Two-year olds can inspire a mom or dad to learn what’s possible—like make lunch, resolve a bathroom emergency and define “is” all at once. By the time I was a dad, I was a jazz drummer and an author. But it was my two-year old who inspired me to become a “jazz drumming author.” In other words, he inspired me to become both things at once.
What lead to that moment? What happened since? What follows originally appeared as an author spotlight in Prolific Writers Life. Enjoy!
Jazz Drumming Author Beginnings
Many authors recall devouring books when they were children. I actually preferred playing team sports and banging rhythms on any surface that made noise. My mother tried hard to steer me toward piano. She sent me to a kindly neighbor for lessons. But after months of lessons and virtually no progress, my piano teacher asked if I’d rather study some other instrument. “Drums,” I said shyly. A sense of relief crossed her face.
The cool, bouncy musician who taught me next was just right. And with just two sticks and a drum pad, I could focus on fewer details. I practiced overtime with joy and began to feel more expressive. In high school, I played in jazz bands, marching bands and with friends. I played combo jazz, funk and dance music on weekends.
In college, an opportunity to join a taiko drum troupe beckoned and led me to an unforgettable year studying abroad in Japan. “TAN-taka TAN-taka TAN-TON-TAN!” Between rehearsals, the Japanese drummers got me to chant the rhythms out loud. That improved my Japanese pronunciation—and gave me the confidence to pursue a second major in Japanese language, which in turn led me back to Japan to work as a copywriter after college.
So for me, drumming and writing long have been intertwined. Drumming, alas, slows down my writing but heightens my awareness of how words sound. Which syllables and which words in a sentence are stressed? Which consonants sound more explosive or soft?
Rhythm and Reading Intersect
Later, rhythm and reading intersected by chance. My son was not yet two years old. In my eagerness to be a good dad, I read aloud to him every night. But often, after a long day’s work, I’d doze off in mid-sentence. My son, resting his head on my chest, would take his bottle out of his mouth. “Read it, Dad!” he’d insist, and give me a little elbow in the ribs.
One night, I was reading his favorite book at the time, the Dr. Seuss classic, “Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?” But I nodded off and woke up so many times to his scolding (“Read it, Dad!”) that finally I forced myself to sit up energetically. I began snapping my fingers on 2 and 4 and reading with a jazzy rhythm and attitude:
“Oh, the wonderful things Mr. Brown can do.
He can go like a cow. He can go moo-moo.
Mr. Brown can do it. How about you?”
My son’s face lit up. His little shoulders shook with emotion. He took the bottle out of his mouth to laugh: “HAH-HAH-HAH-HAH!” If such a small kid enjoyed my rhythmic delivery that much, I figured I was onto something.
Presenting The Jazz Fly at Teacher Conferences
So I wrote The Jazz Fly to be read aloud with a jazzy beat. I presented it in my talks at teacher conferences, pulling in the audience, snapping my fingers on 2 and 4. The story introduces jazz scat and improvisation. It concerns a jazz drumming fly who speaks jazz:
“ZA-baza, BOO-zaba, ZEE-zah, RO-ni!”
The Fly meets animals when he’s lost on his way to his gig and later saves the day by incorporating their “languages” into his drum solo: Ruff! Oink! Hee-haw! etc.
The story was also my response to some people’s fear of bilingual education at the time. I found it life-changing to speak Spanish and Japanese; I wanted to show that such abilities make us flexible. I even dedicated The Jazz Fly to children everywhere who learned to speak a second language. I’d met thousands of non-native English speakers in public schools. I wanted those kids who sometimes struggled in English to feel seen and recognized for their ingenuity.
Teachers and librarians asked where they could buy a recording of The Jazz Fly. I hustled up some extra speaking gigs so I could afford to create one. I hired a jazz bassist, pianist and sax player among my musician friends. Should I hire a drummer too? No, I decided. I’ll record the narration and play drums myself—just not on the same track.
500 Copies of the Recording Sold
The five hundred copies of the recording sold out quickly. Now audiences began asking where they could buy the book. I called the two New York editors at commercial houses who had published five of my earlier works. I asked if they’d be interested in publishing The Jazz Fly with audio. They said no, they wouldn’t know how to produce or market a book with audio.
Meanwhile, my speaking work at elementary schools was gaining momentum. The Jazz Fly was a rare story that seemed to appeal to all grades. Still, I had misgivings about publishing the book myself. Finding the right illustrator and designer would be tricky. And I had no experience producing a book or CD from scratch. I really didn’t know what to do…so I called my mother.
