Ellington Moves Into Public School Systems

Nat Hentoff on ‘Riding on Duke’s Train’

A novel for young readers, Riding on Duke’s Train, has been adopted by the Bridgeport, Conn., public school system. And other cities’ school systems—New York, Boston, Los Angeles, et al.—have asked to see the galleys. I’ve had young adult novels published but have never seen such an immediate national response.

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Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club Orchestra, 1927

I first cited this novel and its author, Mick Carlon, in the June 2010 Final Chorus. I’d gotten to know this longtime teacher of English and journalism for the Barnstable (Mass.) Intermediate School. He often plays jazz recordings in class and introduces students to the lives of the musicians. It is, after all, a vital part of our culture.

Mick sent me the manuscript, about a 9-year-old who maneuvered himself into accompanying the Ellington Orchestra on their 1939 European tour. After reading it, I told Mick I’d known Duke for many years, and that “you’ve captured him in this story.”

But, as I also reported in Final Chorus, Mick had been trying hard and unsuccessfully to find a publisher. What followed when he did is a historic model for book firms, digital and print, in how to engagingly publicize young adult novels on jazz and other lively subjects.

An independent book publisher, Leapfrog Press, in Falmouth, Mass., ran a young reader’s fiction contest in 2010. Mick entered his manuscript, and out of more than 500 entries from 22 countries, Riding on Duke’s Train won.

Leapfrog sent galleys to school administrators, including English department heads around the country, and among the many enthusiastic reactions was this one, posted in the Customer Reviews section of Barnes & Noble’s website: “By Chapter 3 I was downloading Duke Ellington’s music to accompany my reading. How did I live all of these years without being truly aware of this man’s music? I also have to thank Carlon for introducing me to Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Rex Stewart. … Educators across the country, listen up! Your students will LOVE this novel.”

Another response: “We can’t wait to teach this to our 7th graders this year. … It’s heartbreaking to realize that these exceptional artists were treated like third-class citizens in their own country. Yet it’s inspiring to realize that they found the inner strength to keep on creating. Not to be corny, but I truly feel this book can enrich a young person’s life.”

Riding on Duke’s Train was officially published in December. It’s a paperback, and on the cover, on top of the title, is a blurb I was delighted to give Mick: “Duke used to say that the individual sound of a musician revealed his soul. Mick Carlon is a ‘soul’ storyteller.”

Among the reviews of the galleys was one by Brian Morton, author of the invaluable The Penguin Guide to Jazz: “A ripping good yarn that plunges the reader into the world of Duke Ellington and the Europe and America of 1939.”

Added the classic jazz photographer and Louis Armstrong archivist Jack Bradley: “When this marvelously evocative novel finds a home in the school curriculum, kids across America will be downloading Duke.” How many of you ever thought that would be possible?

As Mick tells me, “This February, every sixth grader in Bridgeport will be reading the novel, while the system’s music teachers immerse the students in Duke’s music. This was the idea of the school system’s music director, Tania Kelley.

“At my school,” Mick continues, “the entire sixth grade will be reading Duke’s Train, while the music department covers nothing but Duke’s music for the entire month. When the students are done reading the novel, our school band will give a concert of Ellington music to the whole school.”

Mick will be riding Duke’s Train into Dallas the week of Jan. 20-24, for the midwinter convention of the American Library Association, the world’s largest organization of librarians. He will discuss his fast-moving novel and sign copies.

And in December of 2012, Leapfrog will publish Mick’s next novel for young readers, Little Fred and Louis. As I’ve reported, when Louis was off the road and at home in Queens, N.Y., he would often, on the steps to his home, play for and teach trumpet to kids in the neighborhood. From a widely reproduced photo of one of these sessions, Mick was inspired to write about the education, in music and life, of young Fred, a pupil there of that nonpareil teacher.

Mick has shown the manuscript detailing Little Fred’s classes on the steps—and his subsequent travels with Louis—to Armstrong’s longtime associate Jack Bradley. Jack’s reaction: “I don’t know how you did it, but reading this book is like visiting my old friend again. I frequently had tears in my eyes. You’ve captured Pops whole.”

“Why did I write these books?” Mick asked himself during one of our recent conversations. “Both Duke’s and Pops’ music and jazz in general has given me nothing but happiness. This music has enriched my life. I’m hoping that young people will open their minds and ears to the incredible richness of this music. Not listening to jazz is like having buried treasure in your backyard—but never digging it up.”

Many jazz makers have found, as I have, that exposing youngsters to this music makes it an ever-invigorating part of their lives. Long ago, Milt Jackson, deploring the absence of jazz on television and in the schools, said to me, “If only teachers would finally open the doors!”

Some have in recent years and now, thanks to Mick, there’s a lot more room in classes for Duke and Louis too, and then many more. As you readers know, once you’re into jazz, there’s never enough.

Originally published in January/February 2012

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