The Most Difficult Instrument

I’ve finished the Ken Burns series, Jazz.  Expectedly, the majority of the figures profiled were men, as men historically have been the most celebrated and publicized musicans.  The cultural biases in which jazz evolved would certianly be reflected in the representation of famous artists and innovators.  But I found I was disappointed with the way that the documentary itself deemphasized women’s importance selectively as well.  Greater screen time was given to the male musicians of their fields in general (for example, much more attention was given to the brilliance of Thelonious Monk than the earlier pioneer, Mary Lou Williams) and Ella Fitzgerald, a woman with incredible skills for rhythm and the improvisational elements implicit in jazz was mentioned only briefly in two short snippets.

They gave greater importance to the talented Sarah Vaughn than any other woman beside Lady Day (Billie Holiday).  And while I don’t begrudge the value they placed on Vaughn, I feel they should have given equal recognition to Fitzgerald, who was not even mentioned when they discussed the beginning of scatting or scat singing.  Ella was more or less dismissed as being unimportant because unlike Mary Lou Williams or Sarah Vaughn, she did not play any instrument but her own voice.  (I belive she was also downplayed because she, like Louis Armstrong, also did popular tunes and was famous across demographics.)  Vocalists in jazz were more or less reduced to mere entertainers or performers rather than the “real” craftsmen of the art, who played instruments.  Not a single male vocalist (that is, someone known only for their voice, not voice/instrument) was even mentioned as a jazz performer.

It pissed me off.

My grandfather played the piano, the organ, the accordian, the guitar, but always told us that the most difficult instrument to learn and master was the human voice.  He was an accomplished local musician and instructor, who played with a number of (now elderly) musicans I’ve met over the years.  He was the type of pianist who had that rare skill of modifying his play dynamically to make his fellow performers sound better; he could transpose songs to another key on the fly.  And yet after all this accomplishment, he respected the skills of a great vocalist and considered them every bit a real musician.  He had said that the human voice was in fact the most difficult instrument to master.

Would that the organizers of the documentary felt the same.

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