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An Exchange on ‘Jazz’

Every jazz-lover who watched Jazz, including me, has a lengthy list of subjects we wish had received more attention in the series. Like your reviewer David Hajdu [NYR, February 8], I’m sorry we didn’t have more time to deal with Duke Ellington’s compositional methods, provide fuller coverage of Latin jazz, do at least a little more with recent developments—though I also would not have traded fuller treatments of any of these subjects for the stories we did tell.

But Mr. Hajdu gets enough wrong in his review of what we did manage to include to warrant a reply.

First, while Ken Burns and I have worked together now for eighteen years he does not, as your reviewer asserts, lay down “organizing principles and thematic guidelines” within which I am required to remain. Jazz —like The Civil War, Baseball, and The West which preceded it—is not a souvenir program; it is meant to stand on its own. The script for the television series—which I wrote and then worked over with Ken for six years—forms a skeleton, but the narrative is filled with characters and topics never touched upon on-screen. We did not call Ellington either an “African Stravinsky” or “America’s latter-day Bach”; journalists of the time did, and we say so clearly on the soundtrack. Nor did we assert that Ellington wrote “Mood Indigo” “in fifteen minutes while waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner”; Ellington made that claim, and the narration is clear about that, too. And at no point, in either the film or the book, is John Coltrane ever “characterized in relation to [Louis] Armstrong….”

Finally, Mr. Hajdu’s charge that Jazz includes “subtle hints of racism and anti-Semitism” is both untrue and personally offensive. “We keep hearing how ideas ‘seem to flow effortlessly’ from musicians such as Armstrong and Ellington,” Mr. Hajdu writes, “an echo of the discomforting notion that African-Americans are instinctual musicians.” Only he seems to have kept hearing it since, by my count, we use the phrase precisely twice in seventeen and a half hours, once when describing the apparent ease with which Ellington turned out hits during the 1930s, and again when trying to evoke the long, dancing lines that do seem to flow effortlessly from the trumpet of Clifford Brown.

The operative word is “seem,” of course; nowhere do we imply that any great musician, black or white, ever played “instinctually.” In fact, both the film and the book were conceived in part to expose the hoary myth of black primitivism. Here, for example, from the version of Episode Eight that Mr. Hajdu presumably viewed, is how we dealt with the muddled relationship between Charlie Parker and the Beats.

NARRATOR: Parker and his fellow be-boppers were flattered by the attention of the Beats—but bewildered by it, too. Bebop was intricate, sophisticated, demanding—only the most highly skilled musicians were capable of playing it. Yet the Beats insisted it was simple, spontaneous self-expression—anybody could do it.

ALLEN GINSBERG: Jazz gives us a way of expressing the spontaneous motions of the heart. It’s like a fountain of instantaneous inspiration that’s available to everybody. All you got to do is tune on your radio or put on your record or pick up an ax yourself and blow.

NARRATOR: It was not the first time that jazz enthusiasts had misunderstood both the music and the musicians who made it. It would not be the last.

The book afforded me several opportunities to drive the point home in greater detail. Here is just one example, from page 386:

The Beats insisted [bebop] was simple, spur-of-the-moment—anybody could do it. They would see themselves as the musician’s natural allies, fellow outlaws, kindred spirits in the search for spontaneous expression. In fact, they were simply subscribing to a new version of an old misunderstanding: the same misunderstanding that had made Jim Europe’s men hide their music in order to fulfill the white audience’s expectation that they were “natural” musicians who simply let their feelings flow through their horns; the same one that suggested that Louis Armstrong’s music derived from instinct while Bix Biederbecke’s was drawn from his intellect; the one that led the patrons of the Cotton Club to see Duke Ellington’s complicated worldly compositions as primitive “jungle music”;… the same one that had frequently limited blacks to recording up-tempo tunes for which they were believed to have an inborn gift. Sadly, that misunderstanding would persist through the whole history of the music….

The accusation of anti-Semitism is still more bizarre. “According to Burns,” Mr. Hajdu alleges, “[Benny] Goodman and [Artie] Shaw…, both Jews, seem to have taken up jazz largely for the glory and money in it…. Goodman was ‘fiercely ambitious’ and Shaw a ‘professional,’ but neither of them, apparently, an artist worth discussing in aesthetic terms.” But Benny Goodman did take up music to help support his desperately poor family and he was “fiercely ambitious,” facts that had nothing whatsoever to do with his faith and everything to do with the hardships of his boyhood, as we make it perfectly clear both on-screen and on the printed page.

As for Artie Shaw, here is how we—and he—dealt with his decision to become a musician.

ARTIE SHAW: My father’d left home and I didn’t like my life very much. I didn’t like school, I didn’t like anything. So it was a choice between getting a machine gun or an instrument. Luckily I found an instrument.

