All that jazz

On Sunday evenings late last year, ABC television’s ratings jumped as viewers across the nation tuned in to Love is in the Air, a documentary series on Australian popular music in the late 20th century. If these viewers had watched the same network a few hours earlier, they would have seen a re-screening of Jazz, another musical documentary series, which showed American popular music over the early and mid 20th century. The former show was an ABC production, while the latter came from the United States—and what a contrast they presented.

The focus in Jazz, which was the work of the American film maker Ken Burns, was upon artistic endeavour. A typical slice of the narrative started by telling you about a dishevelled young man who slouched into a smoky club on 52nd Street. He looked a mess, with odd shoes on, his hair messed up, wearing a rumpled jacket, and he pulled out of a shabby paper bag a saxophone held together with rubber bands. He stepped over to the small group that had just set up and had a word with the drummer. They started up a riff, and next thing the sax player was playing, not the melody, but the base line, putting notes in there that no one had ever thought of before, and they sounded discordant but they worked, and there was this weird spacing in the passage. Next thing the trumpeter was jamming with him, using this rapid fingering; and a small but significant revolution had just occurred in Western music. The guy on sax was Charlie Parker and the hornblower in heavy glasses was Dizzy Gillespie. Together, they had just made one of those paradigm shifts that—according to musicologists—only a Beethoven can come up with. And even if you didn’t fully agree, you had to admit that music had changed.

Jazz was about artistry and expression, exploring how music is food for the soul, even how music can convey our individual, and sometimes collective humanity. Nestled in front of the box, they laid it out for you. The music played, and your appreciation deepened; and it didn’t matter if you were unfamiliar with Bix Beiderbecke or Duke Ellington or Theolonious Monk, of if you couldn’t before tell ‘West End Blues’ from ‘St Thomas’ or ‘Take the “A” Train’, because Jazz spoke to all viewers on their level, lifting them up and getting them to enjoy music, considering how it connects with and expresses the human condition.

There is no gentle way to speak honestly about Love is in the Air, Australian television’s own effort at engaging with music. The performers might have been intermittently referred to as ‘artists’, yet artistry did not figure in the show. Instead, it was dismal—a litany of disc sales, production figures, chart ratings, gold records, industry awards, profit ratios, and how to milk a hit. What is going on, not just in the media, but in our broader culture,  that we now seem only to talk in such shallow materialistic terms? Where the American program spoke continually of hard work, perseverance, musical vocation, craftsmanship and talent, the locally produced show advanced the idea that anyone can
be a musical star provided they are cleverly managed.

Creative accomplishment was notable for its absence, indeed, an underlying message of the series was that the supposedly best pieces of recent Australian popular music have either been tossed together in minutes, or relied on a gimmick. Love is in the Air not only showed the music it dealt with to be trivia and froth, but applauded these qualities. Nothing made to endure, nothing great, nothing that reaches for, or expresses our humanity was celebrated— the show paid homage to the quick, empty jingle that pulled the big bucks.

I worry that Love is in the Air is pretty much an indicator of how our nation is being impelled to assess imagination and creativity nowadays. Looking at the treatment of visual art in the media, you see the same materialistic fixations. It’s all marketing and hype and dollars. We speak little of art; it’s always prices and figures, with artists treated as winners or losers depending on how much money they turned over. Australian culture is now in the hands of those who want us to see everything only in terms of dollars.

Sadly the ultimate victim of this creeping materialism is the unwitting public. Culture never has been widely understood in this country, many people regarding serious artistic, literary and musical activity as either pretentious accomplishments of little inherent utility or else suspect forms of entertainment intended solely for the privileged. In appealing to commercial values, these attitudes are hardly countered.

There is much to be learned from Ken Burns’ Jazz. It is a marvellous object lesson in just how we could make entertaining, stimulating and solidly-rating television (the ABC has broadcast the series three times now) while doing something as allegedly ‘unpalatable’ as introducing viewers to quality music, writing and painting. Jazz affirmed what any capable arts practitioner already knows: getting people to enjoy music isn’t that hard. It’s a matter of sharing what you perceive—of sharing how you experience a work—and next thing the audience is moving down the path to that essentially inward delight of the artistic by losing one’s centre and finding fulfilment; most of all, to that inexplicable joy a fluently handled passage of sound or oil paint or words can trigger inside you, the visual chords and individual notes, the emotional colour.

‘Music’, the great American drummer Art Blakey used to say, ‘washes away the dust of everyday life’. 

Dr Christopher Heathcote is co-author with Bernard Smith and Terry Smith of Australian Painting 1788–2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002).



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