A Texas Take on Jazz


After having watched the 10 PBS episodes of Jazz, filmmaker Ken Burns’s and scriptwriter Geoffrey C. Ward’s historical survey of America’s “proudly mongrel music,” I was asked by my indulgent, long-suffering Chilean wife whether I would experience withdrawal symptoms now that the series was over. She knew that I had looked forward to each new episode, despite the damning advance reviews. For her part, she frequently dozed off during each episode, even though she found the visual imagery fascinating and enjoyed the commentaries of critic Gary Giddins, historian Gerald Early, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. But the music, except for a few items in my own record collection, like King Oliver’s “Edna,” Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues,” Charlie Mingus’s “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me,” and Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big,” is simply something she can–as she knows I cannot–live without.

For me the most revelatory moment in the series was the recollection of a white student at the University of Texas in 1931, who heard Louis Armstrong for the first time at Austin’s Driskill Hotel. He immediately recognized the African American as a genius, and was forced to change his views about race. In later years Charles Black would serve on the legal team that brought the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education.

From its beginnings, jazz has had such a mind-altering effect, and the Burns PBS series will undoubtedly change the thinking of many and will help the music make innumerable converts for years to come. Critical reaction has focused primarily on what the series does not include. That the period from 1960 to the present is egregiously slighted, while Armstrong and Duke Ellington receive far too much attention, has been the consistent complaint lodged by those who would champion fusion jazz, a figure like Anthony Braxton, or any number of splinter groups and avant-garde tendencies that appeared in the wake of Texan Ornette Coleman’s so-called Free Jazz movement, which dates from about 1959. Coleman himself probably receives more time and attention in the series than any other Texas musician spotlighted in the program, with pianist Teddy Wilson of Austin and electric guitarist Charlie Christian of Bonham tied for second, and trombonist Jack Teagarden of Vernon a distant third. And while it is entirely fitting that Burns devotes considerable footage to Ornette, given his revolutionary contribution to the development of the music, it is perhaps disappointing that the series does not reveal the role played in jazz by so many other Texans. But this is just a minor biased regret, since the series has for the first time done a much-needed job of highlighting the careers of the major figures in jazz, while setting them in the context of United States social history.

Texans Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, and Jack Teagarden all figured significantly in the social impact of jazz, and this aspect of the music is effectively chronicled in the Burns series. Both Wilson and Christian were members of Benny Goodman small groups that first integrated public jazz performances. Wilson formed part of the Goodman Trio, beginning in 1935, while Christian joined Goodman’s organization in 1939 as a member of the clarinetist-bandleader’s Sextet. The Burns film briefly traces the careers of both Texas sidemen and their importance to United States racial history, as well as their roles in developing the art of jazz during the swing era. The film series also acknowledges the vital part played by Wilson in the recording career of Billie Holiday, the finest of all jazz singers. Christian’s signal involvement in the incipient bebop movement during 1940 and ’41 is told through his participation in late-jazz jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse. As members of Goodman small groups, both Wilson and Christian enjoyed high visibility, were recorded extensively, and affected profoundly the evolution of jazz and the history of United States race relations.

As for trombonist Jack Teagarden, he had been among the first jazz musicians to record as part of a racially mixed ensemble, having done so with Louis Armstrong in 1929. The Burns film focuses briefly on a later period in Teagarden’s life, depicting him through a film clip that has the trombonist singing with Armstrong during the 1940s when the Texan formed part of Armstrong’s All-Stars. Subsequently, when Teagarden was not allowed to perform in public with the Armstrong group in the trumpeter’s hometown of New Orleans, Armstrong protested by refusing to play without his white trombonist-singer. In addition, Armstrong stipulated that after his death he was not to be buried in the city where he had been born and raised. Armstrong not only recognized the injustice of separating the races, but by hiring and standing behind Teagarden, he testified to the Texan’s central position in the development of the trombone in jazz history.

Another Texas trombonist, Tyree Glenn of Corsicana, formed part of Armstrong’s last All-Stars during the mid-1960s and recorded with the trumpeter-singer on his still-popular “What a Wonderful World.” As both trombonist and vibraphonist, Glenn also recorded with the Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington orchestras between 1940 and 1952. Although Glenn does not figure in the Burns film, he, like many other Texas jazzmen, was a versatile multi-instrumentalist who brought his own distinctive voice to a number of prominent jazz organizations. While it is possible to find in every jazz entity representatives from various parts of the country, it is hard to find a single unit that did not have a Texan among its sidemen. From the Casa Loma to the Glenn Miller orchestras, from the Fletcher Henderson to the Stan Kenton bands, one or more Texans took part in important recording sessions by these and so many other outfits. Obviously, I am stressing but one regional side to the jazz pantheon, but to paraphrase jazz critic Glenn Coulter, simply to list the names of Texans among the best musicians in jazz gives this native listener a deeply abiding pleasure.

My uncontrollable chauvinism was brought out most fully by the short segment on Count Basie. The film remembers how John Hammond, the controversial promoter responsible for having Benny Goodman recruit Charlie Christian, had grown increasingly impatient with the predictable formulae of the popular swing-era orchestras. Then in 1936, Hammond discovered, via a late-night radio broadcast, the refreshing Kansas City riff-style of the Count Basie band, which included at the time some half-dozen Texans. Hearing the opening strains of Basie’s 1938 “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” sent chills down my spine, the only work over the 10 nights to do so. Even as the voice-over interfered with this stirring performance, I could still feel the old Texas pride surging up when Denton native Herschel Evans rides out at the end of the piece with what critic Gunther Schuller has described as his “notable, nagging, nastily squeally clarinet.” Lamentably, Schuller, author of the classic studies Early Jazz and The Swing Era, is not included among the interviewed commentators, although he is credited in the list of consultants.