NARRATOR: He visited a vaudeville theater and saw a musician in a snappy white-striped blazer kneel down on one knee in the spotlight and play “Dreamy Melody” on a shiny gold saxophone.

That did it,” [Shaw] said: music would be his way to fame and fortune.

ARTIE SHAW: I heard a guy play, and he was surrounded by nice lights and pretty girls and there, it was interesting to me. I thought, “This is the way I’d like to go.”

Far from suggesting that Shaw was merely interested in “glory and money,” the series goes on to describe his chronic unhappiness with the commercial side of music, the wish to be an artist, not a star, that eventually helped drive him out of the business altogether. And we do deal with the superb playing of both men over three episodes.

In the interest of telling our complicated story on film I freely confess to countless sins of omission—and am happy to have been able to make amends for at least some of them in the book—but neither Ken nor I nor anyone else involved in the Jazz project is guilty of the gratuitous charges Mr. Hajdu lodged against us.

Geoffrey C. Ward

New York City

To the Editors:

David Hajdu’s review of the documentary film Jazz by Ken Burns uncovers some telling deficiencies/omissions. However, he does not touch upon a glaring hole deep enough to consign to anonymity scores of creative, gifted jazzmen that justifiably sit in the Pantheon of jazz. Just a samp-ling: Trumpeters: Muggsy Spanier, Wild Bill Davison, Bobby Hackett, Hot Lips Page; Trombonists: Jack Teagarden, Miff Mole, George Brunies; Reeds: Pee Wee Russell, Edmond Hall, Chu Berry, Bud Freeman, Ernie Caceres; Pianists: Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Art Hodes, Albert Amonns; Drummers: Big Sid Catlett, George Wettling, and Dave Tough. From the late 1930s until the bebop era of the early Fifties these and other worthies thrilled jazz fans with free-wheeling, improvisational Dixieland as creative as any jazz of that time. They recorded for Commodore Records, the first label dedicated exclusively to jazz. Commodore’s first recording session took place the day after Benny Goodman’s January 16, 1938, Carnegie Hall concert. (Jess Stacy, Goodman’s pianist, was ripped untimely from his bed to participate in the session.) Commodore went on to record classic Dixie and small group sides, but does not receive a mention from Burns even though it was the label which recorded Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” a landmark he justifiably dwells upon.

During the 1940s New York jazz buffs hung the SRO sign on Town Hall the first Saturday of each month when Eddie Condon rounded up practically every jazzman in New York for his monthly jam blown by cats who may or may not have swung together before. Small groups improvised on tunes decided upon on the spot. Then everyone on the program joined in the half-hour jam finale that blew out the house. Three stomping drummers, at least ten brass, the same number of reeds, two striding pianists, bassists, guitarists galore, one tenor sax, the great Bud Freeman and Ernie Caceres, who swung the baritone sax on a par with Duke’s Harry Carney; and cool Dr. Condon perched cross-legged on a high stool plucking at his guitar and picking the solo order with a lackadaisical wave of a long, flattened finger.

In the Central Plaza on Second Avenue in Manhattan, there were emulations of those concerts in benefits for musicians, who had played by the rules of the game and died broke. At a 1954 fund-raiser for Hot Lips Page I was sitting squeezed on the ballroom floor facing about twenty pieces tearing up “Royal Garden Blues.” Suddenly a piercing, prolonged high note exploded behind me. Turning, I saw framed on the deserted balcony black-trousered legs framed through a four-foot guard rail, and a glistening cornet tilted skyward. Two spotlights found Gabriel as he blew into the music, dropping notes like gauntlets. The ensemble blasted an answer and I knew I was witnessing a New Orleans jazz feast—blowing down the band—a legendary challenge of intensity, inventiveness, and humor in which the loner and the group create a musical battlefield on which they clash, integrate, depart boldly, call and respond, and push each other to a shared victory. The challenger, Red Allen, a New Orleans elder statesman, blew his guts out for about fifteen minutes until the musicians on the floor abruptly declined a response, creating an eerie, silent introduction to a cornet coda. During the screaming, beer bottle– clanging ovation, I felt gifted with the impossible, as if I had walked the earth during the age of dinosaurs.

During those years Nick’s and Condon’s in Greenwich Village were meccas of jazz, home to greats like Pee Wee Russell, playing the one and only growl clarinet, and cornetist Muggsy Spanier, who had recorded his classic blues, “Relaxin’ at the Touro,” dedicated to the hospital in New Orleans where Muggsy had been cured of a mysterious illness. The nature of his malady was diagnosed for me by a hipster who claimed to be in the know: “Man, when you get to be called Muggsy by other musicians (Muggles was an early name for marijuana cigarettes) you got to be smokin’ pretty good. Muggsy smoked so much he went simple.”