“Publish it yourself,” she advised. “Sure, there’s lots to learn. But you know how to read.”
For the next two years, I read only non-fiction: books on publishing, marketing, publicity, sales; articles on book design, four-color printing, warehousing, accounting, distribution, the works!
Book with Audio Finally Launched
When my humble Tortuga Press finally launched The Jazz Fly (book with audio), my family and I worked assembly line style to insert the CDs into the books. To my relief, most (but not all) critics wrote nice things in the review periodicals (School Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, etc.).
More importantly, sales of the book gained traction. In fact, sales took off so fast that wholesalers and retailers—including Amazon—began contacting me! Of course, it helped that I continued to speak and perform the story at conferences—and re-stock the vendors’ booths when they ran out. Classroom teachers, reading specialists, music teachers all seemed to find different uses for the book.
Buzz, Honors, Growing The Jazz Fly Series
The American Booksellers Association (ABA) named The Jazz Fly their #1 recommended children’s book in Book Sense 76 (now “Indie Next”). Buzz among the general public lead to more speaking gigs, as PTA moms, not just teachers, reached out to book assemblies. My school visits, now up to 40-50 per year across the country, synergistically, lead to more sales and press.
Other honors and awards (and award stickers) materialized. Literacy organizations like Success for All ordered in bulk. Sales barreled toward, then surpassed, the six-figure mark.
Children and professionals have performed The Jazz Fly on different continents. Given the first book’s history and the terrific collaborators I had in place (including the illustrator Karen Hanke and audio producer Tim Gennert), I was thrilled to grow The Jazz Fly into The Jazz Fly series. Young readers feel comfortable with familiar characters. But to me it was important that the three books can be read alone.
Jazz Fly 2: The Jungle Pachanga
Jazz Fly 2: The Jungle Pachanga introduces Latin jazz and fun phrases in Spanish (“¡Ay, caramba!”). The word “pachanga” means dance party, like the one where Los Jazz Bugs (the Fly’s quartet) perform in “El Termite Nest.” The illustrations’ vibrant colors, and the rich percussion reflect Latin culture. In fact, the soundtrack consistently beats out even the original Jazz Fly when put to a vote among grade school students! (I think it’s because kids like saying, “¡Ay, caramba!”) The audio features the same instrumentation as the first Jazz Fly, with the addition of master Latin percussionist John Santos. Follow the Jazz Bugs deep into the rain forest, decipher the spoken words of exotic fauna—but watch out for the dangers that lurk!
A tad more sophisticated than the first Jazz Fly, this one, thankfully, also resonated with parents and teachers. After my helpers and I affixed gold award stickers to thousands of copies, I finally wised up and printed the award images on subsequent print runs.
Jazz Fly 3: The Caribbean Sea
WA-ba, ZEE-ba voo.
Mucho gusto. Enchanté.
(We used color coding so kids could keep the languages straight: blue for French, red for Spanish and emerald green for jazz scat.) How will the plucky musicians respond after a thunderstorm separates them and casts them adrift?
For Jazz Fly 3, I pulled in even more creative elements (a trumpet, a guitar, Afro-Cuban drumming; sea creatures and the hopelessly romantic Captain Cockroach). I hired a wonderful French-speaking stage actor to refine my French accent. (Note: French is not one of the languages I speak!) And I was fortunate to assemble all-star musicians including Rubén Valtierra, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s longtime pianist and collaborator! Jazz Fly 3 is a tad longer and more sophisticated than Jazz Fly 2.
I’m so grateful that all three of these books have won multiple awards. Most commercial publishers don’t attempt picture books set to authentic jazz. And most would probably consider the mix of international themes too ambitious.
Click here for sample pages of The Jazz Fly books with audio:
Download and QR codes now included
Technology and listening habits change quickly. Now Tortuga Press books with audio, including The Jazz Fly series, not only include the CD. They include download codes so people can keep the audio on their device, and QR codes so people can just point their phone and start listening. The idea is to invite young people to read along, chant along, even dance along with the story!
Coming Full Circle
When my son was in high school, he kept a Jazz Fly poster mounted to foamcore on his wall. I said, “Dude, you’re a teenager. Why the children’s book poster in your room?” He said, “Dad, of all the books you’ve published, that’s the one that’s gonna put me through college.”
In retrospect, he was right. The original Jazz Fly book was a game changer. It really did help me put him through college. (His mom helped too!) The gift he’d given me had come full circle. Having inspired this jazz drumming author to add rhythm, he opened new possibilities for us both.
“Language, rhythm, color, life!” What could my creative mantra be if not that? Thanks for reading and sharing the love of books!