- 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
Oh no, I don’t even think ofthat as jazz, or I would have said that first.That’s appalling. The very idea that they call it soft jazz is a libel. How do you feel about the avantgarde? Did you find yourself listening to more of it because of the project?
Sure, I listened to more, but it’s so diffuse it’s hard to generalize about. I like some late Coltrane, but after that, I find it very hard to stay with it. I think the same thing happened to jazz that happened to painting at about the same time. I graduated from Oberlin College in 1962 with a degree in studio art, and I remember that for most of my fellow students who went on in painting, their goal in life was to do something novel. Each of them thought his or her job was to somehow do something unlike anything anybody else had done. Frankly, none of them produced much. The drive to be new is different from the drive to be genuinely true to your own vision. Since the sixties there has been that pressure on artists in all fields to reinvent the wheel.
But the really great ones weren’t attempting that any more than Charlie Parker was. I don’t think Omette Coleman could have been anything else.
No, and I like Omette Coleman. I don’t like all of his music—I don’tunderstand why he ever took up the violin—but you can hear history in his music, you can hear somebody deliberately choosing to do things differently from the way other people have done them. For me, for somebody who likes history, itmusic—Is fascinating to hear somebody reaching back into the past and making something altogether new. That I find thrilling.
There—s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but nothing comparable in jazz. There—s Nashville, but nothing like that in New Orleans. I suppose a lot of this has to do with race, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that jazz just doesn’t generate as much money.
It doesn’t have the audience it used to; it is an undervalued art form. It is the most intensely American music, created by the most despised minority, out of all the music they heard here. There is nothing more American.
Yet most Americans, as I keep discovering, don’t know what it is. I was once on a talk show in Bismarck, North Dakota. There was an all-star concert that evening at the local college, a dozen great musicians, and I was there to lecture. And they asked me to go on the air in the afternoon to plug the concert. The host had some cheat notes about the musicians, and whom they worked with, and she said, “Well, now, you say all these musicians play jazz, but I see here, looking at their biographies, that a lot of them played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie,” and I’m waiting for the question.
What was the question?
She says, “Well, you wouldn’t call them jazz, would you?” And I thought, I’m on a different planet here.
What did she mean?
She thought Duke Ellington and Count Basic were like Glenn Miller or Lawrence Welk, leading old-time dance bands.
I remember—I put it in the book—the year before I got to Oberlin, Ellington went there to play, and they took the grand piano off the stage because the Oberlin Conservatory of Music thought jazz musicians would hurt the instrument. He had to play an upright, which of course he played as though it were the greatest Steinway in the world. There was not a flicker of resentment. He had dealt with this before. It was beneath him.
My freshman year they brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet, and they had a couple of beautiful pianos for anybody who came out ofjuilliard, but for the Modern Jazz Quartet, they sent over this upright.
But a different ending. John Lewis walked over to the piano, played a C-major chord, and said, “Where’s the piano we’ll be using?”
They said, “This is the piano.” And he said, “Then we won’t be performing this evening.” And they brought out the concert grand.
Another generation. Different ways of dealing with the same idiocy.