Jazz: The History of America’s Music is a moving book with stunning photographs. It accompanies a documentary series that has already wowed the US and will be shown in Britain later this year. The increased sales of jazz records in the US have been credited to the power of the series.
I loved the book for its well chosen anecdotes. They tell the stories of the jazz geniuses of the 20th century who fought hard against racism in the US and whose lives were often cut short. There are stories of courage, as when Bessie Smith refused to cower when the Ku Klux Klan threatened to collapse the tent she was performing in. She ran towards them shouting, ‘You pick up them sheets and run.’ Faced with scores of angry Bessie Smith fans, the racists did run. Smith returned to the stage and began to sing. There are stories of white jazz musicians, such as Bud Freeman, who were brought up to despise black people as inferior. He went into the black community to learn about jazz and came out impressed and transformed.
Freeman said, ‘It was not just their music that moved me, but the whole picture of an oppressed people who appeared to be much happier than we whites who had everything. It was on the strength of this that I became a jazz musician.’
Jazz music was born as an expression of resistance to racism. The Czech composer Anton Dvorak arrived in the US in 1892 to become director of the National Conservatory of Music. He concluded from his musical research that ‘I am now satisfied that the future of music in this country must be founded upon what is called Negro music.’
At £30 you are probably best off getting this from your local library. But this book is an excellent starting point if you want to find out more about jazz, though you need to listen to the music while reading.
Jazz: the History of America’s Music, by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns, Pimlico, £30.
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