Utilizing his encompassing knowledge of Ellington’s music, personnel and decades-long touring, Carlon (a veteran middle-school teacher) presents a kid’s-eye view whose drama centers on the band’s 1939 European tour.
Danny, orphaned at 9, stows away on Duke’s tour train. Adopted as a gaffer and drum polisher, later becoming the composer’s musical copyist, Danny narrates a life of touring: exciting, sometimes boring, rich with musical highs and adoring fans worldwide. Schooled by band members in both reading (Dickens, Marcus Garvey) and trumpet lessons, Danny comes across a bit more as a vehicle for the rich chronicle than an authentic child with whom readers can identify. (Indeed, Carlon fashions Danny as an older man looking back at life with Duke; there’s an extraneous epilogue detailing a bucolic Irish retirement.) Danny’s awe is leavened by small adventures with such band friends as cornetist Rex Stewart and Rabbit (a.k.a. alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges). Tension ratchets during the tour abroad, as Belgians hide machine guns in haystacks and Nazis detain the band’s Scandinavian-bound train for hours in Hamburg. Carlon unflinchingly characterizes the Nazi hatred of “Niggermusik.” Two references to the n-word contextualize it appropriately, as a reprehensible tool of Nazi hate speech.In schools where students are lucky enough to experience classroom jazz studies, this title, combining rich musical history and a “you are there” approach, is a natural. (Historical fiction. 8-12)