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That old, sweet sound
'Jazz' writer brings life passion to viewers, readers
(CNN) -- In 1950, Geoffrey C. Ward was 10, living with his family on the south side of Chicago. While most kids were able to find happiness in small pleasures like a game of street stickball, Ward didn't have that luxury: He had polio.
"I was in the hospital for a long time and at home in bed for a long time," he says.
To make matters worse, he found nothing to soothe his spirit on the radio.
"That was probably the worst year in the history of popular music," he says. "Just awful music. Rock hadn't happened and the swing era had died."
But Ward found relief. Someone -- he doesn't remember who -- introduced him jazz, and while he recovered from his illness, he listened to phonographs featuring Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, giants in the field of jazz. His favorite song was Armstrong's 1928 rendition of the King Oliver tune "West End Blues," a three-minute, 18-second song that is considered one of the 20th century's classic pieces of musical art.
It's still Ward's favorite song, and jazz is still his favorite music.
"Jazz made me feel good when no other music made me feel good," he says. "And I've stuck with it ever since."
Ward, now 60, has done more than that. Continuing his writing partnership with award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, he has helped turn his favorite subject into an encompassing 10-part documentary.
"Jazz" airs on PBS starting January 8, and it's accompanied by a CD collection and the 490-page "Jazz: A History of America's Music" (Knopf).
Ward is no stranger to history, musical or otherwise. He has written numerous books detailing various moments in time, including the Franklin Delano Roosevelt history "A First-Class Temperament" (Harper & Rowe, 889 pages). The book won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award.
With "Jazz," he penned the script and book with Burns, just as they did on "The Civil War" and "Baseball." In fact, the two decided to try "Jazz" while working on the documentary about the national pastime.
"Ken heard essayist Gerald Early say that the three things Americans would be most remembered for a thousand years for now were the Constitution, baseball and jazz," says Ward. "It fell into place for him."
Ward, who's been a jazz aficionado for 50 years now, agrees with the assessment.
"I think it's such a quintessentially American thing," he says. "It could only have been invented here."
The book, Ward says, packs in more information than the TV version, using the documentary's script as a "spine." Both follow the cultivation of jazz from its ambiguous beginnings in the social gumbo and bluesy atmosphere of turn-of-the-century New Orleans; into the music's golden age in the 1920s and '30s when it lit the Savoy, the Apollo, the Cotton Club and other places where progressive music took center stage; to today's torch-bearers of modern jazz.
It's a comprehensive, moving reminder of the days when the sound and the people who made it were given equal doses of scorn, and how it mirrored the sentiments of those who loathed or loved it. Jazz moved from saloons to the national subconscious of world-war generations, providing a medium for political statements on racism and other issues.
Ward says he wants nothing less than to help names like Ellington, Armstrong, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Mingus, Morton, Coltrane, Davis, et al. earn their proper place in the national song.
"I think most people have mostly forgotten who these people were," he says. "For most people, I think, Louis Armstrong is a guy you vaguely remember who sang 'Hello Dolly' and waved the handkerchief and showed his teeth, and Duke Ellington ran a dance band.
"I hope at least people come away with understanding how complex and interesting they were and what struggles they had, how they overcame things.
"I really hope one of the results of the show will be that these people are seen in a new way, as genuine heroes as well as great musicians," Ward says.
Jazz's dark side
Ward and Burns attempt this by bringing to print and screen the stories behind the musicians and singers.
And it's not just about Ellington, Armstrong and the other big names. "Jazz" also shines the spotlight on the bit players and outsiders who helped bring the sound to spirited dance halls.
It's a look not only at a type of music, but a view of American life, filtered through sharp trumpet blasts and thudding bass lines.
That includes the darker tales. Billie Holiday's ride from acclaimed chanteuse to heroin addict is documented in unblinking detail. Charlie Parker, the sax player who brought Kansas City jazz to New York, is remembered as a troubled soul who found life in his music, but ultimately succumbed to addictions and depression.
"There are a lot of people in jazz who get consumed by their own hungers," says Ward. "I think there are a lot of very sensitive, very complicated people who find in jazz a way to express things they otherwise couldn't express."
'It's got everything'
With "Jazz," Ward and Burns have continued a form of expression that has worked well for them. Their investigations of American histories, like "The Civil War," have been hailed as genius.
Working with Burns has been rewarding, Ward says.
"I continue to admire his willingness to take on huge subjects," he says. "There doesn't seem to be a subject too big for him."
Next on the plate for Ward and Burns is another slice of American pie: Mark Twain. Ward has a connection to this subject, too. He was born on the same day -- November 30 -- as the novelist and humorist.
For now, Ward is tuned to the strains of jazz, its high notes and low rhythms saluting the dance of life.
"It's got everything in it -- joy and sadness and sex and happiness and love and pain," he says. "It has everything you want from the arts, and the best of it."
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