Tag Archives: American culture

Studs Terkel, RIP

Chicagoland is mourning the loss today of  Studs Terkel, who died yesterday at 96 after a long and unique career in which he was the exemplar of the radio interview, an audio documentarian of the ups and downs of the American dream.

If you listened to WFMT, the great Chicago radio station, you became familiar with Terkel’s program and his standard signoff: Take it easy, but take it. He interviewed major newsmakers and cultural figures, but it was the regular people he interviewed that make the magic of Terkel for me.

Right now, for instance, WFMT is broadcasting Terkel’s 1963 interviews with black Americans as they took the train to the March on Washington  in August of that year for the civil rights protest, which culminated in the now-legendary I Have a Dream speech of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Here are the voices of regular people, explaining their lives and given the room to talk at length. Here we hear the sound of frustration but also of hope; several speakers talk about the breakthrough they think the march represents for black Americans, and indeed it was.

This is the special thing about Terkel’s work: He gets everyone to talk frankly about big topics, and they all end up sounding like philosophers. Something about his method, something about his native curiosity and empathy, encouraged people to open up and  express their deepest thoughts to him. This is something that too few interviewers are able to do, and over the years, he compiled an extraordinary record of the American mindset.

Some idea of just the major figures he talked to can be found in this TV piece from Chicago’s public television station, WTTW, and in his many books there are the other voices. I’ve got his 1988 book, The Great Divide, on my shelves, and it’s a meditation on the gaps between races, economic haves and have-nots, and the nation’s religious, among other things. It’s still compelling reading today, and while the hero of his book is nuclear arms protester Jean Gump, he also has plenty of the other side, from a gung-ho commodities trader to a far-right congressman. This is true even though one of the book’s epigraphs casts a cloud over the idea of purely objective journalism.

It’s also interesting to read Terkel’s meditation, in the book’s introduction, on what the growth of technology was doing to his metier:

As technology has become more hyperactive, we, the people have become more laid-back; as the deposits in its memory bank have become more fat, the deposits in man’s memory bank have become more lean. Like Harold Pinter’s servant, the machine has assumed the responsibilities that were once the master’s. The latter has become the shell of a once thoughtful, though indolent, being. It is the Law of Diminishing Enlightenment at Work.

Terkel came to manhood in the early 1930s, when socialist politics were at their high-water mark in the United States, and he always remained on the progressive left, which is why he was talking about institutions such as labor unions long after their period of greatest influence had passed. I think this basic orientation of his led him always to seek out the most overlooked, the most anonymous, the most ordinary, when he went looking for interviewees; today, we tend to see these sorts of interviews only at times of national political moment such as the upcoming election. But for him, there always was a story there, and he compiled an oral history of how his countrymen thought and spoke that will be a historian’s dream for decades to come.

It’s unfortunate that Terkel died just before Tuesday’s election, which the big polls indicate is likely to go to Barack Obama. I’m sure he would have gotten a thrill out of seeing him elected, and it would have been marvelous to hear him gather, one more time, some of those American voices — positive and negative — as they commented on their nation’s historic choice.

It’s been good this afternoon to hear some of his past work, and to notice how little he intrudes. He just lets the people speak, and stays out of their way. His prompts are statements like this: So you’re pretty tired. And that little sentence brings out a long response that tells us much about the person speaking, far more than we would get if he were a wordy devil, supplying the answer to the question along with the query.

Because he did his work that way, we have an unmatched record of his times, of which the greater chronicle would be far poorer without his contribution. It’s a contribution whose worth will grow with time.

Review: Marsalis’ ‘Moving to Higher Ground’

In his newest book, the jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis comes a good deal closer to the goal that he’s been moving toward in his previous writings: A unitary theory of American culture, with jazz at its heart as explicator and savior.

Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, written with Geoffrey C. Ward, has the same kind of sermon-like feel of his To a Young Jazz Musician, his 2003 collection of Rilke-in-swingtime letters about the importance of jazz and of living a life of creative integrity. It has the same kind of relentless exhortation, but here he’s trying to reach a wider, more general audience.

Moving to Higher Ground has the feel of a book put together for a very busy man: It’s short, loosely episodic, and the writing reads as though it were dictated to Ward, with some of the thought-jumps that can result from that approach. Nevertheless, the book is engaging, interesting, at times quite funny, and overall, persuasive.

The book is structured as part primer, part essay, with a chapter featuring 13 prose portraits of great jazz masters with suggestions for further listening. Marsalis’ basic jazz worldview is this: Jazz is at once an art form of personal expression and careful collaboration, and it lives in the spirit of the blues and swing, two other artistic styles that he feels are either poorly understood or ignored.

