Digging the Jazz scene

Music, when operated correctly, provides us with transcendent moments capable of torching the soul.

Howzat for a lofty start?

There were lots of great moments that made Ken Burns’ Jazz series on PBS well worth watching. It lovingly chronicled the one true art form that our country has given this planet (Is that for real? Just one?) and, in doing so, provided powerful flashbacks of musical performance history that can back up any pretentiously lofty intro that might appear in a weekly newspaper.

One great scene in Jazz that got me soaring was a clip from chapter 5, the episode called “Swing: Pure Pleasure.” The star of this particular segment was that old clarinet pounder, Benny Goodman. He had formed a quartet in 1936, a little combo where he could take a break from his popular big band and have a good time blowin’ free in a looser, jam-oriented format. The other three members were all phenomenal musicians: Teddy Wilson on piano, Gene Krupa on drums and the mind-warping Lionel Hampton on vibraphone.

In this clip, the four are wailing away with an inspired fever that has them beaming; it’s an incredible segment that has to be seen to be believed. They all seem to be playing as fast as they can, and yet _ they’re making sense, too. Linked together as shamans of sound, these men are getting each other crazy with their ecstatic racket. At one point, you can see Goodman practically crack up after a particularly insane solo by vibe god Hampton. Benny almost loses it, giggles for a sec, then sucks it up, keeps his delirium in check, stuffs his horn into his mouth and starts squonking away in blazing response. He has to, almost out of self-defense.

The scene was so hot, so good, so powerful to behold, that I literally burst out with tears of joy at the sheer thrill of it. I remember being instantly embarrassed by my reaction, and then, realizing that it was a perfectly fine response to this extraordinary scene, being embarrassed about being embarrassed. So there was a lot going on in a span of about five seconds. But as for Benny and his bunch, man, those cats were gone, and what was excellent was that they managed to take me with them, 64 years later.

Jazz also made the case that the dancers back in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s were the hottest, swinginest, most fired-up flatfooters in this country’s history. Burns dug up all kinds of great clips showing the folks at big band shows whirlin’ and twirlin’ and slingin’ and flingin’ each other around those huge dance floors, and they are positively dazzling to watch, with all their high-flying jitterbuggin’ and lindy hoppin'. In many of the still photos of these dancin’ fools, the faces gleam with joy.

When you think about it, we could be way overdue for a lindy hop revival.