Trading Riffs with Pops

Rob Hochschild
December 22, 2000
In Ken Burns's "Jazz," Matt Glaser's commentary ranges from Armstrong to Einstein.
Ken Burns (left) and Matt Glaser
Louis Armstrong leads his group in concert.
Photo Courtesy Florentine Films
Photo Rob Hayes
Photo Courtesy Florentine Films

Five minutes into episode four of the PBS documentary, Jazz, Berklee String Department Chair Matt Glaser is all dancing eyebrows and flashing hands as he talks about the music of Louis "Pops" Armstrong.

"Free . . . completely relaxed . . . floating above," Glaser interjects between notes of Armstrong's solo on "Chinatown, My Chinatown." By letting viewers witness his moment-by-moment reaction to the legendary trumpeter's performance, Glaser demonstrates television's great potential as an educational tool. His extemporaneous commentary, delivered like a verbal counterpoint to the solo, enables us to hear Armstrong's genius while we're being told why it's genius.

It's the sort of masterful filmmaking you expect from Ken Burns, whose new jazz epic completes a trilogy of mammoth documents of American history, following up Civil War and Baseball. The 10-part, 17 1/2-hour Jazz will air on PBS stations nationwide beginning January 8. Burns does more than provide an encyclopedic retelling of jazz history; he also portrays jazz in the context of other aspects of American history, such as the Depression and race relations. Glaser is one of dozens of "talking heads" who appear throughout the series to add expert commentary. The group includes musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, and Lester Bowie and writers such as Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Gary Giddins.

Glaser's many on-screen appearances in Jazz come after working behind the scenes with Burns for years. As a violinist, Glaser has performed on the soundtracks of several Burns films, including Brooklyn Bridge and Lewis and Clark as well as Civil War, Baseball, and six others. For Jazz, Glaser also served on the Board of Advisors, a group that included people such as composer Gunther Schuller, producer Michael Cuscuna, and Marsalis.

A self-described "metaphysical crackpot," Glaser provides opinions for Jazz that move far beyond strictly musical concepts. One moment he's scatting along quietly with an Armstrong phrase, and in the next he's comparing Armstrong's approach to time with that of Albert Einstein. Glaser seems to thrive on making connections between otherwise disparate people or concepts, not only when talking about music, but when creating it as well. His group, Wayfaring Strangers, will release a disc in 2001 that will "fuse the high lonesome sound of bluegrass with the late-night jazz ballad sound," Glaser says.

During a half-hour conversation in his Berklee office in late December, Glaser touched on music revolutionaries, Bill Clinton, and the state of the jazz music industry.

RH: How did you become acquainted with Ken Burns?

MG: I got called to play on a soundtrack to a movie in 1977 or '78 or '79. I didn't know the guy, I was just told he was making a film about the Brooklyn Bridge. I lived in New York at the time, but the recording session was in Boston so we came up and played at a small recording studio here and met him.

I've gotten to be friends with him over the years. He's a very loyal guy, very loyal to people he works with and retains their friendship. Through him, we got to play the White House a couple of years ago, as part of the premiere of the Lewis and Clark documentary.

How did you wind up becoming a commentator on the Jazz documentary?

(Ken Burns and I) have a difference of opinion about what transpired. He likes to tell the story that I pleaded and cajoled and persuaded him finally to hear me out and when he did, he really liked the thing. I don't know if that's actually the case, but in any case I certainly made it clear to him that I was interested in participating in any way, shape, or form that he needed.

We played a concert - the Music of Ken Burns's America, for a Rochester television station. So we're all up there and we're hanging around a lot, and at one point I told him a story about Sonny Rollins who I'd just seen. And he said, " I love that. Is there any way you can do that on camera?" I finally went up to his house. It was very low-key. There was never any sense that any of it would necessarily get used.

So I brought some CDs and I went up to his house in New Hampshire and he filmed me talking. I played a couple of these tracks and I talked about the solos while they were going on. And he really flipped out; he loved it. And as he said to the New York Times, he felt he was on to something at that moment which could be a new way of telling the story of this music. To me, it's self-evident. It's a better use of the medium to have musicians listening to the music and commenting on it while it's going on instead of having the music going on underneath and the commentator obviously not hearing it and saying, "And on April 28th, Charlie Parker had a hamburger . . ." That's a little dry. This other approach enlivens it a little bit.

It's like you're just watching a guy hang out and listen to music.

In a way, it's picking up a thread of something I used to do all the time when I was younger. When I was in high school or junior high school, a lot of my social life consisted of having friends over and saying, "Hey check this out! Isn't that cool?" Just like kids do all over the world, "Hey check this out, man, the new whatever just came out, isn't that cool?" That kind of enthusiastic music listening is something I like to do with people and I like to do by myself.

