May 22, 2012
The easy life with Duke Ellington
Riding on Duke's Train
by Mick Carlon
A nine-year-old boy jumps on a train and ends up touring with Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra. It sounds like an interesting story, but it's strangely lacking in conflict and excitement. I think the main problem is that everything happens a little too easily. Our protagonist, Danny, buries his grandmother, immediately leaves town, hops onto a train, and is taken in without question by Duke Ellington and his mates. He then goes on tour with the orchestra as a luggage handler and drum polisher, eventually becoming a musical copyist, a job he holds until Ellington's death. So the story is really told in one extended flashback. This isn't exactly a bad thing, but it means that Danny's memories are almost all good. His impressions of the band members are filled with admiration and appreciation, while his experiences on the road seem very carefree and easy. He doesn't experience any hardships; he's treated well by nearly everyone he meets. They all treat him like an adult, and even I kept forgetting how old Danny was supposed to be. He behaves and speaks like a twenty-year-old.
There are brief glimpses of the racism of the era, with one brilliant line - policeman to Ellington: "Duke, if you'd been born a white man, you'd've been one great musician." But the threat of war is merely hinted at, and a brush with arrest by Nazis in Germany is not as exciting as it could have been. Danny and his friends are conveniently rescued by a man who just happens to be a big jazz fan.
This is Mick Carlon's first novel. He's a jazz fan himself, which explains the nostalgic mood throughout the book. It's a very easy, undemanding read, which may get kids interested in Ellington's music. The concert scenes, the devoted fans, and the musicians themselves are well-described.
Carlon's next book will be about Louis Armstrong, due sometime next year. Called Little Fred and Louis, it sounds like it'll be another easy, happy tale.