Nicky the Jazz Cat
I admire Carol Friedman, author and photographer of Nicky the Jazz Cat. Writing a children's book about jazz is not an obvious project. Kids have a multitude of entertainment optionsfrom Game Boys to Harry Potter to The Wigglesand few of these options possess the kind of subtlety and wit jazz offers. Worse, older kids associate jazz with the hammy music of their great- grandparents. Does Nicky have a chance in this 21st- century jungle of distractions?
Maybe. First, consider what's being offered. Nicky is actually a book and a CD, both packaged in cyan covers featuring Nicky, about the cutest darn cat you're going to find outside of your own living room. Nicky, in fact, is an inspired choice. Jazz fans will immediately sense the visual pun at work herea hep catand young children will love this coal-black kitten with curious gold eyes and perked-up ears.
The book is an oversized hardback, good for reading out loud while the child looks on. The glossy pages probably aren't good for drawing on with crayons (my niece's favorite activity with her books), but otherwise the book seems sturdy enough. The CD is packaged in the newer and more sophisticated cardboard fold-out case, easier for children's small fingers than the sharp edges of a plastic jewel case.
It should be emphasized, this is not an introductory or educational text regarding jazz. Nicky is taken under the wing of trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and after learning to blow he jams with a number of jazz luminaries. The prose isn't of the highest quality, relying on hum-drum rhymes and exaggerated font sizes. The storyline is unfulfilling as well. Once Nicky learns to play, it's just him meeting a lot of famous people.
The photographs are the book's strongest element, and it's a shame because they're such a mixed bag. When Friedman gets a shot of Nicky yawning or staring inquisitively up into the lens, it's just about perfect. The stills of Roy Eldridge toying with Nicky are priceless as well. (Lena Horne reverses the old adage about being upstaged by animals. Her and her stunning grace upstages Nicky.) Other shots are too static and too posed, not nearly interesting enough. (Quincy Jones comes across as standoffish, perhaps not the best image for this kind of book.) And I suspect every child will ask "When do I get to see Nicky play music?" Obviously that's not going to happen without some serious Photoshop editing. Nicky walking across Lionel Hampton's vibraphone is the closest we get to seeing him play an instrument.
The CD earns higher marks. I worried the publisher had produced electronic or toyish-sounding covers of established material to make it more appealing to children, i.e. The Wiggles Visit The Five Spot. Fortunately, the publisher collected great original recordings of swing and bebop brimming with the kind of frivolity children enjoy. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Fats Waller and more are featured. While some of the songs will be new to kids, most will surely recognize "Three Blind Mice", "Jeepers Creepers", and maybe even Ella's "A Tisket, A Tasket". (That all the songs feature a strong call-and-response structure only adds to the fun factor.) The fidelity is tip-top, perhaps not the meticulous restoration audiophiles are looking for, but no annoying hiss or scratches to spoil the experience. Certainly the CD will sound fine in a car when somethinganythingis needed to hold the attention of fidgety youngsters.
Which leads to the bottom-line question: Will kids read Nicky and dig the music? My suspicion is the book will be fun for one or two reads, but perhaps no more. (Some kids might go back to laugh at the funnier stills of Nicky.) The CD is a better bet, but the cynic in me says MTV and The Backstreet Boys will eventually tempt the kids away. Still, if Nicky teaches even one child to love jazz, then this hep cat has done the world a service.