Jazz And America

Geoffrey C. Ward, writer of a major new book and 19-hour
documentary (directed by Ken Burns) on the subject, discusses the joys and wonders of our native art form

Geoffrey C. Ward is no stranger to American Heritage, where he served as editor and later as a columnist. Born in Ohio, raised in Chicago and India, he reveals in all his work a singular generosity in assessing the achievements of American leaders, artists, and scoundrels, displaying an eye for the telling eccentricity and a fascination for the razor’s edge between myth and reality.Read more »

Fly Me To The Moon

Reflections on the Rat Pack
Everybody knows what they did. This is what they meant.

 

On January 19, 1961, at a gala in Washington’s National Armory on the eve of his Inauguration, President-elect John Kennedy made a remarkable gesture. He rose to tell the crowd, “We’re all indebted to a great fnettes—Frank Sinatra.” Read more »

Always

A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin

 

Like most baby boomers, I grew up hearing his songs and taking them for granted. I never gave a thought to who Irving Berlin was or how he had come to write the music that flowed through our lives. In the 1970s I saw a newspaper photograph of him singing “God Bless America” in the Nixon White House during Watergate and immediately consigned both him and the song to the “wrong” side. Read more »

Back To Bessie

Bessie Smith was the greatest blues singer of all time; and her influence still permeates popular music though almost no one listens to her records. An appreciation by an eminent jazz singer.

Billie Holiday made me want to listen to Bessie Smith. I heard my first Billie Holiday record when I was studying in Paris in 1969, and I immediately became obsessed with her songs, her singing, and her life. When I read that Bessie Smith was one of got hold of by the woman who is called the Empress of the Blues. Read more »

“My God, What An Act To Follow!”

LOCKED IN A STRANGE, TESTY COLLABORATION lit by the fires of a burning world, George M. Cohan and James Cagney produced a masterpiece of popular history in which everything is true except the facts

Yankee Doodle Dandy was made because a Los Angeles grand jury in 1940 released testimony identifying James Cagney as among a group of “communist members, sympathizers or heavy contributors.”

The charge was not new. Cagney had experienced “professional difficulties” in 1934 when he was linked to a cotton strike in San Joaquin, but he had remained outspokenly liberal and pro-union. Now Cagney and his producer-manager brother William, about to form their own production company with James as the major asset, took the charge very seriously.Read more »

The Omni-american

ALBERT MURRAY SEES AMERICAN CULTURE AS AN incandescent fusion of European, Yankee, frontier, and black. And he sees what he calls the “blues idiom” as the highest expression of that culture.

 

WHEN HE WAS SEVENTY, ALBERT MURRAY SCUTTLED AROUND MANHATTAN with the energy of a far younger man. A decade later, two spinal operations having cruelly diminished his orbit, Murray needs one of those four-pronged aluminum canes to inch down a sidewalk, bitter punishment for a naturally impatient man. Albert Murray’s big, handsome grin, which turns a listener into a coconspirator in whatever iconoclasm he is hatching at the moment, gets flashed less often now. Read more »

What Is Jazz?

Wynton Marsalis believes America is in danger of losing the truest mirror of our national identity. If that’s the case, we are at least fortunate that today jazz’s foremost performer is also its most eloquent advocate.

When Wynton Marsalis burst into the public eye in the early 1980s, it was as a virtuoso trumpet player. From the start he was an articulate talker too, but his bracing opinions were off-thecuff and intuitive; his ideas, like his playing, needed seasoning. In the years since, not only has Marsalis’s music deepened tremendously, his thinking has matured and coalesced to produce a coherent theory of jazz.Read more »

Agents Of Change

You’ve probably never heard of them, but these ten people changed your life. Each of them is a big reason why your world today is so different from anyone’s world in 1954

For want of nails, kingdoms are won and lost. We all know that. The shoe slips, the horse stumbles, the army dissolves in retreat. But who designed the nails? Who hammered the nails? Who invented the nail-making machinery? Who figured out how to market the nails in neat plastic blister packs hung from standardized wire racks in hardware stores? • The house of history, that clever balloon frame of statistics and biographies in which we shelter our sense of tradition, of progress, of values gained and lost, is nailed together with anonymity.Read more »

Country

It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.

Country music is one of those phenomena that remind us how much we’ve packed into the twentieth century, for it is younger than many of our parents. This is its story. Read more »

Make-believe Ballroom

A veteran recalls the everyday courage of a threadbare generation

My brother called me from Youngstown recently with a bright idea. Why not get up a three-piece band for a meeting of his musical club next month when I planned to be in town? Verne Ricketts was available to play the piano, and Hype Hosterman might be rounded up to play the drums. Read more »