Jazz Without Joy

I recently spent four hours a night for five nights watching a re-run of the PBS series, “Jazz,” which was produced by Ken Burns, who also produced the popular “Civil War” series for PBS a decade ago.

What struck me mid-way in the series was the aesthetic transformation of the music sometime around 1940. I think Burns wrote it this way. I got the message.

The story of jazz is the story of the twentieth century’s Negro migration out of the South up the Mississippi into the North, and from there to New York City. Jazz began in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century.

The standard story seems accurate. It began with the walk home from the graveyard. Black funeral bands marched solemnly along with the funeral procession, playing dirges, from the church to the graveyard. Then they played jaunty, loud music all the way back, and for hours thereafter. This was later to become Dixieland jazz.

Jazz was originally grounded in a correct theological view of the world. It had this in common with post-funeral practices of Protestants and Irish Catholics: joy. There is an affirmation of joy in the Irish wake and the American Protestant practice of a generally upbeat dinner meeting after a funeral, usually held in the home of the surviving family. Christians mark the transition from life to death with a funeral, followed by a time at the graveside. But this is not the end. The day ends with something more like a festival. Theologically, this tradition rests on the doctrine of the bodily resurrection at the final judgment: from death to life. For the redeemed person, death is not final. Death does not have the last say. Therefore, let’s party!

Ken Burns did not deal with this theological aspect of jazz’s origins in his series. This was a major oversight: historically, socially, and aesthetically.

Louis and Benny

Burns’ story returns again and again to Louis Armstrong. It was he, more than anyone else, who carried jazz out of New Orleans to Chicago and then to the world. It was his cornet playing and raspy singing that made jazz the initial phenomenon that it was. I would not want to argue against this presentation. But Burns neglected even to mention Armstrong’s most popular song: “What a Wonderful World,” which is not jazz at all, and which expresses Armstrong’s affirmation of life. Louis Armstrong did not just play cornet as no one ever had before; he affirmed a joy of life that was contagious. From New Orleans to Paris, from “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” to “Hello Dolly” to “What a Wonderful World,” his affirmation never changed.

The swing era of the 1930’s coincided with economic depression. The great swing bands captured the imaginations of the young and enough of the old to generate millions of dollars of income for a handful of major band leaders. In a decade which was low on disposable income, jazz sold.

Why? Aesthetically, I can’t tell you. I know that the music grabbed millions of people and made them feel good in a time when there was not much good news. Young people danced as never before or since. The music swung, and so did the listeners. How else can I say it?

Swing peaked on January 16, 1938. A handful of people could honestly answer Ayn Rand’s question, “Where were you on the night of January 16th?” with this: “I was at Carnegie Hall, listening to the greatest jazz concert of all time.” Even if Chick Webb’s band was better, playing at the Savoy Club in Harlem, most people never heard it, live and in person.

My first exposure to swing was listening to Columbia Records’ 1953 two-record LP album of Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert. It had been recorded, but Goodman had put the acetate masters in a closet, and then forgot that he had them for almost 15 years. So, my introduction to swing began at the top.

Goodman’s orchestra broke up shortly after the concert. Gene Krupa formed his own band. So did Harry James. So did Lionel Hampton. (I don’t know which fact is more astounding: the fact that Hampton is still touring with his band or the fact that he is a Republican.)

Bad-Time Charlie

As the economy came out of the recession in 1939/40, jazz began to change. The incarnation of this change, in Burns’ story and in fact, was the arrival in New York City of saxophonist Charlie Parker in 1940. The transition from Armstrong to Parker is the story of jazz’s transition from life to death.

Parker abandoned melody for chords. He de-structured jazz by taking it where the average listener could not and would not follow: away from melody. Strip music of its melody, and you kill music’s appeal. I think you kill music itself. Charlie Parker did to jazz what Stravinsky and the atonalists/12 tonalists did to classical music: he murdered melody.

Parker was a heroin addict. So were many of his peers. Burns’ series makes this plain. In Clint Eastwood’s biographical movie, “Bird,” the coroner initially writes down that Parker’s body was the body of a man in his sixties. The woman he was visiting at the time of his death corrected him: “He was 34.” Parker’s music was cool. So was the New York jazz that followed. It was the coolness of the morgue.

The public’s interest cooled along with the music. When jazz moved from swing to cool, it lost its joy. It also lost its audience. In 1938, approximately 70% of the records sold in the United States were jazz-swing music. By 1975, jazz accounted for about 3% of sales. (This, according to the series’ final segment.)

Missing in Action

In one brief aside in the next-to-the last segment of Burns’ series — which hardly ever leaves New York City after 1940 — one of the people interviewed on camera speaks contemptuously of West Coast jazz. It was bland, he says — or some pejorative word to that effect. And, the narrator adds, it was white.

Until that moment, this fact had never before occurred to me. My wife asked, “Is that true?” Yes, I told her, it was.

I have always preferred West Coast jazz (circa 1958): the light, soft sounds of Jimmy Giuffre’s trio or the louder sounds of Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars (who played within walking distance of my home — a fairly long walk, though, and teenagers could not get into the Lighthouse); the San Francisco Dixieland sounds of Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band or Bob Scobey’s or Turk Murphey’s; the fun-loving Dixieland of the Firehouse Five Plus Two (led by Disney cartoon illustrator Ward Kimball). I am perfectly willing to admit that the Firehouse Five Plus Two weren’t cool. What of it? They were fun. They preserved the heart of jazz: its affirmation of life.

Burns avoided West Coast jazz entirely. He also avoided Dixieland, once Armstrong got out of New Orleans. There was also no mention of the hugely successful 1957 jazz version of “My Fair Lady,” with André Previn, Shelly Manne, and Leroy Vinnegar. That was West Coast jazz to a T.

The Modern Jazz Quartet was also missing in Burns’ series. The MJQ was soft, light, and non-chaotic, and its musicians were masters. Pianist John Lewis was a fine composer. The MJQ proved, album after album, that to be cerebral musically does not require you to be either lifeless or in rebellion against musical norms. Milt Jackson on vibes was subtle — no Lionel Hampton, he. But he was a virtuoso. He played with exquisite, non-invasive taste.

What is it that fascinates the avant-garde with Parker and be-bop and all their emaciated heirs? Technical virtuosity is no substitute for joy, for hummable melodies, for toe-tapping or foot-stomping enthusiasm. It is no substitute for good taste.


We live in an era in which rebellion against cultural norms is regarded by the intellectual elite as some sort of red badge of courage. Dixieland jazz in New Orleans was new in 1900, but it was not an assault on the life of society. It was an affirmation of a better day to come: resurrection life. It grew out of the lives of common people. It was spread by common people. The records were bought by millions of common people in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s. But Ken Burns seems not to have forgiven common people for their refusal to follow Charlie Parker down the melody-starved pathways of his heroin-addicted soul. Common people took their money elsewhere.

H. L. Mencken, who was a follower of Nietzsche, once said that nobody ever went bankrupt by underestimating the taste of the American public. He was wrong. New York jazz did, beginning in 1940. The free market is not omniscient, but sometimes it displays common sense.

March 21, 2001

Gary North is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded free of charge at