Jazz: A History of America's Music

by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

Published by Knopf

2000, 512 pages

Buy it online






Freedom's Barometer

Reviewed by David Middleton


It's strange and wonderful the influence music has on us and what an important factor it can be in some people's lives. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the first girl I ever kissed (to whomever it was, I apologize) but I can remember with startling clarity the place and time when I heard my very first piece of jazz. Through my childhood, a small record player filled my parents' home with the -- to me -- insipid sounds of Perry Como, Dean Martin, Engelbert Humperdinck, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones. But one day as I stayed home from school (really mom, I had a cold), watching my favorite show, I had a revelation. An epiphany. An awakening. For there on the mobile home-sized cabinet that called itself our television, with childish voices telling me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street, between skits for the number "9" and the letter "L" danced a triangle to a strange beat.

My seven-year-old mind had not yet come to grips with, let alone ever heard about, syncopation. But there, on my parent's Phillips, a primitively animated three-sided figure bopped and gyrated to Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." Remarkable when it was first released in 1959 and today still considered a monumental recording, the pulse of its 5/4 time, its undulating rhythms and the sophistication of the Paul Desmond composition was not lost on my undeniably uneducated and badly mistreated (sorry Mr. Sinatra) musical ear.

From then on jazz was to be the music that moved me. Even more than 30 years after first discovering jazz I am amazed at how little I know or understand about the form and how much more there is to learn. It is a music of extreme intricacy and substance and the series of events that unraveled in order for jazz to become even the music it was when Brubeck released his immortal Time Out, are as remarkable as they are myriad.

Chronicling these events and companion volume to the 10-part, 19-hour documentary of the same name, Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns' Jazz: A History of America's Music is a remarkable, extensive and intimate exploration into not only what jazz is, but also what it represents. The history of jazz is more than just a record and progression of a musical style, it's also the history of people and of community. To trace its roots you must follow the lineage and interweaving and influence of numerous cultures and individuals. Jazz history is racism and liberty, passion and sorrow, freedom of expression and unjust repression. And because of and in spite of these things, jazz has become the formidable musical form it is today and will continue to be. Duke Ellington put it well when he called jazz a "barometer of freedom."

Starting off in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, Jazz begins with the music's three major influences: ragtime, the practice of taking songs and "syncopating and rearranging them to provide livelier, more danceable versions" and "the sacred music of the Baptist church and that music's profane twin, the blues." It takes us in-depth through the eyes of those who shaped it in its early days through to those who continue to stretch the boundaries of the genre today.

Biographies of jazz' most important players are examined in Jazz: A History of America's Music, as are the influences they had on the form. Think of someone -- anyone -- and they are here: Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Alberta Hunter, Bix Beiderbecke, Joe "King" Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Django Reinhardt, Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughn, Pee Wee Ellis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Cassandra Wilson, Charles Mingus... to go on would fill pages. And Jazz does fill pages, brilliantly and fluently.

To Ward and Burns, and all the people involved in its history and continuation, jazz is their faith, their church, their commitment. But, to some, jazz has been far less than the sum of its parts and it has had its detractors. Joseph Goebbels called it "the art of the subhuman." In a 1928 article for Pravda titled "Music of the Gross," Maxim Gorky likened it to unpleasant animal noises. In the Soviet Union school children who confessed to liking jazz were made to acknowledge these so called sins in front of classmates and "Anyone caught playing American jazz records was subject to six months in jail." Some called it unwholesome excitement, a moral disaster, putting people in a state of dangerous disturbance and generally having a bad impact on the moral structure of anyone who listened. The Nazis saw it as "Nigger-Jew" music -- a "baccilus" -- banning it from from radio and dealing with it in the usual horrific ways that only the Nazis could. Even using jazz as divertive propaganda from their war crimes; filming a staged jazz concert performed for and by prisoners of the Terezin Concentration Camp, afterward sending the musicians to the death camp at Auschwitz. And yet this barely touches on the injustices some black musicians went through in the late 1800s to early and mid 1900s just wanting to be allowed to play the music that moved them. Jazz is rife with such anecdotes but it is also full of the most extraordinary, funny and uplifting tales of how jazz brought people together as a community regardless of where they were from or the color of their skin. Jazz was their common language -- it was all that seemed to matter. It broke down boundaries, it lifted up spirits.

That jazz -- the word and the music -- has always been synonymous with cool is undeniable. So where did the word that describes the music come from?

"Jazz," wrote the band leader Paul Whiteman in 1926, was originally a "slang phrase of the underworld with a meaning unmentionable in polite society.... It reached the drawing room finally on the strength of its terse expressive virility. On the way up, it was variously a verb and a noun, generally denoting speed or quick action of some kind. It appears now to be firmly established as a member of that long list of American words in good social standing." The New Orleans music spreading fast across the country had first been called "ratty music," "gut-bucket music," "hot music." But now, people began to call it "jass," "jasz," and "jazz," though no one has ever been entirely sure why. As early as 1906, a San Francisco sportswriter was using the word to denote pep and enthusiasm on the baseball field, and there were those who thought it might have originally come from a West African word for speeding things up. But most authorities believe the term, like the music, came from New Orleans -- from the jasmine perfume allegedly favored by the city's prostitutes, or from "jezebel," a common nineteenth-century term for a prostitute, or as a synonym for sexual intercourse in Storyville, where some brothels were said to have been "jays'n houses." "The original meaning of jazz was procreation," says the trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, "you can't get deeper or more profound than that unless you're contemplating the Creator."

With extraordinary depth and full of information about the music and those who brought it to life, Jazz is encyclopedic in scope, rich, well researched, full of wonderful photos both contemporary and archival (some never before published). It would take a mountain of books to tell the whole story of jazz but Jazz has done an exquisite job of compressing that mountain into a single 512- page volume. | January 2001


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine but his real ambition is to live in the 50s, wear a skinny suit, hang out with guys named Miles or Chet and play the trumpet like a true hep cat.