I didn’t know it, but I loved jazz when I was a kid. I was a huge fan of the Vince Guaraldi trio. I didn’t know that either. I only knew that the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas was one of the best things I had ever heard. It was a risky move to pair grown-up jazz music with an animated children’s show in 1965; it would be a risky move now, in the era of Thundercats and Sponge Bob Squarepants. But the Charlie Brown specials have always made it seem that jazz for kids is the most natural thing in the world.
The jazz combo Coal Train Railroad–Katy Bowser, Chris Donohue, and a rotating cast of exceedingly talented instrumentalists–works on that very assumption, that jazz is great music for kids. More to the point, they demonstrate that jazz and kids are a natural combination. Their new record, Coal Train Railroad Swings, releases today. Musically, this is the real deal. Inspired by traditional swing jazz and seasoned with a dash of polka and a little bit of Tom Waits, the musicianship is stellar. Katy Bowser’s vocals are a miracle–expressive and very fun, but also technically astonishing. She performs a vocal run at the end of “Get My Wiggles Out” that is positively pyrotechnic. One wonders if she could possibly do it the same way twice.
That’s Coal Train Railroad Swings! for you: genuine virtuosity in the service of a song about getting one’s wiggles out. The same virtuosity is exercised in songs about going to the pool, leaving a lunch bag out in the rain, suffering from the common cold (“I Hab a Code”), and getting dirty (of dirt, Katy asks, “What am I supposed to do? This stuff is everywhere!”).
The subject matter is perfectly relevant to the toddler set, but there is no condescension here. I have heard Katy Bowser speak of “inviting children into the conversation” with her art. To put it another way, Coal Train Railroad says to kids, “Jazz is your music too.” Indeed, in many ways, children are more ready for jazz than adults. For a baby learning to speak, talking is a lot like scat-singing. A baby plays with the sounds and rhythms of words before he knows exactly what to do with their meanings. Katy tells of her baby daughter Story’s ongoing riffs on the words “broccoli” (“bockly”) and “book,” repeating them over and over with different intonations and pronunciations and cadences.
The great revelation of Coal Train Railroad’s music is that jazz, which seems urbane, highbrow, and frankly intimidating to many grownups, can be entirely accessible. I don’t even own a turtleneck, but still I love this music. Watching my own children enjoy Coal Train Railroad Swings! has reminded me that jazz, that great American form, is my music too.
[Here’s the first track from the record, in which a girl in Wonder Woman Underoos and a boy with inflatable Hulk muscles do battle with Godzilla and a toothy cow. The album is available in the Rabbit Room store.]
I’m Diggin’ Me
by Coal Train Railroad
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.