Mick Carlon is an award-winning English teacher who has been inspiring students in the Barnstable schools for over 25 years. He is also a novelist who uses jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as a way to teach young adults about cultural history. He published Riding on Duke’s Train in 2011 and Travels with Louis in 2012, and his new book Girl Singer will debut on Cape Cod on Friday, November 27 at the Barnes & Noble in the Cape Cod Mall.
Where did your love of jazz originate?
My dad was a big jazz fan, so the music of Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday was always playing around the house. I was born in 1959, so the Beatles and Bob Dylan hit me in a major way—but I also always loved the music my dad was playing on the big stereo in the living room.
It takes a lot of courage to publish any book, but you write historical fiction about jazz legends – why was it important to you to include the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in your books?
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are two of the greatest artists our country has yet produced. In Europe they are looked upon as equally important as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Their music has brought me so much joy in my life that I wanted to open the door to that joy to others, especially young people. Living our one life and not listening to Armstrong, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Count Basie is like having buried treasure in your back yard—and not being bothered to dig it up.
You talk about how you got your students to like jazz, but why did you find it to be an important teaching tool?
These jazz artists were not only immense artists but also courageous human beings. All of the African American jazz greats—from King Oliver to John Coltrane—were treated like third class citizens in their own country due to the color of their skin. So when we listen to jazz artists, we’re not only diving into a pool of artistic excellence, but we are also encountering people who overcame great hardships in their daily lives—and they did so with grace and nonviolence.
How has the Cape community as a whole received and reacted to your subject matter?
Cape Cod has really welcomed my novels with open arms. From book store signings to schools adopting my books, the reception has been heart-warming. Riding on Duke’s Train and Travels With Louis, nationwide, are now in the curriculum of over forty schools, grades 6-9. Last year a bilingual school in Seville, Spain adopted both novels. Emmy Award winning filmmaker Ken Kimmelman is currently making an animated film of Duke’s Train for which I wrote the screenplay.
Tell us how your new novel, Girl Singer, is different than Riding on Duke’s Train and Travels with Louis?
First off, my protagonist, Avery Hall, is a young woman, so writing in a woman’s voice was interesting. (My wife and daughters read early drafts and gave me valuable advice such as, “Dad, a girl would never say something like that out loud!”). My editor at Leapfrog also wanted me to write a novel for 11th/12th graders. Maybe I aimed too high, because Girl Singer is being published as an adult novel, but one that could easily be used with upper high school students. Secondly, I’ve introduced a Holocaust survivor into the story. My African American protagonist, Avery, meets and falls in love with a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. My character, Karl Flach, is based on my dear friend (and third grandfather), Heinz Praeger, who I met in 1987 when he first spoke to my journalism classes at Barnstable High School. Heinz (who lived from 1911 to 1997) was also a master photographer and two of his photos are in the novel. Heinz Praeger was one of the kindest, bravest people I’ve ever met and I was honored to dedicate the novel to him.