Matt Glaser, advisor to Ken Burns’ Jazz

February 12th, 1999


Matt Glaser is the only tenured professor of violin in the United States who specializes in jazz, folk and swing instead of classical music. Matt has appeared on over thirty recordings, is the head of the string department at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and co-authored the book “Jazz Violin” with legendary jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.

A close friend of Ken Burns, Glaser has played on numerous Burns documentaries.  He was a Senior Advisor to Burns during the filming of “Jazz – A Film by Ken Burns”.  Glaser’s colorful interviews throughout the film are a dynamic part of the experience.

In our exclusive Jerry Jazz Musician interview, he discusses the “controversy” within the jazz community surrounding Burns’ film, jazz’s place in American culture, and, his favorite topic, Louis Armstrong.



JJM Matt, who was your childhood hero?

MG Einstein. I’m not sure why but I had a poster of him in my room while I was growing up. I like the idea of the eccentric genius, revolutionizing something about the human experience. He was a guy who was loved and had a kindly face, but was obviously into esoteric secrets.

JJM Wouldn’t it make sense that a musician has a mathematician for a hero?

MG Oh, absolutely. In fact, I often draw parallels between Louis Armstrong and Albert Einstein. Both men were warm, avuncular figures who were known and loved the world over, and both men had deep aspects to their work that hardly anyone appreciated. Both men were working at the same time and revolutionized the human understanding of time – Einstein in the scientific sense and Armstrong changing the human experience of time through his music.

JJM Einstein and Armstrong and Picasso all lived at the same time. To what would you attribute the cultural climate that saw the rise of jazz and design and art in Europe and America during the 1920’s?

MG That’s a question that’s above my pay scale! I don’t have a deep knowledge of all those other fields, but clearly there was something going on with basic principles of abstraction. Things that we think of as modernism…I like to point out that Louis Armstrong was the harbinger of improvised music, of abstraction. The concept of taking certain things and moving from the specific to the general. I always think of this image of Mondrian sketching a grove of trees and then gradually over the course of 20 years removing all the inessential elements from that picture of trees until he was just left with just two lines. Armstrong does a lot of similar things in his great performances of the 20’s and 30’s. This idea of spontaneously abstracting a melody – taking a complex melody…people often think of jazz as being more complicated than it is. Armstrong shows that you can play a melody and actually remove all the unnecessary and boil it down to this beautiful, simple kind of abstract thing, much in the way that Paul Clay or Wassily Kandinsky would do in art, Armstrong would be doing that musically. I think the modernist elements in his music are still not fully appreciated. The modernist impulses, which are weird because they seem to go against the grain of most people’s perception of him solely as a smiling, laughing entertainer.

I always think of this quote…the scientist Freeman Dyson said, when he met the physicist Richard Feynman, “When I first met him I thought he was half genius and half baffoon. But after I knew him for a long time I realized he was all genius and all baffoon.” I feel that way about “Pops”. We love the idea of a musician able to embody both. Mozart was like this. He was childish in many respects and yet his music was as deep as any music, music that is crucial to the human experience. “Pops” was like that, laughing and smiling and joyful, and also he was purely revolutionary.

JJM How was it that you came into contact with Ken Burns?

MG I am an old friend of Ken’s. I am a violinist and I played on almost all of his documentaries dating back to “The Brooklyn Bridge”, which was the first film that he made in 1979. I played on Civil War, Baseball, Statue of Liberty, Thomas Hart Benton, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, so on and so forth. Ken and I have become good friends over the years and, as he tells it, he decided to make a jazz documentary because I wouldn’t stop pestering him, but I don’t believe that, I don’t say that myself!

JJM The documentary itself is so anticipated by Ken Burns fans, yet the people inside of jazz consider it quite controversial. Why is that?

