Skip to main content


Jazz--An American Elixir

By Pedro Ponce | HUMANITIES, July/August 2000 | Volume 21, Number 4

Two thousand years from now, writer Gerald Early has said, America will be remembered for three things: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. "They are the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced." Early's remark resonated with film director Ken Burns, who was busy at the time with a film series on baseball. Now, five years in the making, his ten-part Jazz premieres in January on public television. It runs nineteen hours and includes five hundred pieces of music and interviews with musicians, critics, and historians. Burns sees Jazz as the third part of a trilogy in which cultural landmarks reflect the larger evolution of a distinct American identity. "I have been looking in all of my work for those aspects of our national narrative that reveal us to ourselves better than anything else," says Burns.

Early, who appears as a commentator in the film series and has written an essay for a companion book, picks up the thread. "A certain kind of paradox is built into jazz music," says Early. "You had people who created a music that's really celebrating democratic possibilities: liberation, freedom of the spirit, a soaring above adversities--who really hadn't experienced everything that democratic society had to offer, but you could look around and see the promise embedded in the society. Jazz is a kind of lyricism about the great American promise and our inability to live up to it."

The first episode of Jazz deals with the music's early days in New Orleans. The series moves from there to the rise of big bands, swing, bebop, rock, and soul, to the present.

Producer Lynn Novick says that Jazz tries to establish continuity between the lives and careers of the giants of jazz, from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Ray Charles. "We hope it is a definitive film history of jazz," says Novick. "We have interwoven all these different stories. These are not isolated people working on their own, but they're overlapping and connected with each other. You begin to understand how they've influenced each other. That's never been tried before.

A "definitive film history of jazz" may strike some as an oxymoron, the music arising as it did from a ferment of styles--blues, ragtime, gospel, country--and geographies--Creole, African, Latin American.

"Jazz is probably the most distinctive, the most complex musical art that America produced," says Early, who is a professor of English and the director of the African and Afro-American Studies Program and of the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's also the most inclusive. Jazz is a music that will take anything."

How it dealt with a world outside that was less inclusive is examined in the series. Blacks played at places where they could not stay as guests. Blacks and whites together on a bandstand could cause comment. At the same time, with segregation widespread, playing and listening to jazz was a pastime that could bring the races together.

"Many of the black people who performed this art form rose to the stature of being considered really serious, profound artists and that really hadn't happened before in American life," observes Early.

These musicians, however marginalized, produced work that at one point was the most popular music in America. "Everyone got into this music," Early says. In 1917 the Victor Recording Machine Company produced the first jazz record: Livery Stable Blues by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It cost seventy-five cents and sold more than a million copies, outselling Enrico Caruso and John Philip Sousa.

In the Depression, jazz offered swing, danceable music over the radio that everyone could afford. In the forties, jazz became a symbol of wartime resistance and traveled worldwide via V (for Victory) Discs. "Jazz expresses the hope of a free people," declared Earl "Fatha" Hines. "It is based upon individuality which is contrary to the very fundamentals of Nazism."

"There is a sense of hope and possibility and joy and an irrepressible energy that is quite remarkable," Novick comments.

With all of its permutations, jazz has not been easy to define. Musicians themselves are sometimes reluctant to offer an answer. "I can understand that," Novick says, noting that Duke Ellington disliked having his compositions identified with a one-word label.

Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University and another adviser on the film, compares trying to pin down jazz to observing the Big Bang and attempting to keep track of all the resulting asteroids. "Jazz is a style of interpreting a piece of music in a personal way. There are certain essential conventions, all of which can be interpreted very broadly."

Looking for the roots of jazz takes the listener to New Orleans and the early performers there. In the late nineteenth century, New Orleans was brimming with sound. African slave rhythms mingled with classical music, military marching music, hymns, percussive ragtime, and the blues. Following in the West African tradition of celebrating the dead with music, New Orleans brass bands would parade through the streets after a burial and play for the crowds. This negotiation is regarded as central to jazz as an art form, embodying what Burns calls the "exquisite American tension" between individual and collective expression. And while jazz may have developed in New York and Chicago and elsewhere, according to Raeburn, "in each case you can trace it back to the travels of specific New Orleans musicians."

