Give kids something to sink their ears into

Music - August 2005


John Howell


When my son, Will, was born 6½ years ago, his mother, Cynthia, immediately started immersing him in the soothing sounds of the standard, predictable, generic children’s music—the tired nursery rhymes and infant sing-alongs that we’ve endured for generations.

For the record, I realize the importance of passing on to our progeny time-honored tunes, no matter how insipid. (And for the record, I also know that Fred Koch, Chicago Parent’s other music columnist, recommends great examples of children’s music that are none of the above.)

Life is about repetition and familiar tales and juvenile music has long served honorably. So, it was with no disrespect to tradition, nor any malice intended toward the excellent intentions of Will’s mom that I gently suggested his musical diet could be fortified slightly.

She was less than enthusiastic. She first accused me of being “insensitive to his needs,” then called me a “musical snob.” Cindy also pointed out that she herself had suffered 10 years of my record collection and had been “close to involuntary seizures” many times. I, of course, reiterated she was overreacting.

Despite her objections, I started my son on a steady regimen of non-children’s music. As I changed his diaper I would sing Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Any More.” Mornings, as he finished his rice cereal, I’d do my best Hank Williams Sr. The late dinner show might feature me playing my horn and giving him a taste of amateur Dizzy Gillespie. We’d drive up and down the roads with a collection of CDs that would make radio programmers shudder. My mission wasn’t mass appeal, but simply exposing him to a wide variety of music that I hoped he would find interesting, inspiring, educational and just plain fun.

In this, the first of what is planned to be an every-other-month gig with Chicago Parent, I aim to offer some musical recommendations for those of you who, like me, want to help their kids expand their musical taste. I would like to offer up for your consideration three CDs your children might enjoy as much as my 6-year-old “mini musical snob.”

HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON, Van Morrison with Georgie Fame & Friends, Verve Records, 1995, $14.98.

How anybody can be a fan of both Van Morrison and The Wiggles is beyond me, but Will has loved this album since he was 3. Essentially, this is Van with some of the UK’s best jazz musicians. Will loves the rhythm and energy. The band’s in great form and your kid’s fresh, young ears might even be able to decipher some of what Van’s singing.

As father and son, we’ve spent a lot of time talking over how these songs were composed, what mathematical forms and meter are utilized and how the jazz soloists are free to play notes that they feel sound best. After my boy soaked in this album, it was incredible to see how he put it all together watching some of Chicago’s legends play the same tunes Friday afternoons at Andy’s Jazz Club at State and Hubbard streets. Will memorized this CD’s version of “Moondance” note for note and thinks the original now sounds “slow and dull.”

I saw Van play the Chicago Theater last year and my son was upset that he was too young to take in the show. He had expected that he’d be able to request Morrison sing his favorites over and over, much like punching “repeat” on the CD player. Just one example of how much this record has meant to him.

NEVER SAY DIE, by Waylon Jennings, Sony, 2000, $11.98.

This is Jennings’ last record and a great one. Jennings has always been a personal favorite of mine and I’m selfishly attempting to have Will follow. I put this CD on as we drove to Michigan and let him check it out on his own terms. I remember hearing him trying to emulate Waylon’s deep baritone and still smile thinking that many in Nashville have felt that same frustration.

It’s an album full of interesting stories that may need some explaining but are well worth the effort. My guy’s favorite is a track called “Waymore’s Blues” that has prompted questions about how to “get the rabbit out the log, why make a sound like a dog” and “who was Jimmy Rogers?”

On a more important note, I’ve explained how Waylon lived an unhealthy life and consequently had a condition called diabetes and now has gone to heaven. All-important life lessons.

Like the Morrison CD, this one is recorded live, which also piqued my son’s interest.

KIND OF BLUE, by Miles Davis, Sony, 1959, $11.98.

This album is a family tradition. One of my warmest childhood memories is of my father letting me fool around with his old record player. The life-altering byproduct of my fascination with a beat-up turntable was the fact that my ears were able to develop before becoming biased by pop trends and peer pressure. I fell in love with many styles, tunes and players before I realized how hopelessly out of date they were. My parents had a wild record collection and my father would spend long hours listening to anything I’d choose. He’d lie on the couch, listen, and watch the Tigers with the sound down. Generally, by the third inning or the fourth track, he’d be asleep and shaking the house with his obnoxious snoring. In my mind’s ear I still hear many of those tunes mixed with my pop’s snorts.

I introduced this album to my son as an illustration that all music doesn’t have to have words. He now realizes that Miles’ trumpet and Coltrane’s tenor are their voices. I’ve encouraged him to pound the piano and blow the harp along with “So What” and “All Blues.” My only instruction is to make music, not noise—a suggestion I wish more professionals would heed.

When Will was younger, we would play a game and ask: What animal does Miles sound like? What color does Cannonball sound like? How many fingers is the piano player using? If nothing else, Will now realizes that his old man considers this album to be the best of all time. He did ask why Miles never smiles. I’m holding that discussion for later.

I’m proud to say that my little buddy enjoys wading through my extensive CD collection anytime—even at the risk of becoming a “musical snob.” Anything that prompts his imagination and tubes the Teletubbies is success in my book. 

John Howell, Will’s dad, lives in Chicago. He hosts the morning show on WUSN-radio, US-99.5, and Country Gold Saturday night.


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