MG There are a lot of important things to say about this controversy, one of which is that when all is said and done and the dust settles, I think the jazz community as well as the public at large will be very happy with this, because only a film maker the stature of Ken Burns has the reach and command to make a 171/2 hour documentary about jazz, and to bring it to prime time television for ten nights in January. Nobody else would have the wherewithal to do that. So, Ken is fond of saying, “Ok, you might find some flaws in this, but hopefully after this airs, funding will become available for more documentaries, and jazz will have had a better chance of reaching its rightful status in American culture.” He feels passionately about jazz, and loves it. The controversy lies with the people who haven’t seen the film yet. They are concerned that only the last two-hour episode deals with jazz since 1960, and everyone is thinking he squeezed all that stuff into the last two hours. He is an historian, and he is trying to draw upon broad themes of American culture and issues of law and race and economics, and individual stories of drug abuse and redemption. He should be allowed to tell his story of jazz the way he wants to tell it.

JJM There is a parallel between this and in the baseball documentary he did. If I recall he spent a ton of time on its formation and 19th Century history, but when he came into modern day baseball, from the Willie Mays era on, he didn’t spend as much time with it as he did with setting the table…

MG He is a guy who really knows what he wants to do. He has a clear idea, and once he has a vision, he sticks to that. He is not making this film for the jazz community, which as someone pointed out, makes the Balkans look like a peaceful village. He is making this film for the community at large. He is aiming for some person in Iowa or some place like that who has no contact with jazz, and he is a generalist and he feels a mandate to tell American stories to the broad population of America and the world. When all is said and done, when people see the film, they will be very impressed by it. Then they can go on and deepen it, and make more documentaries about people like Charles Mingus, or of all the people who are unfortunately not given their due in this film.

JJM Ultimately they will though as the interest level trickles down from Armstrong and Ellington and Miles and from there, hopefully everybody will get their just due.

MG I hope so too, and I know Ken hopes for that also.

JJM Much of the theme of the documentary is jazz as art. What is your perspective on Ken Burns’ viewpoint that jazz is one of the three major contributions to American history and culture…the Constitution and baseball being the others?

MG There is this quote from Gerald Early, who is a professor who appears on the film frequently, and Ken refers to a lot; “When all is said and done at the end of history, they’ll view America for the Declaration of Independence, baseball, and jazz.” Ken believes passionately in this idea that people of all races getting together and spontaneously making art, that they are able to negotiate their agendas. He views jazz as democracy…it is a beautiful idea that is the best of America, what American democracy is like transposed into art. Clearly, I feel that way and I think any jazz musician would say people of the stature of Miles and Coltrane and Ellington and Armstrong and Bird have not been given their full due, and they lived lives of great difficulty.

The other night I was in New York City to see Lee Konitz play, who is a friend of mine. Some people in the audience were talking in the middle of his solo. In the middle of it, he stopped playing and said, “Shut up, I’m creating!” It was such an amazing thing, because it is truly extraordinary that people are able to create new melodies on these time honored standard tunes.

JJM Why is it, do you suppose, that the American public has had such difficulty getting into jazz as an art form whereas the French and the Japanese assimilated jazz so readily?

MG Again, that’s over my pay scale, but it’s interesting to look at the earlier periods of jazz, when popular music of the time was jazz. When Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, the young Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden were in the studio, they were the studio musicians of their day, playing jazz on popular records. Even at an earlier time, there was no distinction made between jazz and country music. We now talk about these fusions of jazz and country music. Jazz and country music have always been fused. Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, recorded together in the 1920’s. So, part of the problem with this is the “evolution of the music business”, and of guys in suits doing demographic studies, trying to sell people certain things. American music as a whole, living breathing entity – rests when less of these categories existed in the 1930’s and then has gotten more and more pitched as audiences grew…That is something I am very interested in. In the swing era, jazz of a certain sort was popular music of the day, now it’s not. What’s interesting is that the Louis Armstrong recordings of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s were “popular” music as well as being “art” music. You could enjoy them as popular music, or you could go deeper and enjoy them as art. A lot of jazz is not possible to enjoy purely as entertainment, it is a high art music, purely, and that by itself leaves a lot of people out.

