Frank Morelli’s Playlist for his Novel, On the Way to Birdland
As the release date approaches for my new young adult novel, ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, I keep getting asked: what inspired you to write this book?
The truth is, any time you string close to one hundred thousand words together into a cohesive story, the avenues of inspiration must be innumerable. In fact, there were so many streams of experience, knowledge, empathy, and emotion flowing through me as I wrote the first draft of ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to be completely conscious of all of them.
I can tell you, however, that my strongest source of passion for the literature I was composing at the time came in a language many of us may consider universal: the sweet, poetic symphony of music.
To do that I have to take you back a few years to 2005. That’s when I moved from New York City to my adopted hometown of High Point, North Carolina and found out, through some sheer act of fate, that this small, random furniture town in the rural South happened to flow with the same air once breathed by jazz legend John Coltrane. I knew right away I wouldn’t be able to rest until I dove headlong into the history and the music of such an essential, American icon, and I wanted to see if I could understand what it was, if anything, about what at first glance appears to be a pretty bland and generic town that may have inspired an artistic genius to move closer to his creations.
Not only did the process help me gain a visceral appreciation for an artist I now see as nothing less than a musical genius and a modern prophet, but his sound also allowed me to see patterns I never would have noticed before in the collective harmony of American music. And I found solace in the realization that it is in our music where we reflect all of the qualities that make us unique, both for better and for worse.
The following playlist is by no means an exhaustive list or an official soundtrack, but it captures the essence of the music I came in contact with time and again during my process, and that continued to play through my head as I wrote the initial draft of ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND. I hope you’ll give it a listen as your eyes peel across the pages of my new novel.
1. Dream a Little Dream of Me – Doris Day
There’s an obvious dreamlike quality to this song that brought me directly into the reeling mind of my protagonist, Cordell Wheaton, a sixteen-year-old boy on a journey to find his estranged brother, Travis, as he struggles to suppress the reverberating memories of a traumatic event.
2. Little Birdie – Vince Guaraldi Trio
As a young boy, I used to roll my eyes every time my father played a song on the radio that was older than two weeks, which included jazz music in any form. Writing ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND forced me to reflect on my own listening experiences with America’s most hallowed music creation, and I realized that the first time I ever recognized a jazz song it was while watching a Peanuts cartoon. Yes, kind of childish, but I was an actual child at the time…and this happened to be the song that welcomed me into the fold of jazz appreciation.
3. Colors – Black Pumas
This is my favorite band to come out in quite a long time, and I think it’s because I love how the Pumas are able to connect through the ages with their music. They provide listeners with a sound that is uniquely suited for the present, while reaching right back into the soulfulness of a Marvin Gaye or an Al Green.
4. My Favorite Things – John Coltrane
This old standard comes to life through the mouth of Coltrane’s saxophone in a way that no other song remake ever can. Compared to some of Coltrane’s later, more experimental music, which takes a bit of a trained ear to truly appreciate, this song grants the casual music-goer with an all-access pass to Coltrane’s musical genius. It also happens to be a song that represents the tight bond between my protagonist in On the Way to Birdland and his missing brother.
5. One More Night – Michael Kiwanuka
Another one of those recent musical artists who seems to be able to reach back into the ages of sound and filter back harmonies that fit the resounding rhythms of the moment.
6. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag – James Brown
The Godfather of Soul has always spoken to me just as much as he seems to speak to one of my favorite characters in ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND, a kind-hearted truck driver who goes by the road handle ‘Cowbird’ and helps Cordy Wheaton find a new direction in his life.
7. Crazy – Patsy Cline
Not only did this song help me to empathetically develop the fragile mental state of my protagonist, but it also served as inspiration for the creation of a struggling country music artist named Lula McBride, who’s just one of the many important mentors Cordy Wheaton meets on his journey.
8. Chasin’ the Bird – Charlie Parker
This playlist would be incomplete without a proper tribute to Charlie “Birdman” Parker, one of the greatest jazz artists of all time, a mentor to John Coltrane, and the impetus behind the famous Birdland Jazz Club in New York City.
9. Coat of Many Colors – Dolly Parton
I love how well this song captures an underlying theme in ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND about the hidden trials and tribulations we all have hidden just under the surface and how our differences actually make us stronger.
10. Bye Bye Blackbird – Miles Davis and John Coltrane
Even if you claim to not be a fan of jazz, I dare you not to like this legendary jazz standard played side-by-side by John Coltrane and one of his most important mentors, the illustrious Miles Davis.
11. On the Road Again – Willie Nelson
This song is Cordy Wheaton’s general anthem as he completes his Odyssey-like journey up and down the East Coast of the United States.
12. Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver
Like most of us, Cordy Wheaton wishes he were anywhere on Earth besides his hometown. But, as Cordy learns on his journey, sometimes it takes a few outside experiences to help us appreciate the treasures we have sitting right in our own backyards. It’s a lesson that just sounds better when John Denver sings it.
13. That Was Yesterday – Leon Bridges
Another present-day musical genius, this Leon Bridges song–both lyrically and harmonically–captures Cordy Wheaton’s ultimate realization as he approaches the end of his journey. To Birdland.
14. A Love Supreme, Pt. 1 – John Coltrane
This is the first part of Coltrane’s most widely celebrated and possibly most enigmatic jazz suite of the same name. It is a piece of music so far-reaching that it once inspired the creation of a church dedicated to its worship, and it remains to be one of the most revered pieces of music of all time as consistently cited by leading scholars on jazz. To me, it signifies the importance of spirituality in John Coltrane’s life, and it provides us with a window into the man’s devotion to studying and appreciating the common threads that bind together most of the world’s religions. It’s a piece of music that cements John Coltrane’s legacy as one of history’s great uniters.
15. Carolina in my Mind – James Taylor
This is the song that kept popping into my mind when I envisioned the closing credits beginning to roll if I’m ever lucky enough to see ON THE WAY TO BIRDLAND up on the big screen. It’s a song that brings Cordy Wheaton right back to where he started, but with a new way of looking at the world around him, and a new way of valuing himself.
Meet the author
Frank Morelli is the author of the young adult novels On the Way to Birdland (2021) and No Sad Songs (2018), a YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers nominee and winner of an American Fiction Award for best coming of age story. His fiction and essays have appeared in various publications including The Saturday Evening Post, Cobalt Review, Philadelphia Stories, and Highlights Magazine. A Philadelphia native, Morelli now lives in High Point, North Carolina with his best friend and their four rescued fur babies.
frankmorelliwrites.com – author website
fowbooks.com – publisher website
About On the Way to Birdland
Self-proclaimed teenage philosopher Cordell Wheaton lives in a sleepy, southern town where nothing ever happens; not since his hero, jazz musician John Coltrane, left some seventy years earlier to “follow the sound.” Cordy’s life has been unraveling since the night his father and his brother, Travis, exploded on each other. The night Travis’s addiction transformed him from budding musician into something entirely different. The night Travis took his saxophone and disappeared. When Cordy’s father falls ill, the sixteen-year-old vows to reunite the Wheaton family. He embarks on a modern-day odyssey with forty bucks in his pocket and a dream to find his brother and convince him to be Travis again—by taking him to a show at Birdland Jazz Club in New York City, and reminding him of the common bonds they share with their legendary hero. Cordy’s journey is soon haunted by ghostly visions, traumatic dreams, and disembodied voices that echo through his mind. He starts to wonder if the voices are those of the fates, guiding him toward his destiny—or if he’s losing his grip on reality.
Publisher: Fish Out of Water Books
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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