Return to Dr.Progresso Reviews
KEN BURNS’ JAZZ
I watched Ken Burns’ Jazz on Public Television. I laughed. I cried. And more than once I shouted back at the screen. It was an epic experience.
Overall, I think it’s an impressive work, and one I intend to keep on video tape. But it is not the story of jazz. It is a number of stories about jazz, some of them told thoroughly and well and some of them told quickly and incompletely. Unfortunately (and this is where the critics have all chimed in) it omits many important stories of jazz. It is selective, not inclusive.
Jazz presents itself as a – if not the – history of jazz. But the history of jazz is more than the history of a music: it is the history of each and every individual musician who contributed to that music. As such, it is too complex to be rendered in 19 hours of video; decisions had to be made – and were. Burns has said that he decided to concentrate on telling a few stories well rather than doing many more perfunctorily, and that was undoubtedly a wise choice. Even so, Jazz is not a linear history so much as it’s a mosaic of semi-interlocking stories arranged roughly chronologically, with Louis Armstrong’s story the continuing thread which ties the series together.
However, Jazz is more narrowly focussed than this would imply. It’s not really noticeable until we hit the ’40s and jazz begins to branch out, no longer following its own linear development (which until then had seen traditional jazz superceded by Armstrong’s combo jazz, that superceded by Swing, and Swing superceded by Bop). Then the focus narrows. Primarily it excludes most of the contributions made by white musicians (actually belittling the entire West Coast “Cool” scene with a flippant remark without examining it at all) – making a mockery of the lessons taught by jazz’s greatest musicians, who insisted that color had nothing to do with it.
Thus Stan Kenton’s band is written out of jazz history, despite its importance as an incubator of subsequently important musicians and its own contributions to the music. Lennie Tristano didn’t warrant a mention, despite his great importance in the development of late-’40s jazz as both a teacher and a performer. The Miles Davis Nonet sessions are presented as, at most, the work of two people: Davis and Gil Evans. The fact that it was a composer’s workshop was ignored, and Evans is seen as subservient to
Teddy Charles’ name turns up on a marquee in a still photo, but his jazz is never mentioned. Charles Mingus gets a walk-on in the last installment, but his “story” is ignored – he’s there as part of the jazz protest against southern segregationist bigotry, along with Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite.” Louis Armstrong gets more time in Jazz just for his own protest against events in the south.
There is a reason for this odd focus, and his name is Wynton Marsalis. It is Marsalis whose commentary dominates this work, and his point of view which guided Burns (whom I suspect is more of a documentary filmmaker than he is a knowledgeable jazz enthusiast). Marsalis is a jazz-classicist. His education and knowledge of jazz’s
But he has his own heroes. Duke Ellington is one of his heroes, but Charles Mingus – whose music built on Ellington and was more accomplished – is not. It’s that simple. He’s willing to acknowledge Ornette Coleman – grudgingly – but has no time for Eric Dolphy, preferring John Coltrane. (While Ornette Coleman’s FREE JAZZ is mentioned, and can be heard briefly, Eric Dolphy’s presence is never mentioned. Nor is Dolphy mentioned in connection with his playing with Coltrane.) He acknowledges Thelonious Monk, but ignores Sun Ra.
And, basically, the whole while jazz experimented and expanded its forms in the ’50s Marsalis has eyes only for Hardbop (Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver). By him Third Stream Jazz never left the starting gate and is not even mentioned in passing.
Slagging off West Coast jazz means that the Chico Hamilton Quintet is never mentioned, and of course neither are Shorty Rogers or Jimmy Giuffre, to say nothing of the Lighthouse Allstars. Marsalis pays lip service to the color-blindness of music and the “democracy” of jazz, but it is clear that to him it is black music and black musicians that count. His is a subtle snobbery, and one which can claim the support of jazz’s history – but only if you selectively edit that history.
This is what Jazz has done.
I’m far from the only one who has complained about what was left out. The January 27, 2001 Washington Post ran an “Essay” in the Style section titled “One-Note ‘Jazz’ Goes Flat Without A Latin Beat.” Fernando Gonzalez complains that Burns “has construed jazz – and the society that created it – almost completely in terms of black and white. In the
Frankly, I think he has a very weak case; so-called “Latin music” rarely intersected with jazz (and did so most notably in Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra and subsequent bands – which was mentioned in Jazz) and was more inclined to borrow from jazz just as other genres, such as R&B, also did. He hardly buttresses his case by quoting Jelly Roll Morton on the subject (“If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning – for jazz.”). Morton is, after all, the man who claimed he’d invented jazz.
