- 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
Did you learn anything that you didn’t know?
Wynton helped me see that the first generation of young whites to play the music were heroic too. They were a terrifically disparate bunch. Some came from well-to-do suburban families or small towns, others were street hoodlums. What they had in common was that they were irresistibly drawn to jazz, which their friends and families dismissed as “nigger music,” not worth listening to, let alone trying to play. They heard something in that music that spoke directly to them and they determined to try to play it for themselves. They weren’t necessarily better or worse on the subject of race than a lot of other whites, but they heard Louis Armstrong and they knew that sounding like that was something to strive for. Now, none of them ever achieved it, but no black musicians ever achieved it either.
A lot of them were disowned.
Bix Beiderbecke’s family is the most famous example. His father never reconciled himself to the career his son chose to follow. But, as Wynton pointed out to me, it’s hard not to be sympathetic with the old man: Beiderbecke’s father had been afraid that if Bix became a jazz musician and lived that kind of life, he would become an alcoholic. And, of course, he did.
Another family like that is that of Jelly Roll Morion, who was a Creole and …
Absolutely, and I’m sure Ellington’s family was initially appalled by the kind of music he chose to play. They loved him, so everything he did was perfect because he was the apple of their eye, but still he was not playing the kind of accepted middle-class material they would have wanted him to play.
You begin the book with the lawyer and law professor Charles Black’s memory of having heard Armstrong as a college student. He had grown up in a racist community and assimilated all kinds of racist attitudes; he heard Armstrong, and it changed his life forever. He went on to help litigate Brown v. Board of Education. Do you have any idea whether Louis Armstrong ever knew the impact he had on civil rights?
I know he was proud of what he’d done, even when younger musicians who didn’t understand all that he’d gone through criticized him. But that incident seems to me to speak for the whole book, in a sense. He goes to a dance at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas. He had never heard of Louis Armstrong, had never heard jazz, he’s basically there because he hopes he’ll meet girls. And he hears a black person who is a genius.
And he knows it.
And he knows it. It’s mysterious. You can’t define it, but he hears it and he knows, even as a teenaged white kid from Texas, that that’s something he’s never heard before, and it stays with him all his life. You know, when he came home after the Brown decision, he played Armstrong records as a celebration. It always circles back to Armstrong.
Yes. And when I listen to certain performances, I never hear them as nostalgic. I always hear something new.
I do too. Whether he’s playing or singing, he does something you didn’t remember he’d done.
I think one of the major impacts this project is going to have will be to raise his national stature, because most Americans don’t really know what he did and who he was.
No, he’s the guy with the handkerchief on the old TV shows. I’d be satisfied if it just changed that.
It would be hard to think of a book about an art that centers on a hundred years with so many tragic figures. One of the most interesting, because he’s surely among the very least known, is Jim Europe.
James Reese Europe was an extraordinary person. He was consciously trying to produce a new kind of black music, a kind of ragtime-based precursor of jazz, and in the most articulate and interesting way, while playing for all the rich people in New York. He had New York’s leading dance band before the First World War, and then he took this Army band to Europe and just blew everybody away.
And they were heroes under fire.
His regiment was the most decorated unit in the American Army during World War I.
You tell a remarkable story about their playing, down South during the war.
They’d been sent to some place in South Carolina for training, and the treatment they received was absolutely horrible. But the fascinating story to me was that they had gone down with a bunch of other New York troops, including white ones, and when the white New Yorkers saw what was happening to their fellow New Yorkers who happened to be black, they were furious and would go beat up the rednecks. I found that to be one of those surprising stories about America that show how complicated we are.