One of the earliest was cornet player Buddy Bolden, who fused church music and march rhythms and became an inspiration for Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and countless others. Morton, who played piano in the black section of Storyville, the red-light district, would later claim to have invented jazz--a claim others disputed--but his experimentation with the rhythms of Bolden and others did made him one of jazz's preeminent composers. Another was Sidney Bechet, a Creole, middle-class, self-taught clarinetist, who became the toast of Moscow in the mid-twenties.

Of all of them, however, none would loom larger than Louis Armstrong. Born in 1901 (although he always gave his birthdate as the Fourth of July, 1900) and dirt poor, Armstrong left school at the age of seven to sell coal and rags in Storyville. There, he listened entranced to the music of Buddy Bolden and Joe "King" Oliver. After a New Year's Day escapade in which he shot off guns with some buddies to celebrate the holiday, he found himself in the Colored Waifs' Home for Boys. It was there that he took his first horn lessons and played in the brass band.

By the time Armstrong left the home at fourteen, he had decided to play music for a living. He played in New Orleans and then in Chicago, where King Oliver had gone with his Creole Jazz Band when Storyville was shut down in 1917. In Chicago they drew young audiences, black and white. Guitarist Eddie Condon recalls the scene: "As the door opened, the trumpets--King and Louis, one or both--soared above everything else. The whole joint was rocking. Tables, chairs, walls, and people moved with the rhythm. It was dark, smoky, gin-smelling . . . Oliver and Louis would roll on and on, piling up choruses, with the rhythm section building the beat until the whole thing got inside your head and blew your brains out."

By 1924, Armstrong was ready to move on to New York and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. When Armstrong didn't get enough solo time there to suit him, he struck out on his own. In 1928, he made a landmark recording of the West End Blues with his Hot Five on which he gave a virtuoso performance both on trumpet and scat singing. Armstrong, says Burns, took twentieth-century music--not just jazz--on a flight as exciting as that of the Wright Brothers.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a mixed blessing for jazz musicians. While record companies went out of business and the Victor Company even stopped producing record players, radio thrived. Radio spread jazz across the country. The big bands boomed in New York with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson. Duke Ellington toured the United States and Europe. By the late thirties, a number of band leaders were enjoying commercial success, among them Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. Jazz--in the form of danceable swing music--had become popular among millions.

Popularity, however, brought its heretics. Reacting against what they regarded as commercialization of the art form, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk pioneered the brash new bebop style. The music created a schism between traditional and modern forms of jazz. As Raeburn put it, "All hell broke loose between those two factions." Gillespie called Armstrong a has-been; Armstrong mocked Gillespie and bebop during an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl. Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman sided with bebop fans; Tommy Dorsey and Sidney Bechet aligned against.

By the mid-fifties, one question raised by music scholars was whether jazz was trading in its popularity for a self-conscious form of art music. Another was whether it had lost its roots. "Jazz appeared to many blacks no longer to be theirs," says James Lincoln Collier. "It now had a largely white middle-class constituency." One of the careers that has shifted the perception is that of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. New Orleans-born, like some of his famous predecessors, Marsalis began as a classical musician and then switched to jazz. In 1983, he became the first artist to win Grammy awards for records in jazz and classical music in the same year.

In looking at the future of jazz, some scholars like Early see the present as a period of consolidation, in which performers and fans are revisiting Armstrong or Ellington or bop. But Early thinks it is important to get beyond "just a restatement of what's gone on . . . . When you look at its history, jazz is about taking what went before, pulling out some important essential lessons from that and reinventing a new kind of virtuosity and going on from there."

Not that "there" wasn't great. In the film, horn player Sidney Bechet takes an elegiac view of his life: "There's all the music that's been played and there's all the music that hasn't been heard yet. So many men who've spent their lives just making melody and who haven't been heard yet.

"I'd like to hear it all one more time. I'd like to sit in a box at some performance and see all I saw years ago and hear all I heard way back to the start. I could sit there and listen, and I'd smile. And when I've got to go I could go that way. I could remember all the richness there is, and I could go smiling."

About the Author

Pedro Ponce is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Funding Information

NEH provided $1 million for the production of the series. Jazz premieres on public television in January.