Sarah Vowell: Joy in the Story of Jazz

As Sarah Vowell relates in this excerpt, humans deserve a bit of joy and you can find that in the story of jazz.


Sarah Vowell is the New York Times’ bestselling author of seven nonfiction books on American history and culture. By examining the connections between the American past and present, she offers personal, often humorous accounts of American history as well as current events and politics. Her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, explores both the ideas and the battles of the American Revolution, especially the patriot founders’ alliance with France as personified by the teenage volunteer in George Washington’s army, the Marquis de Lafayette.


The story of jazz, I like how it’s been, come to be called the American song book. It’s the story of Jewish songwriters. And there’s all this collaboration and you get the records and, you know, There’s um, there’s bill, what’s his name? The piano player with Miles Davis. And, um, anyway, Bill Evans, uh, I, I keep looking for those because I want to believe in that, like when Wynton Marsalis talks about jazz, as he like Dizzy Gillespie told him that jazz is about, was about integration. And when Wynton Marsalis says jazz is the picture of America, when it becomes itself and when Heather Heyer was killed at Charlottesville, I put on, um, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald singing. Um, but that song, pick yourself up, dust yourself up, start all over again. And they’re playing on that record, um, Dorothy Fields, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, you know, what’s the, what are the writers of that song? They’re playing with a Texan drummer. And, um, you know, one guy’s Canadian, uh, Ray Brown, the bass player, was Ella Fitzgerald’s ex husband. So you have this, like in this one song, you have, you know, immigration, the descendants of slavery people from across the Americas. Um, one guy was, uh, the side of Italian immigrants, uh, just playing together, working together. And I want to leave in that a little, I think a little bit of hope can be helpful. It’s not the whole story, not even most of the story, but, um, There we deserve a little bit of joy.

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