The only vocalist at the Dixieland bashes was Lee Wiley, whose fragile but magnificently expressive voice wove of feminine helplessness and male strength the sensuality of a refined geisha. Her recording of “Sugar,” backed only by Muggsy Spanier and Jess Stacy, is surely one of the most extraordinary jazz vocal performances. Of course, Jack Teagarden also sang in that innocent West Texas drawl so right for preaching dirty blues or inside jokes: “I started out to see Bud Freeman but I lost my way, and I thought I was on the road for MCA.”

Jack does get a mention in the Burns piece as an original member of Louis Armstrong’s hot seven. His pedigree is given “as an old friend of Armstrong’s.” The greatest traditional jazz trombonist enters on that ticket.

The overwhelming majority of musicians I have referred to are white. Burns is out to convince his viewers that jazz has its roots in Afro-American music, which Louis Armstrong fashioned into jazz and Duke Ellington took past undreamed-of boundaries. No one can argue those premises and Burns presents them well. But he seems so invested in that message that he returns to it every twenty minutes or so as if to say: “See, what did I tell you.” He ends up gilding the obvious with the obvious.

Burns places Louis in a deserved God status, who could do no wrong. But would it not have given us some insight into Louis and Billie to repeat her take on Armstrong: “You can’t knock Satch, he Toms from the heart”?

Generally, there is a lack of humor, astonishing for a piece on jazz, a subject whose anecdotes have filled volumes. Jazz, we are told, is a serious business practiced by black musicians tortured by the world around them and their own artistic inadequacies (even if they are geniuses). This leads to endless philosophizing by musicians and critics as to the demons which pursue jazzmen and much claptrap about them reflecting the unhappy, violent, neurotic, psychotic temper of the times. If an explanation is needed for the morose and disconnected perhaps a line from Kierkegaard would have eliminated much talking and allowed more music. The truly melancholy Dane wrote: “The poet is one who harbors a deep anguish but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music.”

Amram Ducovny

Paris, France

To the Editors:

The considerable musical authority David Hajdu displayed in his criticism of Ken Burns’s PBS series on jazz suffered at least a glancing hit after he dipped into a footnote to cite Ernst-Alexandre Ansermet’s very positive 1919 review of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. Ansermet, Hajdu said, “had conducted the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.” The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet had indeed joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1915. The cat who wielded the little stick at that crazy 1913 premiere of Rite of Spring, however, was Pierre Monteux.

Harris Green

New York City

David Hajdu replies:

Mr. Ward and his collaborator, Ken Burns, gave Duke Ellington plenty of air time; my point about their portrayal of Ellington’s compositional technique was not that it was incomplete, but that it was incorrect (and inconsistent from book to film). The film’s depiction of Ellington as a solitary creator, rather than a highly collaborative one, misrepresents his culture and his genius.

At various points in the Jazz film, we hear Ellington compared to Stravinsky and Bach, and we hear the old story about Ellington writing “Mood Indigo” before dinner. Mr. Ward takes me to task for writing that he and Burns personally made these assertions. Yet I did no such thing. The assertions are in the film Mr. Ward and Mr. Burns made, which is what I wrote. Mr. Ward goes on to claim that “at no point” is Coltrane characterized in relation to Armstrong, deleting the key part of my statement: “Even John Coltrane is characterized in relation to Armstrong, in his case by the fact that he appears to have nothing in common with him.” (Italics added.) The point in the film that Mr. Ward denies actually occurs in the “Existence Man” segment of Episode Nine, where Gary Giddins contrasts Armstrong’s and Coltrane’s solo styles as, respectively, a poem and a novel.

As for the reference I made in one paragraph to subtle hints of racism and anti-Semitism in the film—not overwhelming choruses, but subtle hints with echoes worth attending to—I stand by it as written. Indeed, Mr. Ward supports my observation about the film’s portrayal of Artie Shaw’s decision to take up music for glory and money. Shaw said he was unhappy with his life at home and in school until the epiphany of seeing a well-tailored musician in the spotlight. “Music would be his way to fame and fortune,” the narrator explained in Mr. Ward’s text. Fame and fortune: glory and money. Much later in life, as everyone knows, Artie Shaw changed his mind.

I interviewed Shaw myself about a decade ago. When we were finished, I said thank you and good-bye, and he said, “Remember the only two things that really matter: Beauty and truth.” I leave Geoffrey C. Ward with the same thought.

I thank Mr. Green for correcting my error. I was misinformed (both in Robert Gottlieb’s text about Ansermet in Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now and by Walter Schaap, the original translator of Ansermet’s review, whom I phoned for clarification).

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