by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
I come from a long line of musicians on my mother’s side of the family.
My great-grandfather Aaron (we knew him as Zayde) allegedly played the trumpet for the tsar in his native Russia. When he immigrated to America, he played first trumpet in the orchestra pits for live theatrical productions at the Music Hall and other theaters in Boston.
My mother’s brother, Avram, née Alan, was an eccentric but brilliant composer and fixture in the avant-garde Boston music scene. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Leonard Bernstein.
My brother, Mark, played the drums. My sister, Emily, played the harp. And my mother herself played the trumpet, which, needless to say, was unusual for a young woman in those days.
Overall, as a family, we were pretty musical. But the familial musician who stands out most in my mind is Nana Rae.
My grandmother, Rae Shapiro Kemler, was a pianist. Family lore has it she was tickling the ivories from the age of four. She performed in many, many recitals (or “musical presentations” as they were called then).
As a young widow with three children, Rae supported her family by working as a piano teacher, giving lessons to all kinds of kids in Newton and the surrounding Boston suburbs. She had infinite patience with the assorted levels of talent and commitment across her student roster.
Some of her pupils were very gifted, and some were reluctant (and probably not so gifted). My brother, my sister, and I were three of her students, and I believe we fell somewhere in the middle—we had appreciation and ability but lacked enough dedication to really become excellent pianists.
I had my piano lessons on Tuesdays. (I also took clarinet lessons on Tuesdays, which, in hindsight, was probably too many music lessons in one afternoon. Even today, decades later, I have a strange sense of dread around noon on Tuesdays.)
I was a reasonably dutiful student, but I hated practicing and I hated playing with my left hand. Both of which—obviously!—are necessary to overcome to be truly successful at piano playing.
In retrospect, I have such tremendous professional respect for Nana Rae.
Her dedication to her students was indefatigable, and the niceties she brought to her practice—including gifting small alabaster statues of classical composers to her students when we reached musical milestones—made her a beloved piano teacher throughout our area.
Each spring, Nana Rae would hold a much-anticipated student recital in her living room.
There was a printed program listing our names and the pieces we would be playing. The program was special—we didn’t see our names in print very often. The Hoodsies—small chocolate and vanilla ice cream cups with little wooden spoons—that were passed around by the moms on a silver tray during the recital were special as well.
But most thrilling of all was that we got to play our pieces on my grandmother’s own Baldwin piano.
I remember many vehement (but not that well understood by me) discussions among many family members and visiting musician friends over the years about the merits of Baldwin versus Steinway as piano makers. But manufacturer aside, my grandmother’s Baldwin was a prominent and stunning artifact of my childhood.
Before Nana Rae died at the age of 102—still full of music and her Love for the Red Sox—and we had to empty out her apartment, I took that piano. We still have it in our house today.
My husband and our musician friends play it regularly. Each time they do, I flash back to those Saturday-afternoon recitals, when I was a little jealous that other kids got to play it—and felt very protective when they weren’t treating that Baldwin with the no-sticky-finger reverence it deserved.
Nana Rae’s patience and dedication to her students made music special for me from a young age, and I’m forever grateful.
Long before he came to Scholastic, David Vozar experienced some music magic himself in the high school band when all of his fellow musician friends played together.
All this music in my childhood gave me an appreciation for musicians, but I have to say, I knew next to nothing about Duke Ellington’s life story until I read the Book of the Week, Duke Ellington—the Caldecott Honor–winning, glorious picture book written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney (the dynamic, passionate, ultra-talented married couple and creators of more than 70 children’s books between them).
Like Duke Ellington, I didn’t love playing what he called “one-and-two-and-one-and-two”—“umpy-dump.” But unlike Duke Ellington, I did not go on to hear “umpy-dump” in a whole new way in a new music called ragtime.
Also like Duke Ellington, as a child, baseball was my idea of fun. But unlike Duke Ellington, I did not come back around to the piano, blossom into a musical genius who could see colors in the sound, and make unforgettable compositions that I would go on to play at Carnegie Hall.
I don’t know if most kids are, like me, only vaguely familiar with Duke Ellington’s story. But the Pinkneys’ Duke Ellington is a breathtaking and gorgeous way to introduce students to this major icon of American music and culture.
Andrea’s prose is practically poetry, and Brian’s colorful, vibrant illustrations are truly stunning. In this book, which is great for Black History Month (and any time of year), words and pictures come together to truly reflect and tell the story of Duke Ellington’s life and music.
“Addressing readers directly—‘You ever heard of the jazz-playin’ man, the man with the cats who could swing with his band?’—the Pinkneys embark on a cool and vibrant tour of Duke Ellington’s musical career.” —Kirkus Reviews
We tried hard to have all the sections of our blog this week reflect the dynamic, breathtaking energy of Duke Ellington—the man and the book.
• The Book Boys travel to the Cotton Club, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and BrownstoneJAZZ to show students real-life New York City jazz landmarks—and the Duke’s actual piano.
• Two music teachers use Duke Ellington to teach the four National Core Arts Standards—creating, responding, performing, and connecting—to students (from kindergarten all the way through fifth grade) in Book Talks.
• Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney come to the Scholastic studio for a very special up-close and personal video interview, in which they talk about Duke Ellington and their creative process in Behind the Scenes.
• And we provide a way to engage your students in a creative “drawing to music” classroom activity in Cooked Up from a Book.
I hope you and your students enjoy Duke Ellington. As the Piano Prince would say, I hope it inspires you to “create and be true to yourself.”
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs