Jazz And America

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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. As a historian and biographer, he is best known for his exemplary two-volume study of the pre-presidential life and career of Franklin Roosevelt, Before the Trumpet (1985) and A First-Class Temperament (1989), which won the National Book Critics Circle Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize, respectively. Yet even if you have done yourself the ill service of neglecting his books and articles, you undoubtedly know his work. Because Geoff Ward is also the foremost writer of historical documentaries in our time. Indeed, he is an innovator of the form.

Working mostly with Ken Burns, he has scripted numerous films ranging from biographies of Huey Long and Frank Lloyd Wright to those famous mammoth television histories The Civil War, Baseball, and The West. The cult of the director has perhaps obscured his contributions, but it takes nothing from Ken Burns’s extraordinary gifts to underscore that these series reflect Ward’s scrupulous devotion to historical research and chronology; his capacity for capturing a life, great or common, in a telling anecdote; and his eloquence, which inevitably makes those who read his narrations sound like seers. The books he has written as companions to the series are themselves distinguished works of history. No subject has meant more to him personally than his and Burns’s latest magnum opus, Jazz. The 19-hour film (showing on PBS in January) and book (published by Knopf) of that name reflect a long-time interest in America’s greatest—yet often ignored—musical achievement. Readers of American Heritage were among the first to learn of Ward’s affinity for jazz in his columns. As it happens, two of his jazz essays were reviews of my books. When he and Ken decided to embark on Jazz , they asked me to serve as a consultant. For this conversation, we met in my office on a Sunday afternoon and, nursing a couple of beers, did our damnedest not to ruminate exclusively about our mutual hero, Louis Armstrong.

 

Where did the idea for Jazz originate?

The book grew out of the film project. Ken Burns became interested in doing jazz because when the essayist Gerald Early was interviewed for our baseball series, he said that the United States would be remembered in the future for three things: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. I was delighted to hear him say that, because jazz has been a lifelong passion of mine, and of all the projects I’ve worked on with Ken, this was certainly the one I was most excited by, interested in, and emotionally attached to.

And there’s not a lot of footage on the Constitution.

That’s right.

When did your interest in jazz begin?

When I was about 10, I think. I can’t explain what got to me early on. My parents didn’t play it much, but they always encouraged me in every interest that I ever developed, and they bought me my first “jazz” record as a gift. It was Dinah Shore Sings the Blues, so you can see my family was a long way from the real thing.

The obvious precursor to Eydie Gorme Sings the Blues.

Exactly, though Dinah Shore sang better than Eydie Gorme. But there was something about Louis Armstrong that got to me very early. Then when I was 14, my family moved to India and I took my jazz records with me, partly, I think, because they were a link with America. It sounds sort of pretentious to say a kid felt that way, but I know that even though I loved India and still do, when I was an adolescent, on some level jazz music kept me rooted at home. When I was 16, my parents sent me to Paris to study French, and I felt homesick the way only an adolescent can feel homesick. There was a workmen’s bar across the street from the student dormitory where I lived, with a jukebox that had “West End Blues” on it. I must have played it a thousand times over that summer. There’s something about Armstrong and that particular piece that just represents everything American to me. It always has.

What year are we talking about?

Fifty-six.

This was the “Ambassador Satch” period, when not a lot of people thought of him as a great, serious figure.

Yes, but there was something in that music that spoke to me, and still does. I play Louis Armstrong 10 times a week. When I want to feel better, that’s what I play. I think you do the same thing.