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No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you.— Franz Kafka, “Before the Law”
With “Red, White, and Blues,” in which Mike Figgis tells the story of British blues, and “Piano Blues,” by Clint Eastwood, Scorsese’s series came to an ending that is as strong at its beginning was weak. Eastwood was more generous with the music itself than any of the other directors, though some of his own comments were more sentimental than sage, while Figgis gave us the most artful collection of interviews in the series and some disarmingly powerful blues from one of the masters of the Las Vegas supper circuit.
British Blues Cruise
Figgis anchored his story in a jam session that included Jeff Beck, a logical choice, along with Van “Moondance” Morrison, Lulu (“To Sir With Love”), and Tom “What’s New Pussycat” Jones. The segment opened and closed on this session and returned to it between sequences of interviews and of archival footage.
Figgis began sly and dramatic. Here you are in front of the TV ready for a documentary on the British blues scene. You’ve read the story a thousand times, young British lads listen to blues records, fall in love with the music and BAM!, The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Cream and all invade the USofA in the 1960s and change the history of rock and roll. So who does Figgis put in the first shot, all big and beefy in his leather jacket? Tom Jones. We get a few seconds of him singing along with a recording and Figgis cuts to Van Morrison, who sings a few good choruses and hands it to Peter King, an alto player. That alto did not come floating up the Thames by way of the Mississippi Delta. It came by way of Kansas City and New York City, from the school of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.
We’re into it. Whatever preconceptions were spinning in your brain when the film opened have now been shattered and you’re wondering whether or not Tom Jones can sing the blues. It turns out that he can sing the blues like Sean Connery can act James Bond. But Figgis makes us wait to find that out.
It was all good. All those talking heads. Well framed, expressive faces saying interesting things. Lots of music. And well edited.
I liked the sense of being in the thick of it all. All this music flowed through and into and around Britain in the 1950s, big band, traditional jazz, skiffle, folk and music hall. Then those blues recordings come ashore. Figgis presents the scene through archival footage and through interviews with musicians who were there at the time. The material is edited so as to create the sense of a conversation between the musicians, a feel for how they found the music and one another back in the fifties. Figgis shows us a community at work, gathering itself into being through music.
Imagine for a minute, now, that none of these musicians were around any more and that we’d lost all the relevant recordings of British pop made before 1960 and all the American blues before then. But we have recordings of the Stones and Cream and the Beatles. Where did THAT music come from? It would be a mystery.
That is the situation we face with the blues itself. A great variety of music circulated in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, high culture, low culture, middle culture, horns, guitars, vocals, strings, and piano, big groups, small groups, and soloists. Things didn’t move as fast as they did in Britain in the fifties because we didn't have recordings back then, nor airplanes and radios and TV. But the music nonetheless got around; here and there things fell along certain lines; W. C. Handy heard it and transcribed and published some of it, scholars and journalists heard it and wrote it up, and so forth. Though the time, pace, and place were different, the process was similar to what Figgis shows us in this episode.
I particularly liked the footage showing jammers listening to recordings and playing along. That has been happening ever since recordings have been cheap and plentiful. The literature is full of anecdotes about it, but it was good to see and hear it. It is one thing to hear Tom Jones deliver a full-throated blues, and another to see him work the words along with a recoding while Jeff Beck picks up guitar lines.
Beyond the music itself, I was touched by the moral tone Figgis established when he played clips of these musicians telling how moved they were when black musicians told them how good their music was. It is one thing for these British musicians to acknowledge their debt to African America musicians, as they have been doing for years. When you confess to being moved by the approval of those same musicians, however, you also admit that you are especially vulnerable to their judgment. If their approval is especially sweet, then their disapproval would likely have been devastating. Where else have you seen and heard important white people acknowledge this vulnerability?
While it was nice to hear B. B. King acknowledge the role the British bluesmen played in reviving the careers of American bluesman, that’s not news. That sentiment is in print in a thousand places.
But the glow on Mick Fleetword’s face as he told of his pleasure in black acknowledgement, the ever so slight hitch in his voice – that cannot be put into words. Like the conversational standoff between Sam Phillips and Ike Turner in episode three, these moments reveal a profound and delicate truth about the complex dance of black and white that has given us so much beautiful music. These documents allow us to see and even comprehend that dance in ways that elude reasoned analysis.