Aside from the absence of an authority like Gunther Schuller, the limited exposure of the great Basie band, and the exclusion of any number of lesser but integral units and individual figures, Jazz is a worthy production that tells the story of this world-class music as well as any could have. For as Casey Monahan of the Texas Music Office recently concluded, the whole history of jazz is a messy business. This is certainly evident from the bitter partisan exchanges in the ’40s among the “moldy figs” of traditional jazz, the conservative adherents of swing, and the “dizzy” advocates of the new bebop. Every listener has his or her favorite period, group, or soloist, but as the Burns series rightly indicates, the history of this music is most beholden to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker for much of its artistry and its most memorable sounds. Among Texans, Ornette Coleman of Fort Worth comes closest to these three men in terms of having made a monumental impact on the music, by giving to it a direction that in some ways has dominated jazz from 1959 to the present day.

Yet other Texans also have played significant parts in the creation of jazz, and this, too, is apparent from the Burns film series, even if it is not overtly acknowledged through captions identifying the individual performers. It would have been good had the series given the titles of tunes and the performing ensembles as they were being presented. Admittedly these are listed at the end of each episode, but they are so small and scroll past so quickly that it will be difficult for most viewer-listeners to know which came when. Even if newcomers to jazz rewind their videos, they will probably not be able to put the names of songs and groups together with their appearance in a particular sequence.

As with Herschel Evans and his important role as a soloist in the Count Basie band of the late 1930s, other seminal Texans perform anonymously during the episodes of Jazz. While no recording of Scott Joplin is included in the series, the sheet music of his classic “Maple Leaf Rag” is projected on the screen as the Texarkana product is cited as the most prominent composer of ragtime. Boogie woogie piano prodigy Hersal Thomas of Houston is not mentioned, and neither is multi-reed man Budd Johnson of Dallas, who figured so considerably in the success of the Earl Hines Orchestra, led the first bebop recording session, and recorded with many well-known groups, including those of Count Basie, Woody Herman, and Dizzy Gillespie. One rather obscure but crucial Texas jazzman who can be heard playing extensively in the film is trumpeter Carl “Tatti” Smith of Marshall. In reproducing the classic 1936 recording of “Oh! Lady Be Good” with a Basie small group featuring tenorist Lester Young, the unlikely but remarkable Carl Smith is actually the soloist who is heard throughout the voice-over discussion of Young and his central position as one of the three premier saxophonists in jazz, along with tenorist Coleman Hawkins and altoist Charlie Parker. Ironically, Carl Smith only made the influential 1936 date as a substitute for Oran “Hot Lips” Page, the amazing blues trumpeter from Dallas, who also goes uncredited in the film.

The line-up of great Texas trumpeters is just one side of the equation, for Texas tenor saxophonists are another facet of the under-represented role of Texas musicians in Jazz. But let’s continue with the trumpeters (another of my personal biases). Harry James of Beaumont is mentioned and probably appears pictured in the trumpet section of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, although there seem to be no excerpts from his spectacular, swaggering solos. Another vital trumpeter, Kenny Dorham of Fairfield, is not heard from or even named, even though he should have been noted as a founding member of the Jazz Messengers when the script ticks off a number of instrumentalists who were members of that Art Blakey aggregation. Neither is Dorham referred to in connection with Charlie Parker, in whose Quintet he played from 1948 to 1950. But again, oversights (if they can be called such) are inevitable in a history that includes so many minor or near-great proponents of jazz.

It would be possible to go on listing dozens of Texans who helped make jazz America’s only original art form. Indeed, Texans were present in every new movement in jazz, from ragtime, blues, and boogie woogie through swing, bebop, hardbop, and free, or what Ornette Coleman called his Harmolodics. Pianist Red Garland of Dallas formed part of the first important Miles Davis Quintet, which included tenorist John Coltrane. Bassist Gene Ramey of Austin and drummer Gus Johnson of Tyler made up the rhythm section, along with pianist Jay McShann, in McShann’s 1940s orchestra, the last in the great tradition of Kansas City bands, which first brought Charlie Parker to prominence. Three Texans, Booker Ervin of Denison, John Handy of Dallas, and Richard Williams of Galveston, collaborated with Charlie Mingus in the creation of his gospel-derived, blues-based hardbop of the 1950s. Another trio of Texans, Jimmy Giuffre, Harry Babasin, and Gene Roland, who in the early 1940s attended then North Texas State University, were active in California during the rise of West Coast jazz. Their recordings with, among others, Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, and Stan Kenton, helped put Third-Stream, Brazilian-influenced, and other Pacific modes on the jazz map. To recall even these few is to leave out sidemen in almost every name and also-ran band of every decade.

Just as there could well be another 10 episodes of Jazz that would provide air time for more of the outstanding figures of this music, so too could there be 10 episodes dedicated entirely to Texans in jazz. The contributions of Texas musicians alone extend throughout the entire history of the music. These include such a band as San Antonio’s Boots and His Buddies of the 1930s, which, unlike the jazz figures mentioned above, never left the state for fame in Kansas City, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. In Austin in 1930 a cornet player by the name of Tom Howell, who played with Fred Gardner’s Texas University Troubadours, sounded so much like the legendary Bix Beiderbecke that it is uncanny. Howell is just one of the countless Texans who go unnamed in the record book of Jazz. One hopes the time will come–and is in fact nigh–for a television series based on Texans in jazz history. Surely the Ken Burns series will spawn other documentaries on this enlivening, mind-bending, freedom-loving music, and they could do no better than start with the state that has lent so many styles, sidemen, and solos to one of America’s most sublime stories.

A frequent contributor to The Observer, Dave Oliphant is the author of Texan Jazz (University of Texas Press, 1996).