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Studies in Jazz

"Freedom and discipline concur/ only in ecstasy, all else/ is shoveling out the muck./ Give me my old hot horn." Excerpt from "Freedom and Discipline." In Collected Shorter Poems: 1946-1991 (Copper Canyon Press, 1992, pp. 60-62) by Hayden Carruth .

This uniquely American contribution to world music provides many opportunities for studying the musical and cultural history of the United States. Ken Burns' recent PBS series (Jazz, January 2001) offers the gifted student a broad overview of many of the major figures and events from the 1890's until the 1960's that saw jazz sweep the musical imaginations of young people in the Americas and Europe. By viewing Burns' documentary and reading the accompanying book, Jazz: A History of America's Music (2000) by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, gifted students will learn about the roots of jazz and its development through such outstanding talents as Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman. Burns shows that the origins of jazz were in Black folk melodies, ragtime and the blues. These styles, combined with improvisation, strong rhythmic and melodic lines, and the interplay of different soloists, produced a form of music that has stirred the imaginations of musicians and listeners for the last hundred years. But it was Armstrong who opened the full potential of jazz as the driving soloist in performances (1925-41) with the "Hot Fives" and "Hot Sevens" and in his later recordings, e.g., Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (1997). He showed other musicians that the future of this musical form was in the individual performer who had to be frenetically melodic, stylistically imitative of the human voice, and willing to take chances by playing a little different from the last performance. Another unique figure in the history of jazz who took many chances was Sidney Bechet; he developed the soprano saxophone from an instrument considered to be a "snake charmer" or "fish horn" into a keystone of pulsating melody and rhythm. Bechet influenced many other woodwind players of jazz, particularly the clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

By studying Burns' film and other works on the history of jazz, gifted students can also learn about the family and cultural backgrounds of the founding musicians. They will see that major figures such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith experienced enormous discrimination as children and even later, after they became professional musicians. They will also see that individuals on both sides of the racial divide helped them to develop their overwhelming talents. Despite these serious racial and economic barriers, Armstrong, Ellington and hundreds of others kept on getting better and more popular. During the early days of jazz, many White and Black musicians wanted to integrate their bands but the mores of the times prevented this from occurring. For example, Paul Whiteman, the band leader who brought a "toned down" jazz band style to many White Americans in the 1920's and 1930's, tried to hire Black musicians but was unsuccessful. Jazz bands that played for national audiences finally started to integrate after Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, both sons of Russian Jewish immigrants, hired Black players. Goodman included Lionel Hampton (vibraphone) and Teddy Wilson (piano) in his band during the late 1930's, and Artie Shaw hired Billie Holiday (singer) and Roy Eldridge (trumpet) during this same period.

The popularity of jazz performers was driven by two technological developments in the 1920's and 1930's -- sound recording and radio. Because of these media, the sounds of Beiderbecke, Armstrong and Goodman were broadcast to every small town and metropolis across the nation, producing nationwide excitement for the music and musicians. In addition, cultural and economic changes such as prohibition and the Depression contributed to American's obsession with jazz. And there was an interaction between this music, art and literature, e.g., F. Scott Fitzgerald was considered to be a major spokesman for the jazz age through his novels and short stories.

Later developments of jazz were reflected in its evolution into the big band swing styles of Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Stan Kenton. Outstanding singers such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra gave strong vocal support to the swing bands of this era (1935-55). The final evolution of jazz (1945-65) came in the bebop and cool eras with the imaginative playing of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker.

Recommended Books

Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. New York: Broadway Books.

Ellington, Duke (1988). Music is My Mistress. New York: Da Capo Press.

Firestone, Ross (1994). Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman. New York: Norton.

Giddins, Gary (1998). Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gioia, Ted (1997). The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ward, Geoffrey C. and Burns, Ken (2000). Jazz: A History of America's Music. New York: Knopf.

Recommended Compact Disks

Benny Goodman: Live at Carnegie Hall (Recorded January 16, 1938). New York: Columbia Records.

Benny Goodman: 16 Most Requested Songs (1993). New York: Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.

Jelly Roll Morton: Kansas City Stomp (Vol. 1): The Library of Congress Recordings (1993). Cambridge, MA: Rounder Records


Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music (2000). New York: Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.

Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (1997). New York: Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.

Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens (2000). New York: Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.

Sidney Bechet (2000). New York: Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.

Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (1987). New York: CBS Records, Inc.


The Hand of the Poet: Poems and Papers in Manuscript (1997) by Rodney Phillips. Rizzoli, New York.

This unusual book provides the reader with direct, hands-on results of creative production by many outstanding poets in the English language. For each poet included here, the author has a concise one-page biographical sketch of the poet's life and a copy of a poem in the original handwriting or typing. Phillips is curator of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at The New York Public Library where these manuscripts are located. The Hand of the Poet is based on an exhibit of this collection from 1995-97 that covered four centuries of poetry in English from John Donne to modern poets. The original handwritten or typed poems (many are final drafts) give a sense of actually being present during the writing process. The opportunity to see these manuscripts may lead to a better understanding of the creative process underlying poetry.

As shown by the examples from Walt Whitman ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"), William Carlos Williams ("The Red Wheelbarrow") and Elizabeth Bishop ("The Armadillo"), the visual organization of lines and stanzas is as important as the choice of topics, words, rhyming patterns and emotional atmosphere. Further analysis of these manuscripts reveals different handwriting styles ranging from the unreadable (e.g., Brönte, Yeats and Auden) to the more clearly delineated (e.g., Keats, Longfellow, Stevens and Berryman). But all of the handwriting styles displayed in the book create a sense of urgency to produce ideas in poetic form. When the poet John Berryman indicated a desire to write a critical biography of Shakespeare, his friend and mentor, Professor Mark Van Doren of Columbia University, gave the following advice: "Scholarship is for those with shovels, whereas you're a man of the pen, the wind, the flying horse, the shining angel, glittering fiend - anything but the manure where scholars have buried the masterpieces of the world." (p. 216).

The book includes an introductory essay entitled, "The Magical Value of Manuscripts" by the poet, Dana Gioia. After describing many of the advantages of studying manuscripts, he says: "Manuscripts also represent the imagination's passport; they allow the viewer to travel from the public and impersonal world of mechanical typography into the private, human world of the author - from literature as an institution to literature as friendship. A book is a public object collectively produced by many hands and designed for many readers; in contrast, even a typewritten draft seems intimate and individual. The manuscript - handwritten or typed - invites the viewer to step from the faceless crowd of readers and become an individual. . . ." (p. 15). In the concluding essay ("The Prado of Poetry: A History of the Berg Collection"), Gioia discusses the history of the world renowned collection of books and manuscripts. Dr. Albert Berg donated his original collection to The New York Public Library in 1940, and he added other collections purchased from individuals during 1940 and 1941. Today, the Berg library contains a rich set of first editions and manuscripts by such authors as Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf.

Among the other great poets discussed in The Hand of the Poet are: Alexander Pope, William Blake, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eloit, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, James Merrill, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück and Julia Alvarez. This is an astonishing book that will inspire gifted students to release their own poetic imaginations and to engage in further reading about the lives and works of these highly creative poets.

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, April-May 2001