Jazzing it up on PBS in January -- pure Americana

January 07, 2001|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- OK, this is what you do Monday night. Begin watching the first episode -- the first of 10 episodes -- of the public television series "Jazz."

At the 40-minute mark, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis explains "the Big Four" -- the technique of accenting the second fourth beat of a march. Marsalis -- a son of New Orleans, where jazz was born, midwived by brass instruments left over from the Civil War -- picks up his trumpet and plays a bit of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," first as John Philip Sousa wrote it, then with the jazz syncopation of the Big Four. If this doesn't cause your pulse to pound, either you're dead or you're a waste of food.

Following "The Civil War" and "Baseball," and equaling their excellence, "Jazz" is the third installment of Ken Burns' American trilogy, made with collaborator Geoffrey Ward. It will change the way you hear America's finest music, and how you understand America's path to the present.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the port city of New Orleans was an ethnic gumbo simmering in music. Some of it became the music by which African-Americans produced something doubly paradoxical -- collaborative individualism and disciplined improvisation.

Improvisation is inherent in America's errand into the wilderness, the conquest of a continent. And as Mr. Marsalis says, improvisation was the warp and woof of black experience. If you were a slave, the language, food -- all of life -- was strange, and if you could not improvise, you would be in a world of trouble. Trouble was the birth of the blues, music that is, in the words of music critic Gerald Early, was "about sculpting meaning out of a situation that seems to defy your being able to find meaning in it."

This is not exactly what Emerson had in mind when, speaking in 1837 at Harvard, he called for America's cultural emancipation from Europe. Emerson would have been startled by the emancipator, who first came to public notice just past midnight, Jan. 1, 1913. The barely parented 11-year-old was arrested for firing a pistol and was sent to the New Orleans Colored Waif's Home.

Almost everyone in "Jazz" agrees that Louis Armstrong was a genius, rivaled as a maker of jazz only by Duke Ellington. Armstrong caught America's ear at a moment when, "Jazz" notes, people were learning to fly, X-rays were seeing the bones beneath the skin of life, Freud was postulating that the self is a kind of fractious committee, Picasso was painting subjects from various viewpoints simultaneously and Einstein was postulating a continuum of space and time. Armstrong made jazz the soundtrack of this modern world.

Critic Garry Giddins says, "In the 1930s, I think the popularity of people like Jack Benny and Groucho Marx made the whole country a little bit Jewish. And I think that jazz certainly makes the whole country more than a little bit African-American." The jazz world was one into which some white musicians were lured by Armstrong. When he played on Mississippi steamboats, a 17-year-old Iowa boy, Bix Beiderbecke, heard him, as did a young Texas trombonist, Jack Teagarden, standing on a New Orleans levee, listening to Armstrong's notes piercing the moonlit mist.

Jazz has been underestimated by whites who are disinclined to credit blacks' creativity, and by white intellectuals of modest talents and immodest self-assessments (e.g., as the Beats were) who are eager to equate their undisciplined effusions with the art of jazz. Both kinds of disparagers have seen jazz as "improvisational."

There have been similar assessments of basketball, a game of flow that is the athletic analogue to jazz. Larry Bird is white and was described as a smart player. He was that, but Michael Jordan, who also was smart, was (like Willie Mays) called instinctual, a "natural." Jordan was not called that by anyone who ever saw him practice.

Giddins notes that Bach's and Beethoven's themes and variations were developed improvisationally. But because there was no recording technology, only the final work, not the process, was documented. Jazz, however, arrived with a technology -- recording of sound -- that documents, and makes durable, improvisation arising from a rich tradition submitted to discipline. "Jazz" is a 17 1/2 hour rendering of justice -- not just racial justice, but justice to all who have exemplified the exacting craftsmanship of jazz.

Generally, January is a slate-gray dead loss. But this year, all of "Jazz" will be broadcast by Jan. 31. Then, on Feb. 15, pitchers and catchers report. What a wonderful country.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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