Ken Burns’ Jazz
Episodes IV and V
Week #2: The Joint Is Jumpin’
With Parts IV and V behind us we are at the halfway point and I have a preliminary opinion of the series overall. Jazz tries to be exhaustive and succeeds to be exhausting; it is tedious and it is thrilling; it is didactic and spontaneous; in other words, it’s a bit of everything. Yes it is encyclopedic, and, yes, it tries to do too much. And even as an encyclopedia it is flawed by dwelling too long on one thing to the neglect of another. But overall it gives us a decent account of the history of our unique music and contains some absolute gems and ahah moments ¾facts, photos, film clips and songs that launch me out of my seat and have me practically walking on air for hours, days even. If you’ve seen it, you don’t need me to tell you what to think of it, and if you haven’t, repeating all the highlights here would be, in Fats Waller’s word, "boresome." So I’ll confine myself to some personal reflections prompted by my viewing.
My earliest childhood years were spent in a backwater town whose only distinction was its status as the county seat for Grafton County, New Hampshire. Its name expressed its character: “Woodsville.” I remember my mother carefully counting her wartime ration coupons to buy sugar. I remember the formidable wooden telephone box that hung from the wall in the dining room, and the console radio the size of a small refrigerator that was a major piece of furniture in the living room. Atop the radio sat the record player, which was the centerpiece of our leisure life.
My father, Murray Sawyer, was a serious jazz fan. He bought single 78 RPM records and record albums, which resembled photo albums with their heavy covers and pages that were actually sleeves holding the hefty disks, at Maxie Stuart’s Radio Shop not far from the courthouse where he worked. Maxie would set aside copies of the latest hot releases for my dad. These recordings filled our house and my earliest musical memories. It is through the lens of these early memories that I view Ken Burns’ tribute to jazz.
Burns tells us in Episode IV that Thomas “Fats” Waller was the Honorary Mayor of Harlem. Well, he was also the reigning monarch of our Woodsville living room in the early 1940’s. The fact that he was both is all the proof I need of Burns’ thesis that jazz is what binds us together. Waller's brash, exuberant personality radiated from his music, celebrating life and sensual pleasure in a spirit of mischief. Excess was his essence, from his extravagant songwriting talent to his inordinate musical virtuosity to his immoderate 300-pound weight and extremely big feet - size 15! I remember how he even sang about bigness when he brayed, “Aw, your feets too big - Don’t want you cause your feets too big - Mad at you cause your feets too big,” ending the song with the spoken words, “You know your pedal extremities really are obnoxious. One never knows, do one.” My father loved him perhaps because he represented everything he yearned for - the chance to abandon all restraint, to shout and revel, to carry on, and to burst with joy.
Fats’ stride-style piano rocks in the memory of my earliest years. He wrote many memorable songs, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose," but the one that held me in thrall as a child and later as a teenager was “The Joint Is Jumpin’.” Jump is what I did from my couch in Boxford when Ken Burns showed me a film enactment of this song. It depicts a riotous Harlem party at which Fats sits playing the piano while dancers swing around him. The lyrics are full of delicious couplets, some sung, others spoken. “Get your pig feet, beer and gin - There’s plenty in the kitchen - Who’s that that just walked in - Just look at the way she’s switching.” The clip ends with the police arriving and Waller saying, “Don’t give your right name, oh, no, no, no.” To me as a child and teenager the song conjured an image of a distant swinging place where people were full of juice and plenty loose, where the feelings were large, joyful and worn loud and proud. To my father, a one-time bail commissioner, words like “I’ve got bail if we go to jail - I mean the joint is jumpin'” stood for the reckless abandon he felt he missed as a respectable, small town Clerk of Court.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious let me make this point: the fact that Fats Waller recreated a Harlem party in my living room in Woodsville in the early 1940’s shows the essential truth of Burns’ major point on race and America.
In 1994 I traveled to Tokyo on business. At the end of the week my Japanese hosts took me to a jazz club. The nightlife there begins early by our standards (around 7PM) because it ends early when the last subway trains stop running around midnight. There are other differences, too. The nightspots really are clubs in the sense that patrons purchase a bottle (at prices easily over $100) and the club kindly keeps your bottle on hand, ready for your next visit. What took me completely by storm, however was the band¾seven middle aged Japanese men playing the book of the Benny Goodman Septet. There was the Japanese Benny Goodman clarinetist, the Japanese Gene Kruper on drums, and others playing Lionel Hampton on vibes and Charlie Christian on guitar. These dedicated musicians played Goodman's arrangements with nearly perfect precision and idiomatic fidelity, but most importantly with deep feeling. I was filled with deep emotion to see a piece of my culture so lovingly transported beyond our borders, beyond boundaries of race and generation.
I was riveted to my seat when Ken Burns told the story behind Benny Goodman's tremendous success. Not yet a national commodity, Goodman had just finished a run at a fashionable Manhattan nightclub when he auditioned for the spot as the regular jazz dance band for the new Saturday night program on NBC radio called, "Let's Dance." The producers piped the music of the auditioning bands into the offices of young agency employees, who listened, danced, and then voted. Goodman's band won by one vote. It was a big break for him, but also a problem¾how, he wondered, was he going to manage to sound original and distinctive, week after week, on national radio? A friend, singer Mildred Bailey impulsively said, “Benny, why don’t you get a Harlem book?” She meant he should get the arrangements of a black band from uptown. In their company at that moment was John Hammond. The name may sound familiar to you because John Hammond, Jr., his son, is a popular blues singer nowadays.
John Hammond, senior, was a man born into privilege, whose childhood home had 16 servants and a ballroom that would hold 200; he was no less than the great grandson of railroad king Cornelius Vanderbilt. As a young man he rejected patrician life in favor of jazz, first as a writer and critic, and later as a record producer. The short list of his discoveries includes Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. When Hammond heard Bailey suggest that Goodman get a Harlem book he volunteered to find him one and used his connections to get him the very best - Fletcher Henderson's. Henderson gladly sold his old arrangements to Goodman, and created new ones as well. It was Henderson’s genius that laid out the musical architecture to make Benny Goodman’s band sound brilliant and original. The resulting tunes went out across the country into those great refrigerator-sized radios in living rooms from Woodsville, NH to (even smaller) Woodville, CA.
I'll end this week's ramble with one of the great ahah moments from last week's viewing. With Fletcher Henderson's help, Benny Goodman soon came to be called "The King of Swing," But where did Henderson learn how to swing that music? He learned it from a young cornet player from New Orleans via Chicago, none other than -- Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong (of course!) was the source of swing. When I heard the connection in Burns’ film I was on the ceiling!
Next week: Who is that curmudgeon Artie Shaw and why are his comments so insightful?
Oh, and by the way, Benny Goodman eventually married John Hammond’s sister.
Charles Sawyer lives in Boxford. He is the author of The Arrival of B.B. King, the authorized biography of B.B. King. He plays harmonica and sings with his blues band, 2120 South Michigan Avenue. His email is email@example.com and his websites are http://fas.harvard.edu/~sawyer and http://www.2120southmichiganavenue.com .