Tag Archives: Mick Carlon

IRRESISTIBLE READING: “TRAVELS WITH LOUIS” and “RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN”

I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN.  Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.

I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me.  I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could.  So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)

Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.

But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked.  I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them?  If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)

Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves.  Louis first.

TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter.  Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician.  I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger.  But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through.  And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us.  In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!”  The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises.  (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)

Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere.  So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library.  Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once.  Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience.  Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life.  The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.

RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians.  Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia.  At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)

Both books work.  I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book.  Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.”  “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.”  “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.”  “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.”  “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.

But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.

And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.

These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences!  Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.

And who knows?  Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer.  All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie.  It should swing.

Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt.  I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.

You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.

May your happiness increase!

MICK CARLON RECALLS RUBY BRAFF, BEAUTIFULLY

Reprinted from JAZZ TIMES, May 2011:

05/04/11 • By Mick Carlon

Ruby Braff: The Beauty in Music

It’s 1999 and I’m watching a PBS special on Mark Twain. The phone rings. It’s Ruby Braff. “Are you watching the show about Twain?” he asks. “It’s superb. The man was one of our nation’s greatest geniuses.”

I agree. “Too bad Twain didn’t live to be one hundred,” I say.

“Why?” asks Ruby.

“Because then he could’ve heard Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings and we’d have Twain’s reaction to them.”

I hear an intake of breath. “Why the (bleep) would you care about that? Why would anyone want to know how Mark Twain felt about Pops? What a (bleeping) stupid thing to say.”

Not taking Ruby’s insults personally (for some reason, I never did), I reply, “Well, I think it would have been interesting.”

“That’s because you’re a (bleep),” and, once again, Ruby Braff hangs up on me.

For the past quarter century, I’ve lived on Cape Cod. Believe it or not, this sandy peninsula, about an hour south of Boston, was once a garden of jazz delights. Although his fans in Japan and Denmark stood in line to buy tickets to his gigs, Dave McKenna’s local gigs were ridiculously easy to attend. My wife and I would simply stroll into Hyannis’ Road House Café to delight in the world-class sounds of Dave on his “saloon piano”—for free.

And we could hear Ruby Braff, playing the most gorgeous cornet in the world–with a sound redolent of summer dusks and autumn wood-smoke—often with McKenna and bassist Marshall Wood.

I met Ruby through Jack Bradley, his old friend who had once actually saved Ruby’s life. In the depths of a three day coma, Ruby was responding to nothing and nobody. Deciding to visit Ruby at Cape Cod Hospital, Jack brought along a cassette player and a Louis Armstrong tape. He pressed play and the sound of Pops playing “I’m In the Mood For Love” filled the hospital room. Amazingly, Ruby’s eyelids began to flutter. The color returned to his cheeks. A few moments later, his eyes opened. “Hey,” he said in his Beantown Dead End Kid voice, “that’s not the 1935 version.”

“Nope,” replied Jack. “It’s from ’38—Pops with the Dorsey band.”

A few minutes later, now fully awake, Ruby said, “You know, that’s the second time Pops saved my life.”

“When was the first?” asked Jack.

“The first time I heard him.”

Ruby, of course, was a graduate of the Louis Armstrong School of Music. “It doesn’t matter what instrument you play—you’re supposed to be listening to Louis Armstrong. It doesn’t matter whether you write, sing, dance, or anything. If you haven’t listened to Louis Armstrong, there’s nothing, nothing going to come out of your playing that will ever please me. I can tell you that.”

And Ruby would tell you. When I once mentioned a young hot-shot trumpeter, Ruby scoffed, “He can’t play (beep). And you know why? He’s never listened to Louis. I can tell.”

However, one time the young hot-shot trumpeter I admired was Ruby himself. “I love those albums you made with Dave McKenna in 1956,” I said.

“What? Are you nuts?” Ruby thundered. “Do you have ears? I couldn’t play worth crap back then. Only an ignorant fool would like that playing. Dave’s the only reason to listen to those pieces of (beep). I thought you had more sense than that!”

I guess I didn’t. I stand by my high opinion of Ruby’s 1950s music. But his later work, recorded when he was often breathless with emphysema, is among the greatest jazz of the past thirty years: On the Arbors label: Variety is the Spice of Braff; Being With You (Ruby’s lovely Pops tribute); Live at the Regattabar; Music for the Still of the Night; Controlled Nonchalance at the Regattabar I and II (with Dave McKenna and Scott Hamilton). On the Concord label: Ruby Braff and His New England Song Hounds I and II (once again with McKenna and Hamilton, along with Howard Alden; Frank Tate; and the immortal Alan Dawson). I also have big eyes for The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet Live at the New School album (Chiaroscuro) and (sorry, Ruby!) his 1956 duets with Ellis Larkins (Vanguard).

My friend rarely had a good word to say about anyone—myself included—but I never heard him say anything negative about a fellow he had known since boyhood in Roxbury: Nat Hentoff. “That man,” said Ruby one evening, “has never written one phony word in his life. God knows how many bum notes I’ve hit over the years—but as a writer, Nat has never hit a bum note.”

When illness struck again, in the autumn of 2002, I visited Ruby often at Cape Cod Hospital. Strangely, amazingly, he was now always kind, with never a negative word for anyone. It worried me. “I don’t think I’ll ever play my horn again,” he said one rainy November afternoon. I kept quiet. With Ruby, phony optimism would’ve rung false—a bum note.

He died on February 9, 2003, a month short of his 76th birthday. Cape Cod has been one quiet place since.

I’ll let Ruby himself take one last word-solo. In 1979 he told Wayne Enstice: “I believe in beauty, and there’s got to be nothing but beauty in music. And if you’re not playing beautiful music that takes people to another plane, to a delicious place that they can’t ordinarily get to in their own lives, then you’re producing nothing. I want delicious sounds…that’ll take me away on a dream.”

Thanks, Ruby. You gave the world countless such delicious sounds.

P.S.  I hope that neither JAZZ TIMES nor Mick Carlon mind my reprinting this delicious piece that catches Ruby whole.  I, too, loved his music and followed him around with a camera (once) and a cassette recorder (many times) to be closer to the source of that wonderful sound.  And who’s Mick Carlon, aside from being a good friend and a fine writer?

Mick Carlon is a 27- year veteran public school teacher.  His young adult novel, Riding on Duke’s Train, starring Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, will be published in December by Leapfrog Press.  Says Nat Hentoff: “I knew Duke Ellington for over 25 years.  He was my mentor.  The Ellington in Carlon’s book is the man I knew.”  In 2014, Leapfrog will publish Carlon’s young adult novel on Louis Armstrong, Little Fred and Louis.  Carlon lives on Cape Cod with his wife Lisa and his daughters, Hannah and Sarah.