But he also sees jazz as a way to bridge America’s racial disharmonies; recognizing its primacy in our country’s music is the same thing as understanding that while it originated with black Americans, it belongs to all of its citizens:

Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.

That’s nicely put, but Marsalis is as aware as anyone that many of today’s Americans find jazz music incomprehensible, outmoded or boring. He argues that there are so many definitions of jazz now current that it’s time to return to first principles and sort out its most vital components, which is where swing in particular comes in.

For him, the disappearance of swing (except as a briefly popular fad a few years back when clothiers were making zoot suits again) amounts to the loss of the element of jazz that connects the music to dance, and to romance. He explains swing’s technical definition reasonably well for non-specialists as basically being a shuffle rhythm (he uses the Mickey Mouse March as an example), but it’s the larger implications of swing that really grab him. If you’re swing dancing, you’re dancing close to your partner; if you’re in a room of people listening to swing, they’re all grooving along with it. And that means togetherness:

We need to brings swing back, not out of dumb, misguided nostalgia, but because swing is a modern rhythm, much more suited to the increasingly integrated world of today than anything pounded out by a drum machine and recorded by people who are not even in the same studio together.

These are the kinds of things Marsalis has said before, but what makes this book more interesting is some of the stories he tells about growing up in suburban New Orleans. He talks about his family, his schooling , and his first experiences in the wider world of jazz.

What is compelling here is his explanation that as a teenager, he was like most of his African-American peers an angry black nationalist, a young person who wrote off Louis Armstrong as an Uncle Tom and couldn’t be bothered to learn about why Benny Goodman was an important figure in American popular music.

But his view changed, at least in part because Marsalis has been singularly fortunate in his intellectual mentors, beginning with his parents, and then the arts magnet school he attended in New Orleans, which he still describes with palpable excitement: “The faculty was unbelievable. Just the conversations they had with one another made you want to learn things….I still look back on that experience with gratitude.”

A good foundation, then, for meeting the writers Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, who taught him the lesson that it was the quality of a person’s ideas, not what that person looked like, that mattered. He even writes a long, Murray-like sentence about the force with which these intellectual revelations struck him:

…and (Murray) was excited about you, that you wanted to learn about something, and he told you the blues was the truth, and gave you a book he wrote about it, and you took it home and read it, and it was full of stuff that you had experienced your whole life but had never considered important or special, but now you knew that the specialness was based in its universality and that the idea of reducing the blues aesthetic to race was impoverished, and now, because you had actually felt exactly that before he told you, him telling you was like a cue from a conductor: You know when to come in, but his cue makes you doubly secure; it guides you to where you were going anyway, and now it’s going to take much les time and things won’t feel the same because you’re not alone. You have help. Plenty of it.

Marsalis is absolutely right when he points out that black Americans are not in any sense other than numbers a minority; they are central to the identity of this country and major creators of its culture. He bemoans the unhappy fact that black Americans don’t seem to realize this when it comes to jazz, but ignorance of America’s place in the world of the arts is true of every group in our country. That’s one of the reasons Gore Vidal and others like to call it the United States of Amnesia.

In the sixth chapter of his book, Marsalis takes a look at some of the very greatest jazz figures: Ellington, Monk, Coltrane. John Lewis is given a loving reminiscence and one of the best stories in the book, while Miles Davis comes in for the same criticism Marsalis has leveled against him before: He sold out in his middle age to funk and rock, and almost destroyed his legacy.

Marsalis also spends a good deal of time lauding the pianist Marcus Roberts, so much so that it’s made me want to seek out more of his work (I haven’t liked it much up to this point, but it’s clear from this that I don’t know enough of it). If Roberts is celebrated as a titan of jazz 40 years from now, Marsalis will have been right.

Wynton Marsalis is one of those people, who because of his early fame and continued stature as a leading voice in jazz, comes in for a lot of attacks as a hidebound young fogy who hates innovation and wants to live in the past. I can understand some of that: I’ve never been persuaded by his composing, and I find him stiff as a jazz player (he sounds more natural as a classical player, frankly).

But he is one of the most important spokesmen in the country today — in fact, almost the only prominent one I can think of — for the arts in general (here’s an interview he did for the book on NPR). He winds up Moving to Higher Ground with the notion that jazz can inspire even non-musical people to seek out the wellsprings of their own creativity, and that is what the arts are all about.

Jazz itself, despite Marsalis’ best efforts, will remain a closed book to a lot of people, which is lamentable. But he can justifiably be proud of his work on behalf of American arts and human creativity in general, and that’s no small thing. What he has done here is unfashionable but courageous, and he deserves to be recognized for what he really is: A national treasure.

Here he is playing a 5-minute chorus on Cherokee with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra:


(Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, runs just 183 pages and is an easy read. It’s published by Random House and retails for $26.)