January 18, 2007

Raising hep cats: Reading about, and listening to, modern American music

Children's author and home educating father Chris Barton at Bartography is mulling over choices for picture books about modern American music and musicians, mostly for his almost three-year-old son, and wrote the other week, "As for those books already on the shelves, there are far more worthy titles than one family can take on in a single month. These that I've listed below are simply those that caught my eye. If you've read them already, what did you think? Which others would you recommend?" I started writing up my suggestions for the comment box at Bartography but when they started to grow like crazy I thought I'd better put them up here to avoid an unintentional hijacking.

Of the picture book list Chris posted, the ones we've read and liked the best, probably not so coincidentally, are the ones that come with an audio CD: Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land; When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson; What Charlie Heard (book with CD), about Charles Ives, by the always elegant and poetic Mordicai Gerstein; and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (book with CD). You might want to add a few more CDs to the mix, especially Guthrie's "Songs to Grown on for Mother and Child" and as much Pete Seeger as you can manage, especially the American Favorite Ballads series.

And just a few more book suggestions, based on my own gang:

Aaron Copland pairs well with Ives, plus the cowboy ballets are particularly appealing to young children. The only dedicated picture book about Copland I can think of is the Mike Venezia volume in his "World's Greatest Composers" series. But Copland is included in The Story of the Orchestra: Listen While You Learn About the Instruments, the Music and the Composers Who Wrote the Music! (book with CD) by Robert Levine; and also in Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought) (book with CD) by Kathleen Krull; meant for older kids so you might want to preview this for younger ones. Ives is also mentioned in The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (book with CD) by Anita Ganeri, which is a bit heavy for most toddlers and preschoolers but great for slightly older siblings.

I'd be a very bad Cybils poetry panelist if I didn't suggest the recent poetry picture book Jazz by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by his son Christopher, and I'm glad to see that my fellow panelist Elaine was quick to suggest this one. Very nice when accompanied by the non-poetry picture book The Sound That Jazz Makes by Carole Boston Weatherford. And if you want to stick to a Myers & Myers theme, their Blues Journey (book with CD) is lovely; read it while listening to "Leadbelly Sings for Children".

Davy found the new This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt at the library recently. It's a counting book based on the song "This Old Man" (you know, the one with the knickknack paddywhack business), but even though he's six and playing around with multiplication, he -- and the rest of us -- got a big kick from the book. For kids who don't know jack about scat, this is a wonderful introduction, especially if you're going to read the Ella Fitzgerald book and listen to her music.

I know I probably don't have to say this, but especially when the subject is music, books -- no matter how great they are -- are just part of the picture. CDs and movies are a wonderful way to saturate your kids with the music, and, maybe even more importantly, to expose them to the original, real stuff rather than the kiddie version. With younger kids, you can always fast forward through the talky bits and head straight to the singing and dancing. I have three ardent Frank Sinatra (and Gene Kelly) fans, and their love of the music came about not from any books but from hearing the music around the house and watching old movies, especially Anchors Aweigh (and what could be more appealing than Gene Kelly dancing with Tom & Jerry?), High Society (with some great music by Louis Armstrong...), and, the best of the bunch, On the Town. For Gershwin (see below, too), it doesn't get any better than An American in Paris, where you get the benefit of more Gene Kelly, whose athletic dancing appeals greatly to boys; and then you may as well get Singin' in the Rain, which is about singing, dancing, and the early history of the moving picture.

Some other fun, older movies about music for the kids:

Ball of Fire: Barbara Stanwyck as a nightclub singer who moves in with eight old fogey professors, including the appropriately wooden Gary Cooper and the always charming S.Z. Sakall, to help explain "slang" for the encyclopedia they're working on. Stanwyck performs a couple of numbers with jazz great, drummer Gene Krupa. It's actually a 1940s screwball comedy version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with which it would pair nicely (though you might want to make sure it won't scare your toddler/preschooler). Not to be confused, especially if you're watching with the kiddies, Great Balls of Fire! about Jerry Lee Lewis, who, you might remember, married his 13-year-old second cousin.

As long as you're watching Snow White, you should line up the classic Fantasia, which combines animation beautifully with classical music, including Igor Stravinksy's "Rite of Spring" and Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain". Again, you probably won't want to let little ones, or sensitive older ones, watch either Snow White or Fantasia without you nearby.

There are a bunch of movies about the birth of jazz that are fairly cheesy and have dubious historical accounts, but the music is wonderful: two of the better ones are New Orleans (1947) with Billie Holiday singing "Do You Know What It Means (to Miss New Orleans)" accompanied by Louis Armstrong and an all-star band; and Syncopation (1942), with Bunny Berrigan, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Harry James.

Irving Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band is great fun, and so are some composer biopics, which tend to be rather stronger on the music than the actual biographical facts:

St. Louis Blues, the biography of W.C. Handy, played by Nat King Cole; with Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, and Cab Calloway

Rhapsody in Blue, the story of George Gershwin, played by Robert Alda (Alan's dad); pair it with the picture book and An American in Paris with Gene Kelly

The Glenn Miller Story, with James Stewart, and appearances by Gene Krupa and Louis Armstrong

The Benny Goodman Story starring Steve Allen

One of my kids' all-time favorites, Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney as composer and entertainer George M. Cohan

Another patriotic toe-tapper, Stars and Stripes Forever, with Clifton Webb as composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa

Movie musicals are a whole 'nother post (don't hold your breath right now), but if you're interested, to wet your whistle try That's Entertainment and the website for the 2004 PBS series The American Musical.

Not a movie, but now on DVD and one of the best ways to teach young children about music is the classic Leonard Bernstein television series, "Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the NY Philharmonic"; check your library. The series, on nine discs, includes 25 of the programs, such as "What Does Music Mean?", "What is Orchestration?", "What Makes Music Symphonic?", "What is Classical Music?", "What is American Music?", "Humor in Music", "Folk Music in the Concert Hall", "Jazz in the Concert Hall", "Happy Birthday, Igor Stravinsky" (see Fantasia, above), and much more. Bernstein's passion for the subject and love of children come shining through.

Beyond movies, there are some useful websites. The PBS "Jazz" series by Ken Burns is wonderful, and the website is still up, including pages for younger children, with some lesson plans and activities for those in grades K through 5.

The Smithsonian has a jazzy website, too, which offers "Smithsonian Jazz Class" for children and is divided into two sections, each titled "Groovin' to Jazz", one for ages eight to 13 and the other for ages 12 to 25.

And just for fun, for a swinging Christmas next December, keep these in mind and don't forget to have the kids compare and contrast the versions of their old favorites: Verve Presents the Very Best of Christmas Jazz, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, An Oscar Peterson Christmas, A Dave Brubeck Christmas, Ray Charles's The Spirit of Christmas, and Mahalia Sings Songs of Christmas! Though I'm not brave enough, with or without kids, for Christmas with the Rat Pack.

Speaking of fictionalized versions of history in the movies, don't miss Chris's recent post about fictionalized versions of history in children's picture books. Good reading for those of us who enjoy historical fiction.

And happy listening!

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