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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2001 / 27 Teves, 5761

Quin Hillyer

Quin Hillyer
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'JAZZ' documentary reigns, even among cats and dogs -- THE FIRST TIME I remember seeing tears in my father's eyes was the night he heard that Louis Armstrong died.

Armstrong's music was so personal and so powerful that losing "Satchmo," who my father had never met, was like losing a lifelong friend.

Jazz greats Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden both said the course of their lives was altered when they first heard Armstrong playing on paddleboats - in Teagarden's case, as he stood atop a levee with the boat cruising way out the middle of the Mississippi River. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and countless others - even (if I remember one long-ago interview correctly) Paul McCartney: All publicly paid heartfelt homage to Armstrong's influence on their work.

Now comes even more eloquent testimony, in the form of the PBS series "JAZZ, a General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation." In the 10-part documentary that began airing this week and continues throughout January, director Ken Burns has compiled an entertaining and educational tour de force. Burns convincingly makes the case that the course not just of American music, but of broader American history, was inexorably altered by the unique sound born in New Orleans, and by the musicians who played it - with Armstrong at their forefront.

Argue all you want about the merits of, say, Nirvana, or about some unappreciated, underlying social value of rap music. Compared to jazz - especially in its original, traditional "hot" style, which is the focus of the episodes tonight and tomorrow night on WEIQ - most modern pop music is schlock.

And even as soul-enriching as Bach or Mozart can be, no classical music so readily lends itself to such highly individual expressiveness.

For swinging rhythm, for grit, for depth, for creativity, for the sheer genius of its disciplined-but-improvisational art, jazz wafts alone and aloft. Jazz at its most upbeat is rapture; jazz at its bluest is not depressing, but redemptive.

And Armstrong produced jazz at its ... well, jazziest.

Trumpeter Max Kaminsky wrote of Armstrong that: "Above all, above ... the electrifying tone, the magnificence of his ideas and the rightness of his harmonic sense, his superb technique, his power and ease, his hotness and intensity, his complete mastery of his horn - above all else he had swing. No one knew what swing was until Louis came along. It's more than just the beat, it's conceiving the phrases in the very feeling of the beat, molding them and building them so that they're an integral, indivisible part of the tempo. The others had the idea of it, but Louis could do it; he was the heir of all that had gone before and the father of all that was to come."

What Armstrong inherited and then perfected and transformed was a music of unparalleled emotional intensity.

I sat once in the home of legendary jazz banjo player and raconteur Danny Barker, the man who in the late 1960s spurred a rebirth of the traditional music by organizing bands of youngsters at New Orleans' Fairview Baptist Church. "People don't understand today that this is a music to dance to," Barker said. "A man is supposed to hold a woman in his arms, and then sneak a little wiggle here and a little wiggle there with the vibrations, which would exhilarate both you and her."

And, later in the conversation, Barker described a jazz "second line" march as something that "would make you run out in the hot broiling sun with an umbrella to do your thing, with dogs on their hind feet dancing and cats on porches asking themselves, 'Well I'll be damned, what's going on here?'"

On the eve of Independence Day 1996, at the Wolf Trap amphitheatre outside of Washington, D.C., the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band played an encore of "When the Saints Go Marching In." Some audience members already had begun a "second line" dance, handkerchiefs waving in the summer air - but suddenly the line grew. Not dozens but hundreds of audience members found themselves wiggling in a massive snake line that looped from the open-air lawn, through the covered reserved-seat section, and all the way up on the stage behind the stunned musicians and back up another aisle to the lawn.

I wrote then that "It was the nation's music in the nation's capital on the eve of the nation's birthday, and the audience's enthusiasm promised that this American music will have many happy returns."

With his labor of love, Ken Burns tries not just to make that same case, but to ensure that jazz indeed makes a happy return to popular prominence. Toward that end, he enlisted corporate sponsor General Motors to produce an educational curriculum to serve 6 million American students, to acquaint a new generation with this marvelous art form.

He wants us all to understand, he said, that "Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in the unfolding drama and parade we call American history."

Ponderous as that sounds, he's almost certainly right. But to enjoy his series, you don't need to care about any of that. You just need to watch and soak it all in, and allow your feet to start tapping of their own accord.

And if you have dogs and cats, take a peek to see if at least their tails are thumping the floor to the rhythms.

JWR contributor Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer for the Mobile Register. Comment by clicking here.


01/12/01: Sometimes, history lessons can carry rays of hope

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