He Got Rhythm

Page 4 of 4

"The jazz community has turned itself into Pigpen from Peanuts. They're arguing all the time: 'Well, Wynton said this, and you're on Wynton's side.' You get all this argument, and this cloud of dust surrounds it. I'm trying to reach some little old lady in Dubuque who thinks Lawrence Welk is the bee's knees, and I want to remind her that Lawrence Welk is only in existence because there was this thing before him called jazz, and if you listen to this, you will find the pulse and the meaning of America in this music."

In The Civil War, Burns rendered flesh the specter of Abraham Lincoln; in Baseball, he found the sport's soul in Jackie Robinson. No figure looms more significantly over Jazz than Louis Armstrong. Burns refers to him repeatedly as the most significant musical figure in all of American history, and his panel of consultants never once argued with his assertion, to Burns' surprise and delight. Before he began working on the film, Burns thought of Armstrong as most Americans do: as a grinning, hankie-waving crowd-pleaser who sang "Hello, Dolly!" and "What a Wonderful World" "with one foot in minstrelsy," he explains. Soon enough, Burns was set straight by musicians and the music itself: Armstrong turned jazz into a soloist's art, changed the way musicians played their instruments, and transformed the way singers performed popular songs. In the book, Wynton Marsalis explains Armstrong as a man who possessed both "the deepest human feeling and the highest level of musical sophistication." For Burns, the revelation was startling.

That is why he decided to begin the boxed set, the series, and even the book with Armstrong's rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust." It is not the oldest song used in Jazz--it was recorded in 1931, 14 years after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band cut "Livery Stable Blues"--but it is, in some ways, the most significant. And Burns is dying to explain why.

"When you talk about Louis Armstrong, you end up dealing with somebody who has this spiritual dimension," he says in a hushed, reverential tone of voice. "Grown men would start to cry in the interview talking about Armstrong. In the fourth episode, there's a section called 'Mr. Armstrong,' which talks about a guy named Charles Black. In September of 1931, Charles Black was a 16-year-old in Austin, Texas, looking for girls. He didn't like jazz, had never heard of Armstrong, and all of a sudden, he walks into this room at the Driskill Hotel, stops dead in his tracks, listens to Armstrong riffing on 'Stardust,' and he realizes he's seeing genius for the first time.

"He realizes this is the American genius. He realizes that all his life he's been taught black people aren't worth shit. After that, Charlie Black goes on to get a law degree and works with Thurgood Marshall to convince the Supreme Court in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka that segregating schoolchildren on the basis of race and skin color is unconstitutional. That's unbelievable to me. We used to argue in film class: Can people make a difference? Do films make a difference? I've got proof that both films and people do all the time."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky