President Obama has issued a proclamation naming June as African-American Music Appreciation Month. I recently sat down with the Jazz Collaborative to discuss When Grandmama Sings. Following are excerpts from that conversation.
JC: Your book, When Grandmama Sings, intermingles jazz with Southern history. Describe the story.
MM: When Grandmama Sings takes place in the 1940’s. Belle’s grandmother is a local singer in a small town in Mississippi. She gets an opportunity to go on a tour of the South and she takes Belle with her.
When Grandmama Sings shows what life was like for black entertainers who traveled from place to place. Grandmama is protective of Belle but she doesn’t shelter her from the harsh realities of life. They encounter separate hotels for blacks and whites. They can’t eat in a restaurant after a show because of the color of their skin. Grandmama meets with injustice in New Orleans when a club owner wants her to perform without pay. And when she performs in a big venue in Atlanta the audience is segregated: whites sit on the main floor and black people have to sit in the balcony.
JC: But after the tour great things happen for Grandmama.
MM: Absolutely. I love happy endings. I want students to know that life isn’t fair or equal at times. Regardless of how you are treated, if you remain focused on the gift you have inside of you, no one act or person can put your light out.
JC: What defines the relationship between Belle and her grandmother?
Trust defines their relationship. Bell travels with her grandmother and helps her read signs, menus, newspapers, etc. Even though she is a child, Belle is providing a valuable service to her grandmother. Grandmama trusts Belle to read everything to her. And Belle trusts her grandmother to take care of her.
JC: I love the relationship between Belle and her grandmother. Tell us about your relationship with your grandmother.
MM: My grandmother and I were very close. When she visited her sisters in other cities, she took me with her. My earliest memories are of me sitting in a chair beside my grandmother and she is teaching me how to read. When I was older my grandmother taught me how to cook. I will always cherish those moments in the kitchen with her teaching me her secret recipes. I wanted to show the same closeness between Belle and her grandmother.
JC: Why is it important for children to read books like When Grandmama Sings during African-American Music Appreciation Month?
MM: With budget decreases in schools and arts programs being cut, students are not being exposed to music and art programs. It is important that students learn to appreciate different types of music. They should know that certain types of music were born out of struggle. If students hear music and can read about the challenges the artist faced, they will have a better appreciation of what it takes to build a career.
JC: Students loved your program on When Grandmama Sings where you introduced female blues and jazz singers. Why is it important that they actually hear the music from that era?
MM: Students are familiar with music of today: rap, hip hop, and pop songs. It isn’t every day that they hear a different type of music. By introducing them to blues and jazz singers, I hope the music will speak to something inside of them. They will see that stories can be told through music.
JC: When Grandmama Sings is a recipient of the Living The Dream Award. What does this honor mean to you?
MM: It is extra special because students voted on the books. I am honored that When Grandmama Sings touches the hearts and minds of students.
JC: What does African-American Music Appreciation Month mean to you?
MM: It means that adults and children can learn about the rich heritage of African American music. African-Americans played an integral role in all types of music: blues, jazz, soul, rock & roll, musical theater, opera, classical, and choral music. This month is a great time to learn about their contributions.
JC: Any final thoughts about music?
MM: There is strength in music. The songs of the Civil Rights Movement provided strength and hope during the entire struggle for equal rights. There is joy in music. A song has the ability to lift people to a higher realm. That’s joy! There is power in music. Music has the power to change moods. Music, in all of its styles, is part of our lives. It is like the different color strands in fabric that when woven together creates a beautiful garment.
JC: Thanks so much for talking to us. If people want to learn more about your books, where can they reach you?
Book information, as well as contact information, is there.