Geoffrey Ward Calls Jazz a ‘Barometer of Freedom’ in America

Presumably, art has rarely, if ever, been a parent-preferred college major in the United States. Creative — yes. High earning potential — unlikely.

Yet painting is what Geoffrey C. Ward chose to pursue when he was a student majoring in studio art at Oberlin College. In the years that followed, Ward’s visual literacy and storytelling finesse have made his nonfiction narratives more vivid, real and consequential to millions of viewers and readers.

A prolific, multiple award-winning historian, Ward has worked closely with filmmaker Ken Burns for 34 years. They have joined forces to craft erudite documentaries and companion books about their mutual and individual interests, both intellectual and avocational.

Jazz has long been important to Ward, who was born in Ohio and grew up on Chicago’s South Side. At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, he will give a lecture exploring its essence and promise titled, “Barometer of Freedom: Jazz in America.”

“I hope I can help some people who might be nervous,” Ward said. “Jazz is a wonderful, welcoming thing. It’s accessible. It’s an American creation. It says a lot about us and who we are and hope to be.”

Ward wrote Jazz: A History of America’s Music, first published in 2000, and “Jazz,” which premiered in 2001 on PBS.

“I have been interested in jazz all of my life,” Ward said. “The challenge of writing about it is what you have to leave out. It’s such a rich American story. The question was, how much could we cram into 10 shows and 20 hours? How much music could we play? We don’t play the whole songs except for one.”

Picking out the best biographies was a challenge, too, since there was so much to choose from.

“There are so many standout musicians. Louis Armstrong — what you see is what you get,” Ward said. “He was totally accessible. Duke Ellington was elusive, hidden, secret, so he’s a lot of fun to write about, too.”

When Ward and Burns involved trumpet player and composer Wynton Marsalis — who is described in Ward’s book as “the best-known jazz musician in America” — little did Marsalis and Ward know that they would become such good friends that they would share a meal together weekly.

“He is a remarkable man,” said Ward, who is also based in New York City.

Marsalis, an original founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987, is its managing and artistic director, as well as the music director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. For the past two years, he has also served as the director of jazz studies at his alma mater, Juilliard.

Ward’s proximity to Lincoln Center has enabled him to contribute to special concerts held at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

For example, he wrote the script for Moonglow: The Magic of Benny Goodman — the story of the first popular integrated jazz band — which was performed in March. Host and actor Wendell Pierce, who will give the morning lecture on Thursday, narrated Moonglow. An ensemble of instrumentalists — a pianist, drummer, vibraphonist and three clarinetists — played Goodman’s music. Moonglow was the name of his quartet’s first record.

In April 2015 Jazz at Lincoln Center held a benefit concert — “The World of Duke Ellington.” It was a tribute to “the indomitable spirit of swing and legacy of Duke Ellington, the most influential figure in American music” on the 116th anniversary of his birth. Ward wrote the script for this gala, actor Michael Keaton hosted it and Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played. Tony Bennett and several other special guests performed.

“I didn’t set out to do this; I set out to be a painter,” Ward said.

He had always read American history, though learning to be a historian came gradually. Eight years after graduating from Oberlin, be became the founding editor of Audience Magazine. He then wrote a series of pamphlets titled Lincoln’s Thought and the Present before becoming editor of the historical magazine American Heritage from 1977 to 1982.

After leaving American Heritage, Ward began completing one ambition project after another: biographies, history books, book and encyclopedia contributions, articles, television consultations and appearances, documentary scripts and concert scripts. Along the way, he has won seven Emmys and many other highly coveted awards.

Whatever one’s interest is in American history — whether it concerns music, culture, radio, architecture, statues, baseball, prohibition, banking, presidents, other politicians, wars, exploration, the West, women’s rights or civil rights — it is probable that Ward has penned something relevant to it or is planning to do so.

Many Americans first began seeing and hearing Ward’s name in 1990 in connection with his work on the Civil War. He served as the principal writer of the documentary script for “The Civil War,” the acclaimed television mini-series co-produced by Ric Burns and Ken Burns. Based on that script, he wrote the narrative for the companion book, The Civil War: An Illustrated History. Its 18th hardcover printing and 15th paperback printing occurred in September 2015.

During Week Seven of the 2014 Chautauqua season, Ward joined Burns on the Amphitheater stage for four of the five morning lectures. They discussed and showed preliminary clips from their 2017 documentary on the Vietnam War, and they presented sneak peeks  from their 17th film collaboration, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” five weeks before it first aired each night for an entire week on PBS.

The Roosevelt series was based in part on two books that Ward had written about FDR earlier in his career — Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882-1905 and A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt. For the latter he won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

“I got fired as an editor of American Heritage and I had to pay the bills,” Ward said. “I’d always wanted to write about Roosevelt. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve never worked on anything that I haven’t enjoyed.”

Occasionally Ward has written about India. He lived in New Delhi when he was a child and has returned repeatedly. In 1983, not long after Ward left American Heritage, Stonehenge published his book, The Maharajas: Treasures of the World. Since then, several popular magazines (including Aperture, Audubon, Geo, National Geographic and Smithsonian) have published his articles and essays about India.

A decade later, HarperCollins issued a book about Bengal tigers that Ward wrote with his wife, the journalist Diane Raines Ward, Tiger-Wallahs: Encounters with Men Who Tried to Save the Greatest of the Great Cats. Oxford University Press published Tiger-Wallahs: Saving the Greatest of the Great Cats in 2000.

“I’ve chased tigers around India for a while,” Ward said.

Together, he and Raines Ward lead a nonprofit that furthers Indian conservation efforts. With Michael Nichols, Ward also co-wrote the 1998 National Geographic book, The Year of the Tiger.

While most people leave family skeletons in the closet, Ward has not. In his 2012 book, A Disposition to be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States, he zoomed in on his audacious, Ponzi-scheming great-grandfather, Ferdinand Ward.

In presenting its Friend of History Award to Ward in 2006 for his outstanding contributions, the Organization of American Historians praised him for his public outreach and the effect of his success on academic historians: “Over the last 20 years Geoffrey Ward’s writings in American History have had a greater influence and reached a wider audience than those of any other American writer and historian. [His] work is always his own, but he has also helped free ideas that otherwise might have been imprisoned in the academy and helped them find a wider world. He has helped academic historians understand the possibilities, limits, and demands of what has become the medium through which most Americans now get their history.”

When asked what he is proudest of having achieved, Ward said: “I think the opportunity to bring serious, rich American history to very large audiences. I never expected it, and it’s been a great joy.”


The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.