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Revenge of the Return of the Son of Ken Burns' "Jazz"

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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Many jazz aficionados felt that Jazz completely overlooked or deliberately disregarded the contributions of non-human musicians. It is well-known among jazz scholars that pioneering tenor saxophonist Frankie Traumbauer was, in fact, a very large raccoon.
If you have been following this column (maintaining a proper distance of two car-lengths), then you know that I have spent the last two months giving a brief overview of the history of jazz. This is part of the overall mission of the Genius Guide, and AAJ in general, to raise the knowledge level of the average jazz fan so that we may proselytize the heathen masses and lead them into the way of truth.

Forget I said that.

What I mean is, the Genius Guide exists principally for two reasons: to inform and amuse both seasoned jazz fans and newcomers alike, and to achieve for myself worldwide fame and/or notoriety so that I can finally afford that decadent lifestyle I've had my eye on. Which is why I can understand Ken Burns.

You see.

Like Ken (I call him Ken. Who's going to stop me?), I have an interest in the Civil War, baseball, and jazz. But unlike Ken, I do not have at my disposal the means to make week-long documentaries about the things which interest me. It's just as well, because I don't think PBS would air my proposed 15-hour films about redheads and beer anyway. So I have to confine the exploration of my interests to the written word, where I can do the most irreparable damage.

Be that as it may.

As pleased as we all were with Ken's monumental documentary, in that it got a lot of people talking about jazz who wouldn't otherwise, there is the general sense in the jazz community (located off I-64, near the Cracker Barrel) that Jazz may have missed the mark a little when it comes to a complete and thorough examination of the music and those who created and prospered it. In fact, out of the entire twenty hour documentary, I came away with only three salient points:

  1. Apparently, Louis Armstrong was very important.
  2. There was a time when black folks weren't particularly well-liked in this country.
  3. Duke Ellington.

I would be remiss in my duties as a Genius to leave the average person with such an incomplete understanding of jazz. I've already covered most of the important history, but there is so much more to the rich tapestry of jazz yet to be uncovered. So I've decided to devote this month's column to addressing what I felt to be some of the more glaring omissions.

First and foremost would be a personal complaint, the oversight of Johnny Hartman. His luxurious baritone is perhaps one of the finest vocal instruments in the history of jazz. Woefully under-recorded (his voice was so smooth, it slid right off of most vinyl records. Advances in digital recording came too late, as Hartman died in 1983), his best work came with John Coltrane on the classic album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. To this day, Hartman's voice has an almost mystical seductive effect on women. Give me a bottle of wine and a Johnny Hartman record, and I could get k.d. lang's bra off (and then put it right back on, because I'm just trying to prove a point).

Many jazz aficionados felt that Jazz completely overlooked or deliberately disregarded the contributions of non-human musicians. It is well-known among jazz scholars that pioneering tenor saxophonist Frankie Traumbauer was, in fact, a very large raccoon. And who could forget the seminal vibe work of "Bulldog" Benny Shanks (who, despite the nickname, was actually a Boston terrier). Recording for Blue Note in the mid-sixties and touring with such luminaries as Lee Morgan, Kenny Burrell, and "Slow" Willie Peach (himself a garden snail, tragically sautéed during a gig in Paris in 1972), it is said that Shanks could be driven to awe-inspiring solos just by scratching him behind the ear as he played. And I have it on fairly good authority that Louis Armstrong's first wife, pianist Lil Hardin, was a beaver (although, I may have just taken an anecdote out of context).

Which brings me to another point.

Disco Nat Jazz woefully underplayed the contributions of women to the music. Not only were there many great female musicians and singers, but it is a known fact that virtually every musician who has ever picked up an instrument has done so, at least in part, to impress the opposite sex. It was a dancing woman that spurred Paul Gonsalves to his legendary 27-chorus barn-burner during Duke Ellington's performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Do you think he would have put on a show like that had it been a dancing jazz critic? Do you think Miles Davis would have swaggered and scowled the way he did if it wasn't getting him chicks? Do you think I'd be slaving over this steaming vat of complex gibberish if I didn't think there might be some leg in it for me somewhere down the line?

My point exactly.


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