Why did you choose the particular solos you talk about in the film?

I chose those because it's easier to do that kind of thing with a Louis Armstrong solo than a John Coltrane solo. There's room to get in a few words, especially the solos I chose. He leaves enough time in the midst of the solo to say something, so I thought I could have a contrapuntal thing happening with my speaking and his playing. If a person is playing consistently, that ends up being me stepping on this beautiful music.

I suppose I should try to do it with Wayne Shorter. I could look at it overall from this standpoint, who uses enough space to allow you to put it in some words. I'm sure you could do it with (Thelonious) Monk. In retrospect, I wish I had more time to think about this as an approach and I would have loved to have been an ongoing commentator for all kinds of music. I don't want to get pegged as the Louis Armstrong guy. I mean I love Louis's music completely, but that's not my only interest.

How would you say Louis Armstrong is connected to music that's happening these days?

One wrong way of looking at this is to say, "This is old jazz or this is new jazz." I'm not a person who believes in playing historical versions of old music. That's not of any interest to me at all. There's many people who play like Coltrane. They play like Coltrane in every way except the essence. Except the spirit of the music. I must say when I listened to Wynton's band last night (on the PBS special, "Live From Lincoln Center: Armstrong — When the Saints Go Marching In"), I thought they captured everything about Louis's music except the spirit. I'd much rather have some utterly revolutionary new music that is more true to the spirit of his revolution than someone just replicating old music and losing the essence of it. I feel this way about musicians like Louis Armstrong, Bill Monroe, and other people who are revolutionaries.

It makes me think of that book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. He says a person comes along with a revolution in thought, then that revolution gradually becomes the norm and gets codified in some way until someone else comes along with some completely new thing and that gets codified. So wouldn't it be nice to draw upon the inspiration from these revolutionary figures rather than just repackaging exactly what they did minus the heart of it?

In other words, let's look at what makes the paradigm shift, not the superficial manifestations of the shift?

Exactly! I'm not interested in music that copies old music and I'm not interested in early jazz. I think there's something in Louis's music that still is revolutionary and could be applied to utterly contemporary music. In many ways, Louis's music is much closer to Ornette (Coleman)'s music or even more avant-garde music than it is to people who play in the style of Louis Armstrong.

How so?

Because Louis was introducing new concept after new concept relative to the time that he existed in. He introduced new ways of articulating, new ways of experiencing the flow of time musically, new ways of abstracting and codifying melodies, new approaches to timbre and codifying elements of Western European music with Caribbean and African music. On every level, he did things that were revolutionary that had never been done before. So instead of paying lip service to him by just copying what he played without its heart, it would be better to come up with a similarly revolutionary fusing. The thing that you should be inspired by him is this revolution concept as opposed to exactly what he did. Somebody like Dave Douglas is probably closer to the spirit of Louis Armstrong than people who play in an older style without the spirit.

Why do you think this documentary is important?

I think it's a tremendously great thing, first of all, to contextualize it. There is nobody else in American culture like Ken Burns. I'm friends with him, so I'm a partisan in a certain respect. But it's clear that he's America's popular historian, America's storyteller. He takes these broad themes and tells stories visually that are just unbelievable.

How do you think the film might affect the way people look at jazz?

It's not targeted at the jazz cognoscenti or the jazz community, but at everybody else. So it will introduce to the broad array of people in America in a very enthusiastic way why jazz is so amazing. It gives the history of jazz, ties jazz into the broad social themes, and gives passionate personal and interpersonal stories of these great people. It will reinforce for people that it's something they should check out. They will love it much more because it will come alive. The music will come alive. There will be music in this documentary that almost anybody can dig, whether or not you think you like jazz.

This will cause a firestorm of controversy in the jazz community but who cares? The point is this will open the floodgates for jazz, which has unfortunately died down to a two percent of market share or so. There was a time when it was 90 percent of market share. This will reintroduce jazz in its broadest context to America as a whole, and I think in the long run, people will view this as an extremely positive thing. Then they can go on and make the documentaries that have not been yet made. After they see this, people may say something like, "There wasn't enough on (Charles) Mingus." Great. Now, there may be funding available and interest toward making the proper documentary on Mingus that should have been made. But this is a vast, broad, general, very well-done history of the music.

Do you see any parallels between the history of Berklee and the history of jazz?

That's a question beyond me. I could just observe that I love Berklee. And the Berklee community, in the greatest sense of the word, meaning the students and the faculty, provide an environment where there are so many people interested in music that music overflows the bounds of classes. Just as a community of musicians, I think it's a spectacularly great place. There's intellectual components in this music that can be taught but more importantly there's this life energy that's an existential component to the music, and that's where the passion comes from.

Berklee College of Music is a sponsor of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns.