Ken Burns’ Jazz

Week # 3

Commentary by Charles Sawyer


Watching Ken Burns' Jazz is like trying to take a drink from a firehose. Something in it bowls me over in each episode. I’m the only person I know who is watching and listening to every installment but I’m not sure I could stop if I wanted to, so compelling are the personalities, stories and scenes conjured on the screen each week.


Last week’s episodes covered many great players and told gripping stories, including those of Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis. But one character who keeps reappearing as a talking-head has me in his grip and that is the old curmudgeon Artie Shaw.  Below his name on the screen appears the simple title, “Clarinet.”  Yet Gary Giddins says, (with a meltingly beautiful clarinet solo from "Summertime" in the background) "Artie Shaw was the finest clarinet player that jazz has produced…a true virtuoso.” His approach to the instrument produced a sublime, serene sound.  In the 1930’s he surpassed even Benny Goodman in popularity at the height of the swing era with his big hit, “Begin the Beguine," and at the height of his popularity he walked away from it all.


Artie Shaw described himself as "cursed with serious-mindedness."  He was a genuine intellectual¾very articulate, opinionated, and driven by an ambition for greatness. But he was not prepared for the fruits of success. “Nothing in life can prepare you for stardom.  Success is a very big problem, bigger than failure.  You can deal with failure…. But success is an opiate and you get very confused. …And money comes in, and popularity, and people throw themselves at you and you don’t know what you’re into.  I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know what to do with it. I still wanted to play music. And the audience was saying 'play what you're playing'¾the same thing over and over again.  They never could get it through their heads that what they liked was something I was doing on my way to getting better!  That record they liked, 'Begin the Beguine', became … an albatross.” 


Shaw recounts what was expected of anyone who wanted to make a living as a musician. “You must remember that we had another world at that time. There was no television.  There was radio, the only mass medium.  And if you wanted to play for a living you had to play execrable music, music [that] was really dreadful, something that sickened you.  'Cause you were selling automobiles, you were selling soap, you were selling everything but music.  Music was the way to get an audience to listen, ostensibly, then you’d sell them something.  That was what radio was about.”


Considering how harsh he could be, Shaw's opinion of Glenn Miller was rather mild. “He [Glenn Miller] had what you call a ‘Republican Band,' kind of strait-laced, middle of the road¾and Miller was that kind of guy, he was a businessman.  He was sort of the Lawrence Welk of jazz and that’s one of the reasons he was so big¾people could identify with what he did…. But the biggest problem [was that] his band never made a mistake. And if you never make a mistake, you’re not trying, you’re not playing at the edge of your ability. You’re playing safely within limits…and it sounds after awhile, extremely boring.”  


In 1939 Shaw dissolved his band in frustration.  Though Burns never details his many comebacks, it is true that by 1955 Shaw had put down his clarinet for good.  During World War II, though, he enlisted and formed a band that toured the Pacific playing in places so close to the fighting that they were bombed or strafed 17 times.  This period, detailed in last week's Episode VI, provided some of his strongest memories. He recalls,

“There were times when it was really very moving.  You would play 3 notes and the whole audience was instantly roaring with you—they knew the record. You got the feeling that you’d created a piece of durable Americana that was speaking to these people.  I remember an engagement on the USS Saratoga, this huge carrier. We were put on the flight deck and we came down into this cavernous place with 3,000 men in dress uniforms [waiting below deck as the band descended on the flight elevator]. I tell you, you know, it really threw me. …. I felt something extraordinary.  I was by that time inured to success and applause and all that.  You take that for granted after awhile, but this was a whole different thing…. These men were starved for something that would remind them of home…. And the music had that effect on them.” 


I've long been interested in and have written about the dynamic between art and celebrity, so Artie Shaw's observations on the topic really rang my chimes. Shaw is 90 years old now, physically fit, mentally sharp and working on chapter 80-something of a novel.  He has published two books, one a philosophical autobiography called The Trouble with Cinderella, the other a curmudgeonly paean to marriage and divorce, I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead.


Now for a few notes on the rest of Episodes VI and VII, which take us through World War II, up into the mid 1950's.  As ever, Burns mines the story of jazz for gold, and his commentators usually succeed in putting things in historical perspective. One of the best nuggets last week came from Stanley Crouch, an essayist and commentator on African American culture, explaining Charlie Parker's great contribution to jazz.  “Kenny Clark had invented a new drum style, another way you could play the drums, right?  Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk had these other ways of playing the chords.  They told the bass player how to walk the notes that would fit the way they wanted it to go, see.  But they didn’t have the phrasing.  They had everything but the phrasing.  Charlie brought the mortar. They had the bricks, but he brought the mortar.  His phrasing was what made the bricks hold together.  Before he got there they were just interesting bricks.  When he came, when he put that rhythm that he brought from Kansas City and out of his imagination, he locked it together.  'Cause Dizzy said when we heard him, when we heard his phrasing we knew the music had to go his way.”


The progress of jazz throughout the 1940's and fifties was fraught with danger for many musicians.  Like Artie Shaw before them, some musicians from this period resisted the pressure of commercialism, but too many fell into the abyss of narcotics addiction.  Charlie Parker was the tragic archetype. A musical iconoclast, he refused to play to the audience. He wouldn't smile, clown around, or even take a bow.  He just played¾beautiful, lyrical riffs that took jazz "his way" and transformed it into bebop, the antithesis of commercial, crowd-pleasing swing.  He was a musician's musician, but he couldn't match his musical integrity with personal integrity because of heroin. His addiction made him unpredictable, unreliable, and untrustworthy. (He once borrowed a friend's horn, and then pawned it to get money for drugs.) Though he tried many times to kick the habit, he was never able to reclaim his life from drugs, and died, a martyr to his uncompromising music, at 34.  The coroner’s report gave his estimated age at 55-60.


The story of Miles Davis, another brilliant innovator, has a happier ending. He, too, had become a junkie in the 40's, but through a tremendous feat of will and his father’s love, he ended his addiction cold-turkey in 1954.  We're about to find out more about him¾and the others¾in this week's episodes.  I can hardly wait. (Could I be addicted?)


Oh, and by the way, Artie Shaw married movie star Lana Turner after divorcing his first and second wives.  Then he married Jerome Kern’s daughter, Betty; then he married Eva Gardner, Kathleen Windsor, Doris Dowling, and Evelyn Keyes, in sequence, of course.  That would explain the title I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead. 

Other articles on the series can be seen at

Ken Burns' Jazz Week #1

Ken Burns' Jazz Week # 2

Ken Burns' Jazz Week # 4