JJM What’s interesting to me, Matt, and I observe this a lot when I am out with my kids, is that there is jazz being played all the time. You go into Starbucks, Nordstrom, grocery stores, even. I heard a Chet Baker piece in the local grocery store the other day…I can’t remember jazz being such a central part of our everyday life, yet the sales volume and the interest at retail for jazz has never been lower. I hate to think that Miles Davis has become the Mantovani of this generation, but in way there is some of that out there. As a marketer of jazz, I would sure like to figure out how to translate this interest into sales…

MG What’s happening among musicians is that jazz continues to fuse with other styles of music. I am very suspicious of words about music. I don’t know what jazz means. Many people have their own aspects about jazz that they love more than other aspects. Some people would say if it doesn’t swing it is not jazz; other people would say swing is very old, and if music is not completely free, its not jazz. I think jazz is fusing with other styles of music and is being integrated into the broad landscape of American music, which is a very interesting development. At the same time there is this “museumification” of it.

It’s interesting, I was watching Wynton Marsalis’ band do this tribute to Louis Armstrong on PBS the other night, and it was extraordinarily fabulous musicianship playing, but it occurred to me that it doesn’t do justice to the truly revolutionary nature of Louis’ concept to just play his tunes the way he played them. It would do more honor to him, in a way, to do something equally revolutionary in a contemporary way. Someone who is completely revolutionary now might be truer to Louis’ spirit, than just playing the same tunes now. When Louis came along, he introduced four or five distinct elements that never existed before; abstraction, fusing the blues with western European classical language, the fusion of operatic concepts with a soloists art, improvised vocal lines, new ideas of timbre and articulation, deep experience of time. All these things were radical, and so, let’s have somebody else come along with something equally radical and move music forward.

JJM Is there another Louis Armstrong on the horizon?

MG Who knows? It’s like that book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” by Thomas Kuhn, he says that somebody comes along who is revolutionary and they totally turn upside down a field in science and then gradually their innovations are accepted and become dominant. Then it becomes the norm, and then the norm becomes static, and a new revolutionary figure comes along and sets that old norm upside down, on its head, and gradually those innovations are absorbed into the body. This is a process that has been noted in science, and I am sure the same thing goes on in music. Not all of us have been blessed to be innovators, unfortunately.

JJM As a fan of music, I always look back and say, “If I were alive in a time like 1951, I would have loved to have gone to this particular event in jazz.” The theme of the Jerry Jazz Musician web site is around that…If you could have been a witness to an event in jazz history, which would it have been?

MG Tough question. Off the top of my head, I think of five or six things. I would want something that would transform me as a human being, just by hearing that music, so my life would never be the same. I would have loved to have heard the Count Basie Band with Lester Young in the prime of that band. I remember a quote from the trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, who said, “You heard that band at the Apollo, and it was the severeist physical thrill I ever had in my life. Sex and drugs don’t even come close to the thrill of hearing that band playing.” So, that would have been truly extraordinary. I would have loved to have been in the audience in Copenhangen in 1933 when Louis Armstrong played there. There is footage of that…just to be in his presence when he was on fire at that time! I would have loved to have been in the Village Vanguard when Coltrane was playing, to be at the Newport Jazz Festival when Mahalia Jackson sang “Didn’t it Rain?” in the rain, or to have been there when Paul Gonsalves played 27 choruses with Duke Ellington. That would have really been a great experience.

JJM There is so much rich history, and talking to someone like you, makes me want to be there even more, because you have such an interesting way of communicating. This really came across in the documentary also. There are people who come out of these Ken Burns documentaries and become famous in their own right. I’m not suggesting that is going to happen for you. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, necessarily, but I think he did a great job in bringing out the emotion in the people he discusses jazz with. He did that with you, with Albert Murray, and Stanley Crouch and those people…

MG He is an “emotional archeologist”. He wants to film an emotional reaction…What’s so amazing about this documentary is the feeling you’ll get from the stories of the musicians; the stories of their lives are so touching and poignant and powerful on a variety of fronts. Everybody is going to be reduced to tears at some point in this documentary.

JJM Yes, it took me about 30 seconds.

MG The opening of it is pretty powerful.

JJM The first shot of the New York City skyline in 1931 or so…you are there! Within 15 seconds, he’s got you there…



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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Ken Burns consultant and cultural critic Albert Murray.



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In This Issue

This issue features a roundtable discussion about how the world of religion may have impacted the creative lives of Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Also, previous winners of the Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest reflect on their winning story; three new podcasts from Bob Hecht; new collection of poetry; recommendations of recently released jazz recordings, and lots more.

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