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Review of the Day – Duke Ellington: His Life in Jazz by Stephanie Stein Crease

Duke Ellington: His Life in Jazz with 21 Activities
By Stephanie Stein Crease
Chicago Review Press
ISBN: 978-1-55652-724-1
Ages 9 and up
On shelves now

I’m naturally suspicious around children’s informational books that seem deemed strictly for educational purposes. And any book that contains the words "with 21 Activities" is going to raise my alarum bells right from the start. I start thinking to myself, "What, the life of Duke Ellington is so dull that you had to pep it up with ‘activities’ to make it palatable to teachers?" Because, honestly, any book that so prominently displays its educational components is appealing not to youngsters but to the teachers who will be assigning said book. As it happens, Duke Ellington really was an almost too calm, sane person to write a biography about. Sure, he was at the forefront of the jazz movement and he is remembered has a heckuva composer in his own right. However, his life wasn’t filled with drug overdoses, drunken fights, fifty ex-wives, or anything particularly heady or exploitative. So setting his life within the context of his time, author Stephanie Stein Crease gives the man his due, throws in some goofy activities on the side, and the result is a book that surpasses its initial educational trappings. While it might be up for debate whether any child would read this title for pleasure rather than for an assignment, it’s still going to give them a bit of insight into a man, his life, and the world in which he operated/conquered.

He was born Edward Kennedy Ellington, a smart, baseball-loving kid from D.C. He wasn’t even into jazz or ragtime until at 14, when he got caught up in the popular music scene. Suddenly those piano lessons he took as a kid didn’t seem so lame after all. Applying himself, Duke (as he was now known for his snappy dress and style) learned from whatever great artist he happened to run across. He learned how to write music, play the piano, and (eventually) how to organize and run a band of his own. Over decades, Duke Ellington perfected his craft and found the best possible talents to join his incredible orchestra. A list of resources is included in the back of this book for further reading and information.

Since we’re dealing with children’s literature here, Crease probably had to tame down some of the bawdier aspects of life during the jazz age. Heck some of the theories about the origins of the word "jazz" wouldn’t be proper fare for the under 15 set anyway. Still, making the era utterly sexless wouldn’t be right either, so you get hints of it here and there. One of Duke’s first big hits composed as a teenager was "What You Gonna Do When the Bed Breaks Down?" (a slow song, appropriately enough). There are a lot of facts here people probably wouldn’t know about Duke’s life too. For example, one of Duke’s radio series was sponsored by the U.S. Treasury Department. This came in handy later on when he needed buses for touring during WWII (not an easy thing to get at that time).

Crease examines the man’s life from birth on up. Duke was a middle class kid from a supportive family and community. He started young, got big young, and stayed big even in the post-jazz era when rock and roll started to dominate. The author then comes to several interesting suppositions, most of which I agreed with, some that I found questionable. For example, I don’t know that I’d agree that the terms vaudeville and minstrel shows are unfamiliar "to many people" today. I feel as if most people know what they mean, if they’ve never seen them firsthand.

Crease also has a tendency to try to relate situations and moments in the past in contemporary terms. That’s a risky business right there, since you’re basically placing your historical non-fiction title in very contemporary (and easily dated) terms. So when she says that the battle of the bands was "the forerunner of American Idol or TV talent contests" that’s going to help a couple kids now. In the future, however, children who check this book out will read that line in the same way "the forerunner of American Bandstand" would read to kids now. It’s not an insurmountable problem (and American Idol is actually invoked more than once), but it can be a little distracting.

Of course, it’s a visually arresting book, no question. Long and thin, this sturdy paperback is filled with photographs, sidebars, cutaways, and images. There are separate boxes that give some background to the world surrounding Ellington during his formative years. For example, there’s a nice section about that newfangled object the piano, described here as "the heart of the home and … the family’s entertainment center." Altogether, the design is superb, working to suck the reader into Duke’s story and the story of the jazz age as well.

And then there are the 21 activities, as advertised on the cover. A lot of them involve designing album jackets or sheet music covers or concert posters, but others require a bit more creativity. There’s an activity based on writing lyrics to orchestral Ellington tunes that would be a pretty smart use of a creative kid’s time. Suggestions of various Ellington tunes (and which CDs you can find to get them) are included as well. Mind you, the activities do get a little wacky once in a while. For example, there’s actually a recipe in here on how to "Make Corn Bread for a Rent Party". I say it’s a little wacky, but the recipe actually looks pretty delicious. Wouldn’t mind trying that one out sometime myself. Other unconventional activities include how to "Make Costumes for a Floor Show" (a lotta feathers and top hats are involved), "Dancing Rope Trick," and "Host a Jam Session".

Though I found little problems here and there, as a whole I think Duke Ellington is a strong title. Will kids read it for fun? Some might. Maybe. Perhaps. And those who are assigned a biography to do might find themselves interested in the activities and photographs that pepper the pages. It’s certainly a boon to teachers who are desperately searching for projects to do with kids assigned to study up on the Harlem Renaissance, the Jazz Age, or the life and times of Duke Ellington. Not the easiest book to write, but a successful effort just the same.

On shelves now.

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Misc: Happy Non-Fiction Monday, everybody. L.L. Owens has the round-up.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.