- 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
That’s a hard one. I’m very partial to the notion that you can play all kinds of music in new ways. That you can play Jelly Roll Morton in an interesting way, you can play Thelonious Monk in an interesting way. That’s not a lesser thing. It’s making something new out of something old, building on a great tradition. I think Wynton Marsalis does that, and other people do that, but I can’t tell you who’s going to be a monster in the future that people will write books like this one about. I just don’t know.
How did you choose which stories to tell?
Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t know how to do history unless I’m telling a story. I believe in chronological history. Things develop in order. Jazz history is very often done in a way my father described as “potato-race history.” You know, you put the potato on the spoon and you run up to the finish line, then come back and get another potato. So you do big bands all the way to the end. Then you come back and cover small groups. That isn’t how jazz or anything else actually develops. Things happen all over the place, all at the same time. What I enjoyed was linking up things, so that you know that in a given month various things happened in different parts of the jazz world. For better or worse, that isn’t how jazz history is usually done.
You’re right. I think that’s one of the great things about the book and the film. You’re in the throes of the swing era and suddenly Dizzy Gillespie arrives, which is exactly what happened, because he was part of the swing era.
Bebop was invented by swing musicians. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Nothing does.
Swing really is a huge foundation for everything that’s come after it. I detect a slight tone of sadness in the book when the music begins to lose its popularity, specifically with dancers.
Well, I think everybody feels a sadness that it lost popularity. I’m not trying to make a moral judgment, Bird and Dizzy are heroic people. They’re trying to create an art form, to be seen as artists, not entertainers. That’s a very admirable goal, and it produced marvelous music. But it was also difficult music. Unless you’re an astonishing virtuoso, it is hard to expect people to sit and listen to somebody play long strings of solos. You have to really be listening.
I wonder whether, if he had his druthers, someone like Wynton, who venerates swing and everything it means, would want people dancing?
I know for a fact he loves to see people dancing. It makes you play better, he says. Swing musicians talk about playing at the Savoy and having the audience tell them they weren’t swinging. Dancers would come up and say, you know [snapping fingers], “Pick that up.” It must have been something to experience that amazing give-and-take, that call-and-response excitement. Ellington talks about how wonderful it was to play a ballad and see people falling in love in front of you.
I remember being taken by the fact that Ellington would play a performance where half the evening would be a concert with seats, and at intermission,they’d remove the seats and it would be a dance. But the book didn’t change. Yeah, it was the same book. Of course, the irony is I always had the suspicion that a lot of the younger jazz enthusiasts, my generation, a little older, a little younger, who fetishize the swing era now, wouldn’t have gone within 50 miles of a ballroom in the 1930s, because it was too popular.
I suppose that’s true. They would have been looking for something more arcane.
One of the major themes throughout the documentary and the book is race.
Well, it’s an awful corollary to the story. There’s the blatant kind of racism of keeping people out. And there’s a much more subtle kind, which is the idea that somehow jazz music is—at least when played by blacks—somehow an instinctive, raw, natural, primitive thing. That math runs right through the whole history of the music. During the sixties and seventies, for someone like Duke Ellington, who had risen above a lifetime of condescension, to hear someone like LeRoi Jones calling on black musicians to reject everything that ever happened in Europe, including the tempered scale, in favor of what he called “the new, the ‘primitive,’” must have been especially awful.
You tell anecdotes about black players’ pretending that they can’t read music or that they’re making it up on the bandstand after they’ve rehearsed for hours.
They would practice until they knew every single note, and then hide all the music, because white audiences didn’t believe black music was “authentic” if musicians knew how to read. How people put up with that and kept on creating is simply—oh, what’s the word I want?—it’s heroic .
Did you know from the beginning that race was going to be so big a theme in this work?
Yes, I did. You can’t do American history and not do race. I don’t know a single part of the story it doesn’t come into at some point. But especially, obviously, it comes into this one.