As if this isn’t enough, Figgis wraps it up by having an achingly slow performance of “Drown In My Own Tears” materialize from the pink cheeks and blonde hair of a Scotswoman. This, the slow blues, is the inner sanctum, the center of the blues universe, and a technical challenge too. The virtuoso guitarist must make his blinding licks as delicate as Irish lace, then show that he can tease a single note until pigs grow wings, or for a couple of bars anyhow, whichever is longer. A vocalist must align shoulders, spine, and pelvis to support the sound so that she can ease it up and down by microtones. That Lulu did, giving us a blues more authentic than tartan plaid – though that’s not much of a standard, as scholars have demonstrated that clan plaids are a relatively recent innovation in the manufacture of tradition.
Figgis has done it again, forced us to pass an ethical test if we are to enjoy the musical goodies. If you really believe that the content of a woman’s soul is more important than the color of her skin, then you can take pleasure in Lulu’s blues. Neither Tom Jones nor Lulu played a significant role in the British blues, nor the blues at large, but their singing delivers testimony that they indeed know the blues. If you deny Lulu’s blues because she hit the pop charts back in the 1960s, if you deny Jones’ blues for the Las Vegas glitz, then you have marginalized your own blues and enslaved your soul to a century’s worth of earnest mythologizing.
I’m reminded of a situation comedy that was popular a few years ago. Each episode featured a bit of wisdom delivered over the back fence by a man named Wilson. But we never ever saw Wilson’s full face. So it is with the blues mythologist. He stands in the alley behind the club and is entranced by the music. But he never goes through the front door to look the blues in the eye. Figgis opened the door.
Eastwood’s Piano Friends
Eastwood’s episode was almost as good as Pearce’s (“The Road to Memphis”) and Figgis’s. The music was good and there was a lot of it. The sentimental close, Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful,” was a bit much, but did no real harm. The song itself is so obviously not the blues – no matter how expressively Charles sings it – and the patriotic appeal is so blatant that one can sigh in exasperation or bask in warm national-feeling as one remembers those little munchkins who peddled macaroni and cheese to blues melodies in those TV commercials. But there are other, more subtle, problems.
I liked all of the piano music Eastwood gave us, but it was a wildly varied lot that might better have been gathered under a looser rubric: Some of Clint Eastwood’s Favorite Vernacular Pianists. It would be misleading, however, to dismiss Eastwood’s selection as mere personal whimsy, albeit whimsy guided by good musical judgment. The problem is inherent in the way piano traditions evolved in this country, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
As I indicated above, in those days there was a lot of hot and funky music floating around under various names, ragtime, blues, stride, and jass or jazz. The distinctions between those forms were not so clear at the time as they became in mid-twentieth century retrospect.
Because it was often used as a solo instrument, and because it so often served as a tool for composers in a wide variety of both vernacular and high art styles, the piano stood somewhat apart from those styles even as it partook of them. Keyboard facility was at once a vehicle for stylistic intermingling and a source of ideas beholden to no particular style. This is implicit in the range of musicians Eastwood showed us – Jay McShann, Pinetop Perkins, Dorothy Donegan, Art Tatum, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Dr. John, Prof. Longhair, Otis Spann, Fats Domino, Count Basie, and others. Such catholicity is typical of many musicians, with Ray Charles – who served as Eastwood’s anchor point – being a good example. Each individual musician approaches her craft through the variety of styles available to her.
But that doesn’t elide the differences between musical styles. Without those differences there would be little point in listening to lots of music. Somehow styles are maintained in overlapping communities of musicians and fans. And it is the tensions within and between those communities that drives the long-term drift of musical styles.
The music itself cannot say these things. Someone has to point them out, either in the voice-over or through interviews. The well-read and experienced viewer knows this, but the novice is likely to come away with the impression that blues piano is whatever Uncle Clint says it is, and that seems to be most everything.
Eastwood could have laid the groundwork for such a discussion if, for example, he had pushed Dave Brubeck just a little. Early in the episode Eastwood showed Brubeck playing a stately piece that had gorgeous bluesy resonance in its thick chords. But blues it was not. Had Eastwood asked, “Dave, just how does that relate to the blues of, say, Fats Waller?” Brubeck could have demonstrated a few things at the keyboard and we would have had a few minutes of footage that made some useful connections. Similarly, when Marcia Ball demonstrated her debt to the polyrhythms of Prof. Longhair, Cousin Eastwood could have prodded her, “polyrhythm, what’s that?” That demonstration would have linked back to the fife-and-drum music that otherwise inexplicably framed Scorsese’s opening episode. With a few more such questions asked of other pianists and some voice-over guided by an astute historian – such as John Storm Roberts (Black Music of Two Worlds) – the connections would have been made, and painlessly.
