Sunday, January 07, 2001

'Jazz' concludes Armstrong is king

Ken Burns' 18 1/2-hour PBS epic cites Armstrong as central figure in 20th-century music

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Louis Armstrong
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        We know Louis Armstrong coaxed the blues right out of the horn. But how many people consider the smiling, gravel-voiced trumpet player the most important person in 20th-century music?

        That's the surprise in Ken Burns' Jazz, a toe-tapping 18 1/2-hour film starting Monday.

        “He is to music what Einstein is to physics, and what the Wright brothers are to travel,” says Mr. Burns, who produced PBS' The Civil War and Baseball.

        “There's no president in the 20th century, except maybe Franklin Roosevelt, to the world more important than Louis Armstrong,” says Mr. Burns, 47, a “child of rock 'n' roll” who became a jazz convert assembling the swing music sound track to his 1994 Baseball documentary.

  • TV schedule
  • 'Jazz' music list
  • For sale: Sets of Jazz are now in stores on VHS ($149) and DVD ($199.92), or available from
  • Web site:
        Jazz praises the former New Orleans waif called “Pops” as the unrivaled genius who influenced every instrumentalist and singer for more than five decades.

        In the film, Wynton Marsalis credits Mr. Armstrong with fusing the blues with popular song; extending the range of the trumpet; and creating “the melodic and rhythmic vocabulary” for all big bands. He was the first to scat sing. His 1925-28 Hot Five and Hot Seven band records made the world swing.

        “Everybody on every instrument tried to play like him — clarinet, saxophone, bass, drums,” says Mr. Marsalis, Mr. Burns' resident Jazz expert, in the third episode (9 p.m. Wednesday).

        Jazz experts also say Mr. Armstrong, who died in 1971 at age 69, created modern song interpretation with his revolutionary expressive style.

        “All the singers from Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby ... — You could go into any style — Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday — they all say "Pops' (led the way),” says Mr. Marsalis in the show's fourth part (Jan. 15).

        Says Mr. Burns: “So you've got a Beethoven and a Babe Ruth in one guy.”

        Mr. Burns' passion is evident throughout Jazz, his finest work. The sound track makes it special: 498 jazz songs, many of them in their entirety. (This is the first Ken Burns' film you can dance to.)

        The jazz classics — plus the 2,400 photographs and 2,000 film clips — combine for a powerful emotional experience.

        It's easy to be mesmerized by the images to the tune of “Take the A Train” (Mr. Ellington), “West End Blues” (Mr. Armstrong and Earl Hines), “Ain't Misbehavin' ” (Fats Waller), “Sing, Sing, Sing” (Benny Goodman), “Take Five” (Dave Brubeck), “Salt Peanuts” (Dizzy Gillespie) or “Body and Soul” (Coleman Hawkins).

        Unfortunately, many of the tunes play without identification, which may become a major frustration to an audience accustomed to seeing song titles, artists and release dates on cable channels. For most of us, this is our parents' and grandparents' music. (The DVD set, already on sale for $199, allows viewers to identify the title, artist, year, composer and record label during a song.)

Race a major theme

               Jazz opens with a 90-minute episode introducing pioneers like cornetist Buddy Bolden, pianist Jelly Roll Morton and clarinetist Sidney Bechet. The second episode features Joe “King” Oliver and James Reese Europe before finding the groove of Mr. Armstrong and Duke Ellington, which runs through the remaining episodes.

        The film documents how the big-band swing music provided the sound track for World War II — and how jazz changed after the war with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and their “bebop” style.

        As in The Civil War and Baseball, race is a major theme in Mr. Burns' new film. The debut episode notes that the first known “jass” record was made in 1917 by the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band led by Nick LaRocco, who claimed that African-Americans had nothing to do with creating jazz.

        In the second episode, the script by Geoffrey C. Ward (The Civil War, Baseball) notes that African-American bandleaders Mr. Ellington and Fletcher Henderson were overshadowed by a white man named Paul Whiteman, who was hailed as the “king of jazz” in the Roaring '20s.

        Jazz points out that Mr. Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford and other African-American jazz giants weren't allowed to stay in many hotels where they performed.

        In 1936, 11 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's “color barrier,” pianist Teddy Wilson became the first African-American to join a prominent white jazz group, the Benny Goodman orchestra.

        Jazz hits the high notes and low notes: Mr. Armstrong's marijuana possession arrest in Los Angeles in 1931; hard times for the Ellington band in 1955 when it was relegated to playing skating rinks; and the tragic drug and alcohol addictions of Bix Beiderbecke, Mr. Parker and Ms. Holiday.

        Writer Gerald Early talks candidly about how many young African-American activists disavowed Mr. Armstrong after he appeared in blackface as king of the 1949 Mardi Gras parade. (A subsequent New Orleans concert was canceled because Mr. Armstrong would be performing with trombonist Jack Teagarden, who was white.)

        Mr. Armstrong never forgave his hometown, according to the film. “Jazz was born there, and I remember when it wasn't no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow,” he said.

        Jazz notes that Mr. Armstrong canceled a 1957 State Department goodwill tour of the Soviet Union to protest Arkansas Gov. Orville Faubus defying the U.S. Supreme Court order to integrate Little Rock schools. For that, Mr. Armstrong was attacked by Sammy Davis Jr., black political leader Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and the black (and white) press for supporting desegregation in this instance while still performing for segregated audiences.

        In a film clip, Mr. Armstrong complains about Southern whites: “They've been ignoring the Constitution. They teach it in school, but when they go home, their parents tell them differently. (They) say, "You don't have to abide by it, because we've been getting away with it for 100 years.'

        “So if they ask me (in Russia) what's happening, if I go now, I can't tell a lie ... the way I feel about it,” he says. “It's getting so bad, a colored man hasn't got any country.”

Consummate entertainer

               Younger African-Americans distrusted Mr. Armstrong because he was popular with whites, and because his flamboyant stage presence evoked the bygone minstrel days, Mr. Early says.

        But to jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, that was all part of Mr. Armstrong's incomparable talent.

        “Louis thought like an entertainer, and played like a genius,” Mr. Brubeck said in an interview with this reporter.

        “You've got to realize that Louis grew up at a time where you were expected to be an entertainer — but he always managed to make what was entertaining so far ahead of what was going on in the rest of music. And that's a hard thing to do,” Mr. Brubeck says.

        Mr. Burns makes no apology for slighting Stan Kenton, Erroll Garner, Harry James, Cab Calloway and many other jazz stars in his tribute to Mr. Armstrong. (All the Mr. Armstrong segments would fill a two-hour film.)

        “(This) is the most definitive thing on jazz that's been done, but it cannot, by the nature of the medium, be encyclopedic or utterly comprehensive,” says Mr. Burns, whose next film will be on Mark Twain.

        “A lot of people hit the cutting-room floor because we wanted to focus on the pantheon of jazz ... most of all, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the two most important people in the history of jazz.”

        Like all jazz fans, Mr. Burns wants to be in that number, when the saints go marchin' in.

        “My own anxiety about my mortality,” Mr. Burns says, “is tempered by the fact that someday if I'm good, I'm going to see Louis Armstrong blowing Gabriel's trumpet out of the clouds, and that will make it all worthwhile.”

        John Kiesewetter is TV/radio critic for The Enquirer. Write to him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330; E-mail:


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