Tim Roberts

Jazzin'
By Tim Roberts

Years ago I had read somewhere (and I don't know if it was in an introduction to a collection of short stories by Philip K. Dick or in an Ann Landers column) that nothing is real unless you complete it, see it through to the end.

I started on it at the very the beginning, several days into the New Year, determined to finish. I had planned to learn more, be more aware of things (the subject matter of this column, for instance), engage in conversations with my peers more confidently, and greet each day with the happy anticipation that, later in the evening, I would be open and ready to learn more.

Now it's not even halfway through the month of January as I write this, and I'm already exhausted. Three nights a week, up to two hours a session and I have no idea how it will end. This journey is tiring, the resolution is uncertain. Once this new month begins, it will be too early to tell how I felt about the whole experience. And if I will truly know more than I did.

I'm not talking about any kind of self-betterment resolution I made at the start of the new millennium. I didn't sign up for a Dale Carnegie course. I haven't been listening to Anthony Robbins tapes. No one from Scientology has duped me into taking a personality test (which actually contains such personality-unlocking questions as: "Do you browse through railway timetables, directories, or dictionaries just for pleasure?" and "Do you often sit and think about death, sickness, pain, and sorrow?").

I'm talking about watching the epic Ken Burns documentary Jazz, which aired throughout January on PBS.

Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward stretched all the way back to jazz's roots, planted in New Orleans before the Civil War, and took it all the way up to ... the 1950s, short sighting the last forty years of what has happened to jazz: Ornette Coleman's freeforming; Miles Davis going electric; the funk years of Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters; Medeski, Martin, and Wood's stretching the capabilities of three basic instruments, and the proverbial much, much more.

However, I remind myself at each viewing that Jazz's focus is not jazz in and of itself, but jazz as a cultural experience, one that transcends time and race. The documentary's focus is more than "who did what and when and why." It's more like "who did what and what was the resulting gift to the world, or even just one other person, and what happened afterward." It completely bypasses the technical aspects of the music, which sometimes ignites endless, windy discussions, and that's a good thing. In other words, who cares how Miles Davis produced his tone on "So What?" And who cares about the chord changes that happen every 16 bars? It is one recorded performance that is astonishing in its simplicity. It redefined cool. It's the recording that wormed its way into the head of a 17-year-old high school tenor saxophone player and opened him to the encompassing world of jazz. It's what put him on a path that ended in your reading his words right now.

In the future described in Neil Stephenson's excellent novel Snow Crash, America has contributed three major things to the world: superb software code, movies, and pizza delivery in 30 minutes or less. Former sketch comic and now CNN entertainment correspondent Bill Tush said that Greece contributed drama to the world's culture, Rome contributed plumbing and structured government, while all America could come up with was late-night talk shows.

All 10 episodes of Jazz were a reminder that America has contributed a little more than fast pizza delivery or after-hours gabbing on TV. With jazz, America has, instead, given to the world a music that knows no boundaries of structure, style, or even race.

In all that, it unifies.

Louisville has a connection to the mammoth series Jazz. WFPK's Phil Bailey wrote the liner notes for its Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holliday companion CDs. One of this city's experts on jazz, Phil has been writing liner notes for Verve since 1974. Here in Louisville, Phil is best known for his afternoon jazz show on WFPK. He's there from noon until 3 p.m. weekdays.

If you want a big chunk of the early years of jazz (even after a month of Ken Burns), stop by the Comedy Caravan on Monday, February 5 for the Rascals of Ragtyme, a Dixieland group that has played for presidents and baseball teams. It's part of the Louisville Jazz Society's "First Monday" concert series. Doors open at 6:30, show starts at 7:30. Tickets are $5 for students, $10 for LJS members, and $12 for non-members.

"Jazzin'" columnist Tim Roberts notices that his name is a reverse-interpolated anagram of Ken Burns, and promises he won't mention Ken Burns in this column until his end-of-the-year wrap-up. He invites you to send your jazz-related dispatches, with or without mentioning Ken Burns, to tim@troberts.win.net, or to his attention to the editorial offices of Louisville Music News.