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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
There was great consternation about whether black troops would be allowed in the town. The mayor publicly stated that they should know that even in uniform they were going to be treated the way black South Carolinians were. When they gave a concert in the town square, things were tense. A big, muttering white crowd gathered. But after Jim Europe was finished, all they wanted to know was, When were his men going to play again? And the next day, the same sheepish town fathers came and asked if the band could play at the country club.
Another aspect of the race thing is that the whites who glommed on to jazz from the very beginning are almost all from minorities—Italians in New Orleans, Jews in New York, Irish in the Midwest and Northeast. And another thing that I had not put together is that both Beiderbecke and Parker learned so much from movie scores.
There are other parallels. Toward the end of their careers, they’re both addicts of different kinds and they’re both perpetually feeling that somehow they’re not doing what they should be doing. They both think that there’s a secret—if they just knew more about European music, maybe they could produce something better. They’re both listening to the same French impressionist composers too. They both hear something that they’re interested in, and neither gets anywhere near doing what he might have done, because their own appetites devour them.
Who are some of the people you got to love the most during the course of the book? We’ve talked about Armstrong and Beiderbecke. Are there others who surprised you?
One of the great things about doing this book—and why it was frightening at the same time—was that it made me listen to people that I hadn’t listened to as carefully as I should have. Lester Young is one, especially in those late years when he has all the lilt of his early stuff plus all the sadness of the human condition. It always swings, and it just kills me.
And he was attacked for those records.
Oh yeah. And then Ben Webster. I don’t think there’s anybody except Armstrong I like to listen to more than Ben Webster. You know, he was called “the Brute,” a hopeless drunk, mean, sometimes violent, yet he plays so tenderly. That’s one of the great things about jazz, the spectrum of emotion it produces. That a man like Webster could produce those intimate, whispering, tender sounds …
That reminds me of Johnny Hodges, whom I got to watch close-up for two days with the Ellington band when I was an undergraduate at Grinnell. Johnny Hodges looked like the most bored man on the face of the earth, like he’d rather be any place but on the bandstand. He’d sit there looking out of one side of his face and then the other, and then he’d put the horn in his mouth and play the most rhapsodic and exquisitely beautiful solo you ever heard in your life.
That’s exactly right. These are consummate professionals.
One of the first jazz musicians I heard as a kid was Dave Brubeck. I kind of put him aside for a long time, but I fell in love with him as a human being through the movie and the book.
He is a marvelous human being, and in the film he’s terribly moving. I remember, when I was a kid, I would read that there must be something wrong with him, because that was the era when if lots of people liked a musician, that was by definition proof that he wasn’t worth listening to. Brubeck was hugely popular and therefore superficial somehow, and out of touch with his raw feelings. And the other cliché was always that Paul Desmond, his alto saxophone player, was the great musician, and you just had to wade through the Brubeck part. When you really listen to those records, it’s not true at all. Desmond was great, but Brubeck can play . His music’s deeply emotional and swinging and exciting. I heard him in India when I was a teenager. He came and played and tore it up, at Delhi University. I’ve been very lucky. The first three bands I heard in person were Count Basic’s, Duke Ellington’s, and Dave Brubeck’s.
There’s a moving moment where Dave talks about having to show the cover of Time magazine to Ellington.
Yeah, they were on tour in ’54, and Time had been preparing two cover stories, one on Ellington and one on Brubeck. And Brubeck, who worshiped Ellington and saw him as a friend, heard a knock on his hotel-room door early one morning, and there was Ellington saying, “Look, Dave, you’re on the cover of Time” Brubeck said it was the worst moment of his life. He wanted to be on the cover of Time , but to be there before Ellington was a terrible thing for him.
Jazz leaves everyone behind at some point. For me, it’s fusion. For most people, it’s the avant-garde.
For me, it’s fusion. I can’t listen to that. And I can’t listen to—whatever it’s called—“sof” jazz.