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Jazz And America

June 2024
19min read

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

Geoffrey C. Ward is no stranger to American Heritage, where he served as editor and later as a columnist. Born in Ohio, raised in Chicago and India, he reveals in all his work a singular generosity in assessing the achievements of American leaders, artists, and scoundrels, displaying an eye for the telling eccentricity and a fascination for the razor’s edge between myth and reality. As a historian and biographer, he is best known for his exemplary two-volume study of the pre-presidential life and career of Franklin Roosevelt, Before the Trumpet (1985) and A First-Class Temperament (1989), which won the National Book Critics Circle Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize, respectively. Yet even if you have done yourself the ill service of neglecting his books and articles, you undoubtedly know his work. Because Geoff Ward is also the foremost writer of historical documentaries in our time. Indeed, he is an innovator of the form.

Working mostly with Ken Burns, he has scripted numerous films ranging from biographies of Huey Long and Frank Lloyd Wright to those famous mammoth television histories The Civil War, Baseball, and The West. The cult of the director has perhaps obscured his contributions, but it takes nothing from Ken Burns’s extraordinary gifts to underscore that these series reflect Ward’s scrupulous devotion to historical research and chronology; his capacity for capturing a life, great or common, in a telling anecdote; and his eloquence, which inevitably makes those who read his narrations sound like seers. The books he has written as companions to the series are themselves distinguished works of history. No subject has meant more to him personally than his and Burns’s latest magnum opus, Jazz. The 19-hour film (showing on PBS in January) and book (published by Knopf) of that name reflect a long-time interest in America’s greatest—yet often ignored—musical achievement. Readers of American Heritage were among the first to learn of Ward’s affinity for jazz in his columns. As it happens, two of his jazz essays were reviews of my books. When he and Ken decided to embark on Jazz , they asked me to serve as a consultant. For this conversation, we met in my office on a Sunday afternoon and, nursing a couple of beers, did our damnedest not to ruminate exclusively about our mutual hero, Louis Armstrong.


Where did the idea for Jazz originate?

The book grew out of the film project. Ken Burns became interested in doing jazz because when the essayist Gerald Early was interviewed for our baseball series, he said that the United States would be remembered in the future for three things: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. I was delighted to hear him say that, because jazz has been a lifelong passion of mine, and of all the projects I’ve worked on with Ken, this was certainly the one I was most excited by, interested in, and emotionally attached to.

And there’s not a lot of footage on the Constitution.

That’s right.

When did your interest in jazz begin?

When I was about 10, I think. I can’t explain what got to me early on. My parents didn’t play it much, but they always encouraged me in every interest that I ever developed, and they bought me my first “jazz” record as a gift. It was Dinah Shore Sings the Blues, so you can see my family was a long way from the real thing.

The obvious precursor to Eydie Gorme Sings the Blues.

Exactly, though Dinah Shore sang better than Eydie Gorme. But there was something about Louis Armstrong that got to me very early. Then when I was 14, my family moved to India and I took my jazz records with me, partly, I think, because they were a link with America. It sounds sort of pretentious to say a kid felt that way, but I know that even though I loved India and still do, when I was an adolescent, on some level jazz music kept me rooted at home. When I was 16, my parents sent me to Paris to study French, and I felt homesick the way only an adolescent can feel homesick. There was a workmen’s bar across the street from the student dormitory where I lived, with a jukebox that had “West End Blues” on it. I must have played it a thousand times over that summer. There’s something about Armstrong and that particular piece that just represents everything American to me. It always has.

What year are we talking about?


This was the “Ambassador Satch” period, when not a lot of people thought of him as a great, serious figure.

Yes, but there was something in that music that spoke to me, and still does. I play Louis Armstrong 10 times a week. When I want to feel better, that’s what I play. I think you do the same thing.

