How did Theodora get involved?
When they said it'll need illustrations, I thought, "I'm going to keep this in the family.' She did a lot of research. She was always asking me, "What did Gus wear?" I'd give her a rough sketch. We went through family albums and she went to London and researched the places that were mentioned in the book.
How did your family inspire you to become a musician? In my family, music is nonstop, so we sort of take it for granted -- it's like breathing. It's like birds singing. My mother used to play Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington -- I was getting a top-class musical education even though I didn’t know it. Everybody sang or played something. Gus ran a dance band in the '30s. He got gassed in the first World War -- he used to be a sax player but that blew the wind out of him. He took up string instruments instead. I'd go to visit him and there'd be this guitar on the top of the upright piano. I couldn't reach it; I was 5 or 6. He said, "When you can reach it we'll play with it." One day I got a chair with books and made a ladder, and Gus walks in and goes, "I guess you're serious." He was always taking me to the music shops in London, where I'd see instruments being made, from a chunk of wood into a guitar or violin. It was fascinating.
The first song you learned is the Ernesto Lecuona standard "Malaguena." What do you think when you hear it now?
I immediately think of Gus. He said, "Get your chops around this, then you can go and play just about anything." It's still my warm-up piece.
In the book's final illustration, you're shown as a child sleeping with your guitar. When's the last time you did that?
Sometime last week, when the old lady went to town. It's second-best.
What do you want readers, whether young or old, to take from the book?
For a kid, a laugh and a good feeling and maybe a desire to play an instrument. If a grandpa bothers to read it, he might want to reach out to his grandson a little more. And vice versa. There's a special relationship that can develop if you work on it. That's what Gus did with me. He didn’t treat me like a kid -- he was like a pal, a part of a larger family than you actually thought about.
If you wrote another children’s book, what would it be about?
Don't rush me! I can't believe I've done this one yet. I'm not planning on a literary career -- even though I'm doing pretty good at it.
An edited version of this story orginally appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Billboard.