'Round Midnight

The story of jazz—from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and beyond—is yet another prism through which filmmaker Ken Burns views the history of America.

On a misty night in 1921, the young trombonist Jack Teagarden was walking along the New Orleans levee when he heard someone playing a cornet in a style he'd not known before. Where was this spectral music coming from? As a riverboat glided slowly toward the levee, Teagarden got his first look at Louis Armstrong, "descending from the sky like a god." The anecdote, recounted in the companion book to Jazz, the new ten-part, 19-hour Ken Burns documentary showing on PBS in January, made me stop for a moment. How I wished I had been there to hear Armstrong when he was transforming the blues into what would become perhaps America's greatest indigenous art.

As a teenager I had seen Ornette Coleman, listened as he took melody to uncharted zones on his white plastic sax. I saw Miles Davis—impossibly young, fatally cool—turn the trumpet into a whispering device. I watched Herbie Mann find a groove so deep in "Coming Home, Baby" that my toe stopped tapping and my leg started bouncing. Charles Lloyd, Herbie Hancock, Archie Shepp: I heard them all. But that was then.

Decades later, my rediscovery of jazz ranks alongside the appreciation I've developed for great writers whom I read too soon. I understand now what Ken Burns means when he casts Louis Armstrong as the protean figure in jazz. Before I saw Jazz, I romanticized Bix Beiderbecke, the cornetist whose sound, the guitarist Eddie Condon remembers, was "like a girl saying yes." But now I see that this white boy from Iowa drank himself to death at the age of 29 because he couldn't equal Armstrong.

Thanks to Ken Burns, I even grasp the hardest truth of all: how men and women who were descendants of slaves made a music that liberated a nation's soul—almost. In this photograph of Billie Holiday, for example, we see her backstage at Carnegie Hall in 1956. An impressive venue, no doubt, but for Billie there was still the bitter fact that she had been denied a cabaret license because of her drug convictions. "I can play Carnegie," she said, "but I can't play the crummiest gin joint in New York."

A film about jazz ultimately relies on the music, and Burns, whose past work includes the extraordinary The Civil War and Baseball, never lets metaphor get in the way: "Louis Armstrong used to say, 'Ain't but two kinds of music, good and bad.' So as we put the film together, I didn't watch the screen, I watched the editors' feet. If they tapped, we kept it; if they didn't, the scene went out. In the final analysis, this ain't homework, it's fun."