Author Mick Carlon strives to unearth the history of jazz in his new novel, “Girl Singer.” Set in 1939, the story is about an aspiring singer, Avery, who is swept into the world of jazz when she joins Count Basie’s band tour. Carlon is no stranger to the minds of young adults; he has taught in the Barnstable school system for more than three decades and authored two previous young adult novels, “Riding on Duke’s Train” and “Travels with Louis.” His books have been adapted into numerous school curriculums, including Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans and Seattle, as important accounts of the era of jazz and the racism and politics that accompanied it. —Julia Appicelli
How did you transition from teacher to writer?
I was doing hall duty one day at Barnstable High School and all of my students’ papers had been graded—a rarity. I had about 40 minutes left and I had brought some white-lined paper, so I began writing … and writing … and before I knew it, the first two chapters of “Riding on Duke’s Train” were complete.
Why did you decide to make jazz the center of your books?
I had always wanted to write a novel, but I’d run out of ideas. It dawned on me that I knew an astonishing amount about certain jazz musicians, and that I’d be able to capture their personalities with ease. After that realization, the books just poured out. It means the world to me when Nat Hentoff, a jazz critic who knew Duke Ellington and Lester Young very well, tells me that I’ve “thoroughly captured the Duke and Pres I knew.” Or when Jack Bradley, a Harwich resident and one of Louis Armstrong’s dearest friends, says, “Reading your ‘Travels with Louis’ is like hanging out with Pops again.”
You handle a lot of big topics in your book, from racism to sexism to xenophobia. Did you ever feel intimidated by the weight of these subjects?
No, I’m not intimidated by the heavy subjects because these artists lived these heavy subjects—and they dealt with them with dignity and nonviolence. Ellington and Armstrong were treated like musical gods in Europe—and rightfully so—but they were denied basic human rights in their own country. And it’s important to show today’s readers that these exalted artists—including Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Lester Young, among many others—dealt with racism on a daily basis. And, as we all know, it’s a tragic fact that bigotry is still not dead.
I write my novels for two purposes: to tell a hopefully interesting story, and to get young people to give jazz a try. I receive many letters from young people around the country—and sometimes from around the world—and the letters say different things, but then they say the same thing: “From reading your book(s), I’m now listening to Duke Ellington/Louis Armstong/Ella Fitzgerald/Lester Young.” And hearing that is music to my ears.
Why do you think it is important for new and different books, like yours, to be adapted into school curriculums?
So few young adult novels today seem to deal with people of color and/or so-called minorities. I think that’s why my three novels have found a home in so many school systems. Plus, teachers tell me that the books lend themselves to many enriching activities, of which listening to the artists’ music is just the start. The poet Langston Hughes and the civil rights leader John Lewis are characters in “Travels With Louis,” so the teachers are able to use Hughes’ poetry and Lewis’ magnificent nonfiction writings in class.
What do you want readers of all ages to take away from your book?
That jazz music has depth, soul and swing, and that once you’ve let Ella and Duke and Louis and Billie and Lester into your lives, you will never wish them to leave. You don’t need a Ph.D. in music to dig jazz—just an open pair of ears.