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Exclusive First Look at SONNY'S BRIDGE by Barry Wittenstein and Keith Mallett

September 28, 2018


Today I'm welcoming author Barry Wittenstein and illustrator Keith Mallett to the blog to share the cover of their upcoming picture book, entitled SONNY'S BRIDGE: JAZZ LEGEND SONNY ROLLINS FINDS HIS GROOVE


First, let's take a look at the book description:


This groovy, bebopping picture book biography chronicles the legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins's search for inspiration on the Williamsburg Bridge after quitting the jazz scene in 1959.


Rollins is one of the most prolific sax players in the history of jazz, but, in 1959, at the height of his career, he vanished from the jazz scene. His return to music was an interesting journey--with a long detour on the Williamsburg Bridge. Too loud to practice in his apartment, Rollins played on the New York City landmark for two years among the cacophony of traffic and the stares of bystanders, leading to the release of his album, The Bridge.


Written in rhythmic prose with a bebop edge, this picture-book biography of Sonny Rollins's journey to get his groove back will delight young and old fans alike.


I invited Barry and Keith to finish my sentences. After reading their responses, scroll down for some hand-selected Sonny Rollins picks for you to enjoy.




The idea for Sonny's Bridge: Jazz Legend Sony Rollins Finds His Groove came from... (Barry) I heard the story from my older brother when I was growing up in the 1960s. He was a huge jazz fan and used to read DownBeat, a jazz magazine. That introduced me to a lot of names. And, of course, hearing the jazz records he would play. I was fascinated by the idea of a person practicing on a bridge! And at night, too. Can you imagine? The entire thing summoned up quite an image. A lonely sax player playing for no one, except the stars above and the tugboats below. If Hollywood were to make a movie of Sonny playing on the bridge, it’d have to be film noir. Shot in glorious black & white! Then, later on, in 1977, Pioneer Electronics made a commercial showing Sonny playing on the bridge (although they said “Brooklyn Bridge” instead of Williamsburg Bridge, probably because the former is more iconic) and comparing Sonny’s dedication to music with the company’s pursuit of perfection. It can be seen below. Fast forward to 2001, when Ken Burns released Jazz, his documentary, and there were all those names that I had heard about while growing up…including Sonny Rollins. I love writing narrative nonfiction stories about incidents or people that have not been published before in children’s literature. This certainly qualified. Not that the story isn’t known to followers of jazz and the history of jazz.


When I first read the manuscript for Sonny's Bridge... (Keith) I thought the same thing I always think at the beginning of a project, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into.” Then I calmed down and listened to the story. Barry’s writing was beautiful, and Sonny’s story was epic. I wanted to do them justice.


In the story... (Barry) In 1959, Sonny Rollins, was a 29-year-old tenor player and considered the top tenor and improvisational player in the world. For reasons unknown at the time, he decided to take a two-year sabbatical from the business. He stopped performing. He stopped recording. Sonny didn’t believe he was worthy of the adoration and fame he was receiving. Living on the Lower East Side in a small apartment with his wife, Lucille, Sonny needed to practice, but where? He would spend 12 hours or more blowing his horn. Understandably, his neighbors asked him to find another place to play. As the story goes, one day walking down Delancey Street he saw the Williamsburg Bridge, went up its steps to the pedestrian walkway, and decided to give it a try. He loved being up there, surrounded by the sounds of subway trains, automobiles and tug boats below, and the sky above. It was heaven. After two years of refining his playing, he came down from the bridge and resumed his career. The first album he recorded was titled, appropriately enough, The Bridge. 


The illustrations for the story... (Keith) are rendered digitally. Although I used a very modern medium I wanted to depict an earlier time. I used color to convey Sonny’s emotional journey. Sonny’s Bridge takes place from the 1930s to the 1960s so it was interesting doing research on the different eras.


One thing I hope readers will take from this story is... (Barry) I think there are a couple of things. One is learning about the history of jazz and this monumental icon, who is still alive at 88, though not blowing anymore. His life intersects with all the jazz greats of the 20th century. He is the last man standing. So, it’s the appreciation and knowledge of who this guy Sonny Rollins is. Secondly, it’s about priorities, reaching for one’s potential, challenging yourself. Regardless if the world says you’re not good. Or if the world says you’re good, but not great enough.. Sonny never stopped learning. He is and was a perfectionist, knowing that he could never attain that state, but also knowing there’s always more to reach for. It’s about being true to yourself. About a higher spiritual goal than money and success. No matter what field one is in. It’s a universal lesson and message that transcends Sonny Rollins. But Sonny talked the talk and walked the walk.


(Keith) everyone has a second act.


One essential song of SONNY ROLLINS that you definitely need to check out is... (Barry) His signature song, "St. Thomas". It combines a calypso feel with jazz. Sonny’s mother was from the Caribbean and sang it to him when he was a child. There’s a great YouTube version below. The original recording appears on his 1956 album, Saxophone Colossus. 

Another that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, is his cover of Billy Holiday’s "God Bless The Child". A live version can be heard below. The recorded version appears on The Bridge. Sonny felt great love and respect for her artistry, and also great empathy for her struggles at the end of her life. The recorded version is much sadder than this live one. But both touch the heart

(Keith) "The Bridge" of course! It feels alive and has an upbeat groove. The interplay of Jim Hall’s guitar, and Sonny’s sax is beautiful. And Sonny wrote it.



And just like that we have a COVER!

Okay. Let's take a closer look at this cover.


A young Sonny lifts his saxophone in song to the night while standing atop the Williamsburg Bridge. But just look at the expression on Sonny's face. Look how at home he looks with that instrument, as if it's an extension of him. Look how comfortably he plays his song, eyes closed, thinking only of the music and of the muse.


Now imagine the readers of this book. Those 3rd and 4th and 5th graders picking up instruments for the first time. Learning how to make sounds, to read music. They will learn to improvise. Some will learn to feel music, to find their own music. And this book? This book about finding your voice through music, about finding your way, this story is going to reach some of them. And some of them are going to learn a new name. And maybe they'll go listen to some of his music. Or maybe their parents will know about Sonny and can share their own stories.


I think this is gonna be one of those kinds of books. And that makes me very, very excited.


Thanks, Barry! Thanks, Keith! And thanks, Charlesbridge!


SONNY'S BRIDGE: JAZZ LEGEND SONNY ROLLINS FINDS HIS GROOVE will publish in March of 2019 from Charlesbridge.

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