Well, my experience was somewhat similar. I was in New Orleans when I was 15, and I had grown up listening to classical music and then rock, and then rock turned into Fabian and so there wasn’t much to listen to. And I heard a New Orleans jazz band, which got me very excited. Back in New York, I was with my parents visiting some friends, and they had an old Cue magazine in which 15 jazz critics picked the 10 greatest jazz albums of all time, and there was only one album on every single list : The Louis Armstrong Story, Volume Three, with “West End Blues.”

Let’s talk about Louis. When you write about him, and I hope this is true when I write about him, and it’s true when a lot of people, like Dan Morgenstern, write about him, there is a glow in the prose. And it’s there every time he comes into your book.

It’s hard to put into words. There is something elevating about everything he ever did. I’ve never heard anything by him that I didn’t feel somehow lifted up by. There’s something about that incredible sound too. It’s so warm and so magisterial. I don’t mean to sound corny, but there is something terribly loving about him. It just gets you. No matter how silly the song. “Blueberry Hill” knocks me out. Now, I couldn’t care less when anybody else sings that song. He found the essential humanness in everything he did.

It’s a generous music.


Totally welcoming, totally warm, totally inspiring. I don’t know how else to put it.

When people used to mention Louis Armstrong to me I would say, you know, forget “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World,” you have to listen to the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. I don’t feel that way any more. Now, my feeling is, it’s all there in “Hello, Dolly.”

I listened just last week to a thing he did very shortly before he died, something like “What a Wonderful World,” only a much sappier song. And he’s an old man, and you can hear he’s not feeling well, but it still just lifts you up. And it’s all the more moving, because he’s struggling a little bit to do it. It’s as close to religion as I’m ever going to get.

Well, I’ve always made that connection. My only religious experience is Louis Armstrong. He changed my life, and William James says that a true religious experience doesn’t backtrack, it changes you forever, and this passes the test.

The trumpet player Max Kaminsky said, “I’m very religious, I worship Louis Armstrong.”

There is an experience of conversion for a lot of people when they make the leap from knowing Louis Armstrong as one of the old entertainers who used to be on The Ed Sullivan Show to really hearing him. Did this happen a lot with people working on the film?

I think so. People got interested in the music, a lot of young people who loved rock and had never really heard jazz at all, film editors and so on, really began to listen. I think it was mostly Armstrong who ushered them in.

When you started putting the script together, did you know that Armstrong would be the central figure?

I did. And Ken came to see it very quickly, too, as soon as he began to listen. But I mean, it’s always seemed to me that Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who was so very different, are the two titanic figures in the history of the music. There are lots of other wonderful musicians, but those two speak most to me.

Reading the book, there is a tremendous excitement, that these are not just great musicians but they’re inventing the world over and over and over again—I mean every time somebody new comes, in, it’s not fust that it’s a remarkable new personality from yet another corner of the United States but a whole different vision of the music. Did you get a feeling that that historical aspect was over?

No, I don’t think it’s over. One reason we didn’t do more on the current era is that at some point writing about the music becomes more journalism than history. And I don’t know enough. I mean, I’m not as sympathetic to a lot of recent music as I was to earlier stuff. But I think the world is still full of young people trying to play, and I still love to hear them. I just think that when you’re dealing with Armstrong, and Ellington—and Charlie Parker—they are such huge figures that it’s terribly hard to know if anyone in recent years has been anywhere near as important. I don’t feel qualified to make those judgments.


I agree that a lot of extraordinarily gifted young players keep coming along, but what I don’t often hear is the individuality. When Lester Young came to town, everybody said, Damn, no one has ever played the saxophone like that. There were a few people in the sixties you could say that about. Cecil Taylor, Omette Coleman, Albert Ayler, whether you liked their music or not, you knew they were doing something that had never been done before. I wonder if that can be sustained, or if we’re in a sort of posthistorical period when it becomes a question of constantly interpreting what went on in the twentieth century, the way classical music is constantly interpreting what went on in the nineteenth .

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.

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.

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.

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.

Same story.

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.


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