Putting the Sin in Syncopation Oh Yeah

h1 February 16th, 2009 by jules

If there’s one thing I want my girls to appreciate, as they grow, just about as much as I hope they’ll appreciate art, it’s music. When someone from the Chicago Review Press emailed to ask if I’d be interested in Duke Ellington: His Life in Jazz with 21 Activities, I wasn’t so sure. I’ve been way pickier about review copies lately, for different reasons. But it’s the Duke! My interest was piqued, especially since it’s one of those books that a music teacher or music-appreciation instructor would really dig: It includes twenty-one hands-on activities all in the name of engaging students a bit more. Okay, I was sold. I had to see it.

(As a result of my current Duke Ellington obsession—though I’ve always loved me some swing and big band and I’ve always adored him for once saying, “There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind”—I asked Hyperion if I could post some spreads from the swingin’ and most wonderful jazzy treat that is the picture book biography from 1998, Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and his Orchestra by Andrea Davis Pinkney with illustrations by Brian Pinkney. Remember this fabulous book? Those are the spreads which adorn this post, as I seem to be incapable of posting without some art. The opening spread features James “Bubber” Miley, who later joined The Duke Ellington Orchestra and who “could make his trumpet wail like a man whose blues were deeper than the deep blue sea,” as the Pinkneys laid it out for us.)

Duke Ellington: His Life in Jazz with 21 Activities, written by music journalist Stephanie Stein Crease, is primarily about Duke Ellington’s life and his influences (and she knows her subject matter well, or—in the words of Kirkus—”Stein Crease delivers a closely-written biography bespeaking her Ellington scholarship”), but it’s much more. It takes the reader on a tour of American jazz music — from pre-war ragtime to the swing music of the 1940s and beyond. And, along the way, Crease introduces students of music history to the luminaries of jazz—from Count Basie to Billy Strayhorn to Cab Calloway to Ella Fitzgerald and many more—as well as touches in detail upon the social forces that shaped the genre (in describing the attitude about jazz during the Roaring Twenties, she writes: “Jazz music was still controversial; the music was looked down upon by all kinds of people, black and white…{T}he latest jazz music and dances that teens liked were frowned upon, even by Ellington’s parents. The newspapers were full of stories: ‘Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?’; ‘Does Jazz Cause Crime?’”)

The activities are rather hit-and-miss, but I’d say mostly hit if you’re looking to inspire young musicians. “Think Like a Composer—What Inspires You?”; “Rhythm Exploration—Learn to Read Drum Notation”; “Make a Phonograph Needle”; and “Illustrate a Sheet Music Cover” clearly touch upon art and science as well as music. “Make Corn Bread for a Rent Party” seems a bit out of place, but this isn’t a serious literary crime. (Crease’s point here is that the “parlor socials” of Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance hosted some of the best music in town and that they were also famous for what came to be called soul food, the traditional home-made dishes from Southern kitchens.)


“Yeah, those solos were kickin’. Hot-buttered bop, with lots of sassy-cool tones. When the band did their thing, the Cotton Club performers danced the Black Bottom, the Fish-Tail, and the Suzy-Q. And while they were cuttin’ the rug, Duke slid his honey-colored fingertips across the ivory eighty-eights.”

A good read, especially for those young children and teens interested in jazz, as well as—it probably goes without saying—music instructors.

And now, because we just have to close with those honey-colored fingertips sliding across the ivories, here is The Duke — six glorious minutes of taking the A-train, circa 1967, I believe (please excuse the random Danish t.v. credits, which only last for a moment):

* * * * * * *

Spreads from DUKE ELLINGTON: THE PIANO PRINCE AND HIS ORCHESTRA. Copyright © 1998 Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustration copyright © 1998 Brian Pinkney. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Hyperion Books for Children, New York.





9 comments to “Putting the Sin in Syncopation Oh Yeah”

  1. I had an Ellington hat once, but I just wasn’t cool enough to pull it off.

    I’m going to wander around and say “hot buttered bop” for the rest of the day. I love it.


  2. *is now hearing Sir Duke on brainradio*

    The book sounds really great – will keep an eye out for it, for more than one reason (she says mysteriously).


  3. I love those information/activity books from Chicago Review Press. It’s a nice format, and they do a number of topics that I don’t already have five million books on. Got to love that.


  4. ’30s-40s jazz has always fascinated me — all the cross-pollination among musicians, composers, entire bands even. And I love the way they all carved out and held their own little niches or enclaves of style and form; once you’ve listened to enough of the music (not that I did by choice: just an innocent bystander who benefited from his parents’ tastes), you can pretty much say, without hesitation, which band it is, playing whose music.

    (Just yesterday I was thinking how you could probably count on the fingers of, umm, maybe three hands the Big Name Bands from back then… and how, by contrast, the rock explosion in the ’50s-60s just seemed to generate an endless number of bands and vocal groups — almost impossible to keep them all straight.)

    Duke Ellington took jazz into his lap like a pet cat, and hand-fed it a sort of symphonic catnip. (His autobiography was called Music Is My Mistress. Not merely the love of his life, and far from his life’s work. His mistress.) I’m so happy to see a book out there like this one from Chicago Review!


  5. Ooh! I wanna slide my honey-colored fingertips across those ivory eighty-eights! And hot buttered bop is way cool.


  6. Jazz can be a tough one to share with kids – this looks like a really wonderful resource.


  7. OK, I have no idea about the new book, but the Pinkney art has me drooling this a.m.


  8. I think that a book about Duke Ellington for children is a wonderful idea! Younger kids these days are too concerned about what’s playing on disney to appreciate where the basis of that music stemmed from.


  9. I think that a book about Duke Ellington for children is a wonderful idea! Younger kids these days are too concerned about what’s playing on disney to appreciate where the basis of that music stemmed from.


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