Ken Burns' History of Jazz

By Bill Mitchell

Have you been watching the Public Television (KCET-Channel 28) series entitled "Jazz"? Ken Burns' ten-part history of the music, which chronicles the development of this "uniquely American art form," has been fascinating so far. As I write this, the story has reached the swing era and has five episodes to go. I'm devoting some space to this series because I've noticed that most ragtimers are also interested in jazz -- particularly early jazz -- and the bands that are keeping it alive today. (such as "Gremoli" and the "Night Blooming Jazzmen.") Pianist Jess Stacy once defined jazz as "syncopated syncopation," and how could ragtimers resist that?

At any rate, there is a smattering of ragtime and stride piano in the first two or three episodes. Joplin and classic ragtime are very briefly mentioned, but there is a segment on James Reese Europe, the prominent black bandleader, composer of "Castle House Rag," whose band was recording ragtime prior to World War I. Jelly Roll Morton is given a fair amount of attention. There are movie clips of Willie "The Lion" Smith and Thomas "Fats" Waller in action. Duke Ellington plays his early "Soda Fountain Rag." Fascinating stuff.

Some critics have been, well, highly critical of the episodes thus far, pointing out inaccuracies, anachronisms, omissions, and irrelevancies. For some heated discussion and varying opinions, access the bulletin board of The Mississippi Rag web page at <>. As I see it, Jazz is a rare and exciting treat in spite of the often valid criticisms that have been proffered.

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Wouldn't it be nice to see a similar TV documentary on ragtime? While that day may well come, did you know that such a project (on a comparatively modest scale) has already been done? It was in November of 1960 that NBC-TV Project Twenty aired a special called "Those Ragtime Years." I reviewed it in Paul Affeldt's Jazz Report (Vol. 1, No. 10) and will possibly reprint it in a future issue of Something Doing.

In brief, this program was hosted and narrated by Hoagy Carmichael in his characteristic folksy, down-home manner. The hour began with a pianola rolling out Joplin's "Original Rags." Hoagy commented that we were listening to "real ragtime," and that when he was a boy in Indiana ragtime was "…a continuous soundtrack to the American ear."

The geographical and cultural origins of the music were traced, including mountain ballads, river influences, Afro-American church music, marches and so on. Behind Hoagy's narration, you could hear such classics as "Grace and Beauty" and "Sunflower Slow Drag" played live off stage. Several sheet music covers of great rags were flashed successively on the screen.

The ragtime/jazz pianist Ralph Sutton was featured at an upright playing "The Cascades," as it might have been performed at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Another sequence showed appropriately costumed dancers performing an abbreviated version of Joplin's "Ragtime Dance," with Hoagy delivering the descriptive patter that Joplin included in the score. The Wilbur De Paris band played a rousing "Bill Bailey."

A section of the program was devoted to the Tin Pan Alley phase of ragtime. Hoagy sang an obscure Percy Wenrich novelty song, and there was a tribute to Irving Berlin, featuring some of his early pop tunes showing ragtime influences.

Near the end of the hour Eubie Blake, who was a youthful 77 at the time, played his "Ragtime Rag."

The hour ended with a four-piano version of "Maple Leaf Rag," performed by Ralph Sutton, Eubie Blake, Hoagy Carmichael, and Dick Wellstood. As might have been expected, they took it as a barn burner, and the De Paris band came in on the last strain.

It would be delightful if this program could be aired again, forty years later, but that probably won't happen...I seem to remember reading somewhere that this hour was not preserved, or that the tapes were lost.

John T. Carney's Original Rags for Download

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