In The Jazzmen (Mariner, May), Tye traces how three legendary musicians shaped and were shaped by American culture.
None of your previous books are about music or musicians. What prompted this one?
I wrote a book almost 20 years ago about the Pullman porters, who formed the first Black trade union. When I was talking to the porters, they made me promise to write two books: one about their favorite sports figure, Satchel Paige, and the other about their favorite passengers, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie. When these musicians traveled below the Mason-Dixon line, they’d hire Pullman cars to have a safe place to eat and sleep after their performances. After they returned to the Pullman cars, they would often hold late-night private jam sessions for the porters.
What do their stories reveal about the history of jazz ?
They were all born into the nascent jazz world at about the same time, and each encountered many of the difficulties faced by Black jazz musicians. Their stories also trace the development of different styles of jazz in the cities where they got their start: Kansas City [Basie], New York City [Ellington], and New Orleans and Chicago [Armstrong]. Each took a different approach to jazz: Armstrong could hit his high C’s; Ellington could tell stories about Black America in his symphonic pieces; Basie couldn’t resist tapping his feet, and he got his audiences’ tapping theirs as well.
In what ways did their music influence their times and other music?
They laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about how jazz opened up America; it said something to white America about Black artistry and about equal rights. In the same way that gospel music laid the groundwork for jazz, this music laid the groundwork for rock, pop, and soul music. If jazz was an all-American music form, these three were its ambassadors.
What surprised you?
There’s danger in writing about people you think of as heroes or villains. These guys all started out as my heroes, but I discovered they were flesh and blood. I found out things about each of them that suggested they were not entirely unblemished—such as their constant philandering and their failures to create harmonious family lives—but that made them more human.
What lessons do you hope readers take from the book?
These are three of the most rollicking and fun maestros in the history of American music. I hope readers will learn what they meant to American culture and the wider world. Good art really does change our thinking—in this case about what Black men were capable of and that they deserved to be treated as equal.