That being said, Eastwood made good use of shots of piano-playing hands and feet – a technique used by Charlotte Zwerin in her superb documentary, “Thelonius Monk Straight, No Chaser,” for which Eastwood was executive producer. There was some sensitive and effective editing as well: for example, cutting seamlessly from a Fats Domino blues to a somewhat different Prof. Longhair blues without dropping a beat. Toward the end Eastwood had a montage that reprised short bits from many of the pianists he had featured. Some might have thought this redundant, but I found it delightful and effective, creating as it did a rich sense of all this music pouring out of those 88 keys.
Thus Eastwood allowed life in music to shine forth as did Pearce (“The Road to Memphis”) and Figgis. But their subjects were narrower in musical, if not ethical, scope than was his. Yes, the piano is but one instrument among many, but it is an instrument as protean in its expressions as the human voice. In being content merely to show us that variety, Eastwood missed an opportunity to tell us something about how that variety has been achieved and maintained only to be mixed, transcended, and transmuted into ever more variety.
What Hath Scorsese Wrought?
Steve Rosenbaum, a very good producer I knew when I lived in up-state New York, liked to repeat a simple observation, that some stories are best told in prose while others are best told through film or video. By that criterion I think that, on the whole, Scorsese did better by the blues than Burns did by jazz. Burns for the most part took existing documents and rearranged them to tell a standard story. The kind of story he told – a conventional history – is better told in prose than video. To be sure, prose cannot present the music itself, but it can tell the who, what, when, where, and why more effectively. Nor, in the end, did Burns present the music itself very well. He gave us many short fragments, but unlike some of the Scorsese episodes, Burns gave us no whole performances. Where Scorsese has given us some new documents of considerable value – I’m thinking particularly of the B. B. King-Memphis episode by Richard Pearce and the Eastwood and Figgis episodes – Burns did not produce any original documents of comparable value.
Thus on a dollar-and-cents basis, Scorsese has served us better than Burns. Crass though it is, this accounting is important. The nation-wide budget for such documentaries is quite thin. Both Burns and Scorsese have spent at least a decade’s worth of money in their respective categories. We aren’t going to see further efforts of this scale anytime soon.
Burns gave us glossy museum exhibits while Scorsese gave us living music. I bought Burns’ series so I could get the archival footage; I’m buying Scorsese’s, not only for the archival footage, but for the stories told by Pearson, Figgis, and Eastwood, for Burnett’s valiant attempt at setting blues in the life of its people, and even for Marc Levin’s generous bow to hip-hop – a music that is anathema to the jazz traditionalists who guided Burns on his way.
What is worse, Burns’ whole presentation was plastered over with the sort of mythologizing sentimentality that, with few exceptions, disappeared from Scorsese’s series after the first two episodes. And some of the exhibits in Burns’ museum are as phony as Wim Wender’s old-timey depiction of myths about Willie Johnson and Skip James. Thus, in one of his early episodes Burns had Wynton Marsalis telling stories about Buddy Bolden as though he’d seen him only yesterday when in fact Bolden had ceased playing over fifty years before Marsalis was born. Beyond even that indignity, the soundtrack music during the Buddy Bolden segment included old-sounding jazz that was, in fact, performed by Marsalis. You wouldn’t know that unless you paid close attention to the end-credits. Even if you had done that, you wouldn’t know that Marsalis was just guessing about that music because we don’t have any recordings of Buddy Bolden’s playing nor of any jazz whatsoever from that era (the first decade of the twentieth century).
Not only is Burns a sentimentalist, he’s a true blue patriot as well. Had Burns been more studious he could have consulted historian David Stowe (Swing Changes, 1994) who would have told him that the now-standard identification of jazz with America was invented in the nineteen-thirties as a part of anti-Nazi propaganda. Yes, jazz originated in America, as did the blues. But so did rock and roll and hip hop and many styles in the rich stew that is country and western. I do not believe that any of these musics is more or less typically American than any of the others. Is any good purpose served by pretending that Wynton Marsalis is closer to the American bone than Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, or Johnny Cash? None at all. Levin, Figgis, and Eastwood each opened the blues to other musics while Burns worked hard to insulate jazz from outside influence. Burns presented a self-absorbed America while Scorsese presented an America both generous and welcoming.
Even where Scorsese’s episodes faltered they offered useful examples for further work. The only work that can come from Ken Burns is more Ken Burns. Not only did Burns examine music from the past, but he was always looking to the past, never the present or the future. At their best, Scorsese’s episodes summoned the past as a source of raw materials for a new and different future. Scorsese managed to display a life and a moral truth that could only be displayed in this medium of moving images and manifest sound. Burns only used the medium to present documents framed in a sepia-toned glow.
It’s no contest. Forget the Yankee Doodle dandy. I’m with the son of Sicily.