Defiance: Reviewing Ken Burns’s JAZZ Episode VII

Defiance: Reviewing Ken Burns’s JAZZ Episode VII

Previous episodes of Ken Burns’s JAZZ showed how jazz symbolized hope, relief, or escape for Americans during the Great Depression, but the seventh episode, “Dedicated to Chaos” shows jazz as a symbol of something else during the Second World War: defiance. This is one episode that is self-contained enough and good enough that I recommend it whether or not you watch the rest of the series.

To many people, both in the U.S. and Europe, jazz represented democratic ideals. It was the music of the people, homegrown, soulful, wildly popular, and with anchors in African American culture and racial diversity. The Nazis took note, first trying to ban jazz because it was “negro music”, and then attempting to co-opt it by writing their own lyrics to well-known jazz songs. The film includes an eerie clip of a jazz performance in a concentration camp which the Nazis staged for a propaganda film. The co-opting didn’t work — musicians and audiences would not let the music come to stand for oppression and racism — and underground jazz clubs in cities like Paris thrived.

Jazz was an encouragement to everyone fighting. Towards the end of the episode, there is a wonderful interview with pianist Dave Brubeck. He describes being a young soldier destined for the front lines, when he stepped up to the piano during a Red Cross show for the troops, and after one night’s performance, he was asked to form a morale-boosting band. He probably entered the war questioning whether he would make it out alive, yet he played alongside Blacks in an integrated military band, became an renowned pianist and composer, and lived to 91.

Music can bring alive the spirit of healthy defiance against adversity in all of us. What music do you listen to when you want to get charged up and ready to face anything? Are any of Yoko’s pieces on that list… perhaps the dynamic La Estacion, for example?

Yoko Miwa Trio

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