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Mick Carlon ’82 Brings Love of Jazz to the Classroom

Mick Carlon
Mick Carlon

Some genres of music come and go. What’s trendy today can be unpopular and passé tomorrow. While certain types of music have endured the test of time, others need a little marketing so the music-listening public, especially the younger generation, doesn’t forget their place in history.

In the late 1950s, Danny and the Juniors proclaimed that rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay. These days, Mick Carlon, a 1982 Keene State grad, has become a modern-day troubadour for jazz, espousing its smooth sound and its memorable musicians.

Carlon, a longtime English and journalism teacher in the Barnstable, MA, school system, doesn’t just listen to jazz and attend concerts, but brings it into the classroom though music and books. “The first time they hear it, it’s bizarre to them,” he said. “But when I play it a second or third time while they’re taking a quiz or reading in class, they begin to like it, and then they ask me about songs to download.”

Carlon wasn’t content with just playing music to his students. The idea to write a book came shortly thereafter. “One day while doing hall duty, I said to myself, Carlon, you know so much about Duke Ellington. You could write a young adult novel about Duke with barely having to look up anything,” he said. “And while doing hall duty, I wrote the first chapter of the book and it just took off after that.”

The book, Riding on Duke’s Train, was published in 2011 by Leapfrog Press. Travels with Louis, about jazz great Louis Armstrong, followed in 2012.

Why did he pick jazz legends Ellington and Armstrong? “Both were artists on a level of Bach and Beethoven – revolutionizing American music – yet both were admirable, good-hearted human beings,” he said. “The stories of Armstrong’s generosity are legend – and Duke wasn’t far behind.”

Despite their wealth of factual information, both books are historical fiction with fictional protagonists. Carlon, who spent countless hours referencing each musician and listened to multiple interviews, got a good deal of his information by picking the brains of those who knew them best – people like Jack Bradley, Armstrong’s longtime friend and photographer, and Nat Hentoff, a jazz writer who knew Ellington for over 25 years.

In Riding on Duke’s Train, nine-year-old Danny stows away on Duke Ellington’s touring train. Through Danny’s eyes, we meet some of America’s finest musicians as he accompanies them on their 1939 European tour, when the train was briefly held in Nazi Germany.

In Travels with Louis, the reader is introduced to 12-year-old Fred, who learns about jazz – and life – from the great Armstrong himself.

In each book, Carlon doesn’t shy away from the undercurrents of racial tension of the time and the indignities Ellington and Armstrong faced, empathizing with the musicians who both died well before he was born.

The true test and affirmation of Carlon’s work came from the very people he spoke with while doing research. When Mr. Bradley read it, he said “The Duke Ellington in this book is the man I knew.”

Carlon is hoping that his books can one day make thousands of young people into jazz fans. He appears to be making headway. Duke’s Train is in 37 schools while Travels with Louis is in 29 schools, including the Louis Armstrong Middle School in New York City. “I get letters on a weekly basis from kids saying their iPod is now full of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington music after reading my book,” Carlon said. “That’s music to my ears.”

Born in New Rochelle, NY, Carlon spent his formative years in Nashua, NH. He was introduced to jazz by his father, at which point his musical palate became more diversified. The Beatles and Bob Dylan suddenly had competition from the Mills Brothers and Glenn Miller in the Carlon household.

An English major, Carlon has fond memories of his days at Keene State. “Those were precious years to me,” he said. “It’s where I grew in confidence and I met wonderful lifelong friends. And the education I got was top notch.”

One of those friends was Mike Gyra ’82, who later joined Carlon at Barnstable High. “Teaching in the same school system as Mick for the past 25 years has been an honor. He is the consummate educator who was born to be a teacher,” said Gyra, an astronomy teacher at BHS. “He is also a great friend.”

After leaving Keene State, Carlon briefly worked in the publishing field before returning to school at UMass-Lowell and earning a master’s degree in education. In 1984, a day after graduating, he was hired at Barnstable High and never left. Carlon, who moved from high-school to middle-school teaching in 2002, mixes his rigorous curriculum with a strong dose of humor. “I’m known as the teacher who gives the most writing assignments, but you try to be a showman at the same time,” he said. “Being a parent made me realize doubly that these are people’s children and their education is important.”

Carlon’s work in the classroom hasn’t gone unnoticed. He recently received the Kathleen Roberts Creative Leadership Award from the Massachusetts Teachers Association for using his passion and knowledge of jazz as a vehicle for teaching students about America’s cultural history.

English teacher, novelist, and jazz ambassador Carlon hopes to add the title of movie screen writer in the coming years. Riding on Duke’s Train is scheduled to be made into a feature-length animated film. The movie will be directed by award-winning filmmaker Ken Kimmelman.

“Carlon’s passion and love for jazz is energizing a new generation of listeners, not only locally, but across the nation,” notes Gyra. “When students walk into Mick’s classroom on the first day of school in September, they have no idea how lucky they are. However, it only takes them a couple of minutes to figure it out. From then on, Mr. Carlon’s English class becomes an adventure like no other.”

Mick Carlon is in the memory making business,” Gyra added. “By the end of the school year all his students have a new friend—jazz.”

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