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!