In Search of Jazz: Authenticity, Ken Burns & Cole Porter.
What is jazz?
I am asked this again and again.
The topic of jazz is especially confusing to anyone who takes Ken Burns seriously.
Burns, the autheo of the supposedly definitive book, “Jazz,” failed to mention such important historical jazz icons as Chet Baker, Bing Crosby and Mel Torme in his manuscript, which was later turned into a similarly exclusionary TV documentary series. And that’s just for starters.
He ridiculed Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin and Benny Goodman, all pioneers in bringing jazz to the mainstream in the early part of the 20th Century.
And what of Rogers & Hart, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and other composers who turned Broadway into the biggest stage jazz music has ever seen? Or Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant, who sang, danced and acted their way into the history books to the accompaniment of the greatest music ever written?
Hmm… or Kay Thompson, MGM’s vocal coach, who incorporated the idiom of jazz in her arrangements for movies like “Funny Face” and “Meet Me In St. Louis?”
And what of Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and countless others – possibly mentioned in passing, but given short shrift.
Not important to Burns, evidently.
Burns even left out The Boswell Sisters, who practically invented jazz.
During the 1920’s “Jazz Age,” it is interesting to note, The Boswells had no less than TEN #1 hits. Louis Armstrong, the star of Burns’ book had none.
I love Louis, but the sister’ lead singer Connee Boswell was the inspiration for Ella Fitzgerald.
THAT’s pretty important.
Burns glossed right over the whole thing.
His book could have been so much more.
Sadly, it – and the subsequent documentary series – added to the confusion and division of an already disappearing audience.
Nobody knows what jazz is anymore.
Simply put, jazz is an expression of music that is played/performed interactively and in-the-moment by musicians who will probably never repeat that exact performance. Jazz is an interpretation.
Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest jazz singers in the world, with the most impeccable phrasing (helped along by listening to Billie Holiday, although his enormous body of recorded work indicates otherwise because we’re so accustomed to listening to those familiar arrangements.
I have it on good word, however – having worked with many great colleagues who played in his concert, casino and society performances – that he never sang a song the same way twice.
The conductor followed him and the band followed the conductor.
Mr. Sinatra could do whatever he wanted, and everybody had to go with him.
While people danced.
It is a rarity these days, being a jazz band people can dance to – but the best of jazz, in the heyday of jazz, afforded casino audiences, nightclub patrons and country clubbers all over America exactly that kind of experience.
You can bet the soloists were improvising.
As for small combo jazz, the entertainment element of the genre is gradually disappearing as musicians more and more are playing for themselves, taking astronomically long solos and doing little more than “jamming.”
Jazz is still around. It’s just not very easy to find anymore.