Teaching Satchmo & Duke to 7th Graders

Mick Carlon brings jazz to the classroom

Years ago, a fourth grade teacher in New York asked me to talk about jazz in her classroom and play some recordings. One of my favorites that I brought was a vintage New Orleans set by clarinetist George Lewis and his Stompers. By the third track, some of the kids got up and started dancing. Soon the suddenly sprightly teacher joined them. Milt Jackson had recently told me, “If jazz was regularly on television, we’d have a bigger audience.” But having jazz in the classrooms would also help the music gather fans. (Quincy Jones keeps working to get jazz into more schools.)

For years I’ve known a teacher, Mick Carlon, at the Barnstable Intermediate School (sixth and seventh grades) in Barnstable, Mass. From his first year there in 1984, he has been bringing jazz into his English and journalism classrooms on Fridays. This year, the school started “enrichment clusters” that allow teachers to introduce their own choice of a course that meets every Wednesday for six weeks. Mick, of course, is adding an actual jazz history major for his seventh grade English students. “This music has so much energy!” one student told Mick recently. Another added, “I didn’t realize jazz has so many styles.”

Mick begins with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. “Pops’ first recorded solo on ‘Chimes Blues,’” he tells me, “leads perfectly into the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. It’s fun to simply play ‘West End Blues,’ listen to the students’ reactions, then play the Ken Burns segment that deals with this immortal recording.”

He figures that by the third time they hear those joyous sounds, the music’s in their heads as it has been in his and mine all these years. After a couple of weeks, a student named Hannah testified, “Hey, Mr. Carlon, ‘West End Blues’ is now in my iPod! I love it!”

In a class devoted to Duke Ellington, Mick plays part of Robert Drew’s seizing documentary, On the Road With Duke Ellington, in which Duke, seated at the piano, meditating, says, “All I do is dream.” That led to a sigh from a student who is a musician. “What a cool man,” she said.

In a class focusing on Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, the seventh graders listen to recordings and watch Lady Day and Lester Young in what has become a global jazz landmark, the “Fine and Mellow” sequence from “The Sound of Jazz,” the CBS special that Whitney Balliett and I helped put together in 1957. As I’ve written, those of us in the control room, witnessing Pres and Billie revisiting their private memories of one another, felt tears in our eyes. I didn’t imagine at the time that those depths of jazz tenderness would ever be part of a course for seventh graders.

John Coltrane is in one of Mick’s “enrichment clusters.” I’ve never forgotten my surprise and concern when the saxophonist once told me his regret at not knowing more about how his music affected listeners. Having known John, I’m sure he would be moved by how he reaches young spirits decades after he left.

As an experiment on finding out how deeply Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue reached his students, Mick tells of what happened after he “made them a money-back guarantee. If they buy Kind of Blue, listen to it for two weeks and don’t love it, then I will buy it back from them for one dollar more than they paid.

“I’ve been making this offer for 26 years now,” he continues, “and only one student has ever made me buy the album back. What I hear most is, ‘I love this album! Now what Louis or Duke should I begin with?’ Or, ‘What Miles Davis tunes should I download onto my iPod?’ Music to my ears!”

Mick is also involved in bringing jazz into the lives of students by writing for young readers what he calls middle-grade novels. His Riding on Duke’s Train is set in the spring of 1939, when the Duke Ellington Orchestra embarks on what turned out to be a challenging European tour. Through the eyes and ears of a boy named Danny, the band’s mascot, the reader is with Duke and the musicians as they are stranded in Germany.

Reading the novel in 1999 impelled me to call Mick for the first time to ask, “Did you know Duke Ellington?” Having been 15 when Duke died, he had not. “Well,” I said, “I knew Duke for years, and you’ve captured him in this story.”

Another of Mick’s jazz novels is Little Fred and Louis, taking place in Corona, Queens, where Louis Armstrong lived, and told by a 10-year-old neighbor and aspiring trumpet player. Louis becomes his teacher and mentor as he travels with the band. Duke, Dizzy Gillespie and Langston Hughes are among the characters.

Currently living near Mick Carlon is Jack Bradley, a longtime friend of Louis Armstrong and a fount of jazz knowledge. (Among his credentials: Jack roomed with Jo Jones for nearly a year.) Having read the Louis novels, Jack Bradley told Mick, “I knew Louis Armstrong for many years, and the ‘Pops’ in the book is the man I knew.”
Another jazz authority who read that book is Brian Morton, co-author of the invaluable Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. He was so taken with this story that he adapted the novel into a play that was performed—and well received—last August at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

But Mick, try as he repeatedly has, cannot get a publisher interested in either book. I empathize with him, having written such novels for young readers as Jazz Country and The Day They Came to Arrest the Book which still bring me (small) American and international royalties. I’ve given up on my last middle-grade novel, Color Changes, after eight publishers turned it down. Too controversial, they said.

As Mick says, if his two novels are ever published, “I could interest even more young people in our music, as I’ve already done in class.” Intrigued book publishers can reach Mick at lmcarlon@comcast.net (phone: 508-771-0570).

After I lost hope of getting my latest jazz book published, I told that story in my JazzTimes column. A week later, the publisher of the University of California Press, Mary Francis, called me and asked me to send her what I had of the manuscript. After the most careful and caring publisher preparation I’ve ever experienced, the book, titled At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene, will be out in June. I sure hope Mick gets a call. And I’d appreciate hearing from other teachers of jazz in their schools.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181.

Originally published in June 2010

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