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Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music.

Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music * Columbia/Legacy and Verve * $59.98 (5-CD boxed set)

It was as a novice that award-winning documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball) came to the subject of his latest film, Jazz, an epic 18-hour series now available on video following its January broadcast on PBS. While most contemporary jazz aficionados tend to be middle-aged white men and students, the music and the history of what has been called America's greatest cultural contribution are largely unknown to the general public. Male-dominated and intent on preserving a gritty image, historically jazz also has been notoriously homophobic.

For gay audiences wanting to learn about jazz, a good starting point would be the five-CD boxed set, a joint release of the Columbia/Legacy and Verve labels, that serves as a companion to the Burns film. Arranged in roughly chronological order, this is a beautifully complex musical tapestry. Among the artists featured are the Original Dixieland Jazz Band performing "Livery Stable Blues" (the first recording of a jazz band in New York); the lesbian "empress of the blues," Bessie Smith, with her tidal-wave sound; sassy Cotton Club mama Ethel Waters; and gay iconoclastic, keyboard man Cecil Taylor as well as Sarah Vaughan, Billie, Ella, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and far too many more to mention.

Outstanding even in this pantheon are four irresistibly erotic Duke Ellington sides--"The Mooche," "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," "Black Beauty," and "Mood Indigo"--great examples of "jungle music" that make clear why the term jazz once had an overtly sexual connotation. And for those who think of Bing Crosby as the "White Christmas" guy, dig "There Ain't No Sweet Man (Worth the Salt of My Tears)," his pronouns-be-damned 1928 recording with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

In listening to these classic cuts, it will become apparent that, except for vocalists, few women--let alone gays and lesbians--have been welcomed into jazz's ranks. Given that climate, out gays such as French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli have been the exception. Among others, seminal 1920s singers Smith and Waters, and later Billie Holiday, were known to be at least bisexual.

Lush Life, David Hajdu's sensitive 1996 biography of composer Billy Strayhorn ("Take the `A' Train"), celebrated perhaps the best-known openly gay man from the earlier decades of jazz. For almost 30 years until his death in 1967, Strayhorn served as Ellington's closest collaborator, playing a seminal, if out-of-the-spotlight, role in developing the Ellington orchestra into a vehicle for some of the most ambitious music of the century. In Jazz, the lavish coffee-table companion book to the series, Ellington's son, Mercer, comments, "Pop never cared one bit that Strayhorn was gay.... He backed up Strayhorn all the way."

Openly gay Grammy-winning vibraphone virtuoso Gary Burton suggests that Burns's book and documentary may have missed one vital gay angle: Ellington and Strayhorn, Burton theorizes, had more than just music in common.

"I knew Duke reasonably well--what a gorgeously flamboyant man!" Burton says. "He really loved his clothes, and he loved the whole idea of style and sophistication. That didn't necessarily prove he was gay, but my gaydar certainly was registering." (In fact, Mercer Ellington told Vanity Fair in 1999 that he always assumed that his father and Strayhorn at least experimented together. "I just presumed as much," he said. "So did the cats [in the band].")

Burton notes, "Ellington's champions in the jazz history field, like Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, are in denial because they can't bear the thought that one of the two greatest heroes of jazz might have been gay."

Burns's Jazz is an unprecedented promotional effort for the music that late drummer Art Blakey said "washes away the dust of everyday life." Gay audiences have expressed little interest in this still-vital and evolving genre--with the exception of a few singers such as Holiday and Vaughan--and it remains uncertain if that will change. Yet whether created by gays or straights, jazz is grounded in an essential quality to which gays should certainly be able to relate--a profound spirit of freedom of expression.

Find more on jazz and the artists behind Jazz at

Longtime HIV activist Velez edited the RKO Classic Screenplay Series and has written many CD liner notes.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Velez, Andrew
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Feb 13, 2001
Previous Article:Jazz: A Film.
Next Article:Jazz: A History of America's Music.

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