detailed sketches, I went to paint. It's a slippery slope: once down, we're at the point of no return. Watercolor is, by nature, an unforgiving beast where every stroke must count; I think that's why I love it. It's like being a tightrope walker: the guide is there, and you know what path you plan to take, but you need to stay on it. One sometimes wavers, and maybe even feels a bit unsteady—but if you hold true you might get a nice result—a little like a great trumpet solo. This entire process took several months before a final printed dummy was produced—and additional minor changes were made. My hope is that all the kids (and grown- ups) will dig what we've done. Miles is an iconic musical figure much more than the sum of his parts—trumpeter, musician, composer, innovator and there is no way any one book could begin to sufficiently describe his impact on culture. His style, his look, his cool. But maybe, we at least provided in Birth Of the Cool a nice peek.

Birth Of The Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound was published by Page Street Books and distributed by Macmillan. It's available next month at Amazon. For a sneak peek, click the SLIDESHOW button above.

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