- Historic Sites
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
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
Well, my experience was somewhat similar. I was in New Orleans when I was 15, and I had grown up listening to classical music and then rock, and then rock turned into Fabian and so there wasn’t much to listen to. And I heard a New Orleans jazz band, which got me very excited. Back in New York, I was with my parents visiting some friends, and they had an old Cue magazine in which 15 jazz critics picked the 10 greatest jazz albums of all time, and there was only one album on every single list : The Louis Armstrong Story, Volume Three, with “West End Blues.”
Let’s talk about Louis. When you write about him, and I hope this is true when I write about him, and it’s true when a lot of people, like Dan Morgenstern, write about him, there is a glow in the prose. And it’s there every time he comes into your book.
It’s hard to put into words. There is something elevating about everything he ever did. I’ve never heard anything by him that I didn’t feel somehow lifted up by. There’s something about that incredible sound too. It’s so warm and so magisterial. I don’t mean to sound corny, but there is something terribly loving about him. It just gets you. No matter how silly the song. “Blueberry Hill” knocks me out. Now, I couldn’t care less when anybody else sings that song. He found the essential humanness in everything he did.
It’s a generous music.
Totally welcoming, totally warm, totally inspiring. I don’t know how else to put it.
When people used to mention Louis Armstrong to me I would say, you know, forget “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World,” you have to listen to the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. I don’t feel that way any more. Now, my feeling is, it’s all there in “Hello, Dolly.”
I listened just last week to a thing he did very shortly before he died, something like “What a Wonderful World,” only a much sappier song. And he’s an old man, and you can hear he’s not feeling well, but it still just lifts you up. And it’s all the more moving, because he’s struggling a little bit to do it. It’s as close to religion as I’m ever going to get.
Well, I’ve always made that connection. My only religious experience is Louis Armstrong. He changed my life, and William James says that a true religious experience doesn’t backtrack, it changes you forever, and this passes the test.
The trumpet player Max Kaminsky said, “I’m very religious, I worship Louis Armstrong.”
There is an experience of conversion for a lot of people when they make the leap from knowing Louis Armstrong as one of the old entertainers who used to be on The Ed Sullivan Show to really hearing him. Did this happen a lot with people working on the film?
I think so. People got interested in the music, a lot of young people who loved rock and had never really heard jazz at all, film editors and so on, really began to listen. I think it was mostly Armstrong who ushered them in.
When you started putting the script together, did you know that Armstrong would be the central figure?
I did. And Ken came to see it very quickly, too, as soon as he began to listen. But I mean, it’s always seemed to me that Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who was so very different, are the two titanic figures in the history of the music. There are lots of other wonderful musicians, but those two speak most to me.
Reading the book, there is a tremendous excitement, that these are not just great musicians but they’re inventing the world over and over and over again—I mean every time somebody new comes, in, it’s not fust that it’s a remarkable new personality from yet another corner of the United States but a whole different vision of the music. Did you get a feeling that that historical aspect was over?
No, I don’t think it’s over. One reason we didn’t do more on the current era is that at some point writing about the music becomes more journalism than history. And I don’t know enough. I mean, I’m not as sympathetic to a lot of recent music as I was to earlier stuff. But I think the world is still full of young people trying to play, and I still love to hear them. I just think that when you’re dealing with Armstrong, and Ellington—and Charlie Parker—they are such huge figures that it’s terribly hard to know if anyone in recent years has been anywhere near as important. I don’t feel qualified to make those judgments.
I agree that a lot of extraordinarily gifted young players keep coming along, but what I don’t often hear is the individuality. When Lester Young came to town, everybody said, Damn, no one has ever played the saxophone like that. There were a few people in the sixties you could say that about. Cecil Taylor, Omette Coleman, Albert Ayler, whether you liked their music or not, you knew they were doing something that had never been done before. I wonder if that can be sustained, or if we’re in a sort of posthistorical period when it becomes a question of constantly interpreting what went on in the twentieth century, the way classical music is constantly interpreting what went on in the nineteenth .