Brief Reviews, VOLUME 2

Brief Review: BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANT [Vol. 2, #45]

A Brief Review of

Before John Was a Jazz Giant:
A Song of John Coltrane
Carole Boston Weatherford.
Illustrated by Sean Qualls.

Hardback: Holt, 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANTWith three kids ages six and under, I am always on the lookout for excellent new picture books.  I was therefore delighted to stumble upon the recent book Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford (and illustrated by Sean Qualls) at my local library.  Although from the title, one would suspect that this book was about John Coltrane, which it is, it is not primarily a biography, but rather uses the story of Coltrane’s boyhood as a pretext to teach the spirit of jazz and the practice of listening.  Or to put it differently, this is a biography of John Coltrane in sounds.  Coltrane’s formation, as presented here, is fundamentally an aural one.  Weatherford, using simple and poetic language, makes the case that the sounds that Coltrane heard as a school boy (“hambones knocking in Grandma’s pots,” “Mama playing hymns for the senior choir” or “the sobs of kinfolk at family funerals” for instance) were essential to the classic jazz pieces that he would come to compose.  Listening, of course, as Weatherford’s telling Coltrane’s story here emphasizes is vital to the creation of art that is rooted in a people and a place.  Qualls’s brightly colored illustrations, done in varying levels of abstraction over the course of the book, are reminiscent of the classic jazz-tinged work of Ezra Jack Keats and vividly capture the jazz imagination of Weatherford’s rendition of the Coltrane story.  Weatherford’s writing ultimately climaxes at the heart of the story: “Before John was a Jazz Giant, he was all ears.”  Ending on this resonant note challenges us to consider what we might create out of our own experiences among a people and a place if we too would only be “all ears”?

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities
and the life of the church." 

-Karen Swallow Prior

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:


  1. Justin Anthony Knapp


    If you’re interested in John Coltrane’s boyhood, Ashley Kahn’s book on A Love Supreme includes a nice section on his formative years, including an interview with his cousin who lived with him. It’s also a nice book on a classic album. BBC’s Imagine also had an episode devoted to Coltrane and the St. John Will-I-AM Orthodox African Church in San Francisco which is pretty great.


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