A high note in educational television:
It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing'
Jan. 10, 2001
It began on January 8 at 8 p.m. The best educational television yet. Nineteen glorious hours of Ken Burn's newest masterpiece, Jazz. Delivered in 10 parts across the month of January, the series demonstrates again why Burns is a premier popularizer of American history.
There is a view that several thousand years from now our American civilization will be known for three achievements. The Constitution of the United States. The game of baseball. And the sounds of jazz. These are viewed as uniquely American. Made in the USA. "Only in America."
I got a head start on the new series. Among my Christmas gifts were an audio tape of the book and a set of CDs showcasing the music referenced by the program script. A good story. Wonderful music. Great listening.
Like most junior high kids I had some high school heroes and mentors. One of my mentors, the eldest son of one of my Dad's colleagues, was a gifted trumpet player. In our small world band was an important activity and this guy was more than a bandsman; he could make music.
In our largely white-bread world, a big band director named Harry James was the trumpet tooter to emulate. Horn owners of my vintage and hue labored to sound as mellow and facile as James. I can still enjoy his staged embellishments to "Ciribiribin" and the mellowness of "Sleepy Lagoon."
From high school my friend headed to college to be part of the inaugural class of guys who transitioned Florida State College for Women, a center of refinement, into Bobby Bowden's Seminole lair. In fact, my buddy went on the warpath with the Noles. In track, not football. He could turn a great quarter as well as make that horn wail.
In one of his several high school and college jobs he was the lead trumpet in a band called "The Stardusters." They weren't great but they sounded good and would not have embarrassed Hoagy Carmichael.
As for me, I was one of those guys dragged along the musical path by buddies far more gifted. Two of these preceded me to the University of Florida and the Gator Band. All three of us toted baritone horns. One of us was gifted, one of us was disciplined. I was the third.
As a youthful consumer of our nation's musical wealth, I drifted quietly along in mainstreams of American pop culture.
But in Gatorland my musical world expanded. The transition from Harry James to Stan Kenton to Dave Brubeck was easy. The leap from Hank Williams to Elvis Presley was no hill at all. Bill Hailey and the Comets set the beat. But Roy Orbison was as close to a bluesman as my segregated culture sanctioned. Who was that Leadbelly fellow?
I knew about Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and, of course, Harry James. But I had not even been exposed to Duke Ellington or Count Basie. Racial segregation was an invisible but very real wall.
Then a hard driving, African-American piano player from Atlanta opened a world to me. His band played something we called "hard bop." Piano Red and crew brought me an epiphany. Early in the evening the music rolled but as the bandsmen drained the clear liquid from the omnipresent, unmarked bottles resting by their stands and as the dates fled our party place one could hear real jazz.
And in the same time window of my life, our college activities board brought a fellow named Louis Armstrong to Florida to concertize. Fresh from a tour of Europe, Armstrong and his band showcased a range of gifts and moods. These guys drew up pain and joy with equal exuberance.
A clarinet. A trombone. Piano. Bass. Drums. Velma Middleton was the female vocalist. The musical conversations between the band and Armstrong were magic. The flashes of shared joy transcended the mechanics. They truly "played" music. Jazz with a capital "J."
This was the mid 1950s. In our southland racial segregation was still "our way of life." There were "white bands" and "Negro bands." But there were few, very few, crossover bandsmen. But in those centers of corruption like Atlanta and Tampa, one could find multicultural music making. Yes, the air smelled different in those places. Freer somehow.
And the music, especially the jazz, was real
Hitting at racism
Ken Burns' Jazz hits directly at our heritage of racism. This view will no doubt disturb those of us still in denial about the pervasiveness of racial barriers. But as Burns says the people with "the experience of being unfree in a free land, created the only art form Americans have made." Is that what English teachers call irony?
As a kid I listened to recordings of another exceptional American musical pioneer. A country bluesman promoters called the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers.
Do you know who the trumpet player is on "In the Jailhouse Now-No. 2"? His name was Louis Armstrong. And the piano player? Lillian Hardin Armstrong. In 1930 Louis Armstong and Jimmie Rodgers could share a recording date in Los Angeles but could not share performances or restrooms in their native states.
Burns' program, like jazz itself, is a tribute to the American capacity to innovate. To improvise. You and I live in a country where the spirit of our people reached beyond poverty and race to create an American gift to the world, this music we call jazz. Turn on the tube. And get ready to tap your toes.
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.