Perhaps the saddest part of Jazz is its view of Rock music as The Enemy – even Miles is rebuked for fraternizing, although he gets (dubious) credit for Fusion music. Jazz, it is claimed, actually died in the 1970s, and only later is reborn in the figures of the Marsalis brothers. This claim is supported with record sales figures and the factoid that while jazz and swing had once accounted for 70% (of a much smaller total) record sales, by the ‘70s it was down to 3%. Nasty white powers in the record industry imported the likes of the Beatles to “throw a blanket” over jazz. The irony of Wynton Marsalis being born in 1961 is one which has not escaped Burns. A savior was born!
One can support a claim like this only by ignoring the very real jazz scene which existed in the ‘70s. It was, after all, the decade in which Charles Mingus came into his own and was celebrated by rock chanteuse Joni Mitchell – even as he was dying. It was a good decade for Sun Ra as well.
Indeed, what Burns and Marsalis, in their concentration on jazz’s heroes, have ignored is the fact that jazz is a language which is spoken by a vastly larger number of musicians than those who ever make records. There are all those guys who work day jobs, maybe in the Postal Service, and get together to “rehearse” in the evenings several times a week, who play for local socials and are totally unknown outside their immediate locality. There are the kids in school bands (one was shown near the end of the final episode; the teenaged white tenor player sounded good) – not all of whom go on to play in rock bands.
I learned in 1958, in a black neighborhood in
So, disappointed, my friends and I went back outside the club to return to our car. But, standing on the sidewalk, we heard music. It sounded like jazz. It sounded good. It was coming from a building across the street. There was a bar on the ground floor, but no bandstand and no musicians in sight. But our queries led us upstairs to a loft space where a half dozen black men, along with several members of their various families, including two kids, were assembled. We introduced ourselves, said we’d heard their music and could we hear more?
The end result was that we stayed and listened to several hours of music. It was in the tradition of Count Basie,
In the years since then I’ve met and known literally scores of people like them. Some have recorded – but none was willing to give up a stable life to pursue a career in music, so the records (usually obscure, local releases) became anomalies in their lives, rather than milestones in their careers. And not all of these musicians were jazz musicians. Some were classically trained and others were “rock” musicians – but I put that word in quotes because their music was less definable than that and could as easily be considered “jazz.”
That’s because the line between jazz and rock disappeared years ago. Even as jazz has fragmented since 1960 into dozens of styles and types, so has rock fragmented since 1970. And it wasn’t more than a couple of years ago that I saw former Yes and former King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, leading a small jazz band at Washington D.C.’s Blues Alley – a jazz venue. Even as Ray Charles effortlessly crossed the line between R&B and jazz in the ’50s, modern musicians who are creative and improvise cross the jazz/rock line all the time.
Long ago, Louis Armstrong said, “There are only two kinds of music – good and bad.” Never has this been more true than it is now. It’s a shame that neither Burns nor Marsalis actually digested the meaning of that oft-quoted statement.
That said, I must add that while it was genuinely thrilling for me to see photos and live footage of the legends of jazz’s early years, I thought much of the “documentary” footage was tedious and overused. The dancers shown sometimes had a context (dancing to Chick Webb, perhaps) but often did not (and the two dancers who were interviewed had less to say than they were given time to say it in). The photos of
I was unimpressed by Ossie Davis’s commentary, and even more so by that of a black baseball player. I grew tired of hearing various people (not Wynton Marsalis alone) “boop a doop” tonelessly and tunelessly in an attempt to sound out a melody. I would vastly have preferred to hear more uninterrupted musical performances and more actual explications of what the musician was doing and what it meant in the context of the times. And would it have killed Burns to throw in small on-screen credits while they are playing to identify the various recordings used behind the narrative? (Those tiny-type credits that crawled quickly by at the end of each episode were impossible to match to the music heard unless you already knew what it was.) After all, the talking heads all got on-screen identifiers.
It was edifying to see that in more than 40 years Gene Lees – arguably Down Beat’s worst editor and for years the smugly opinionated columnist for Stereo Review who never met a rock record he liked – has remained as biased and ignorant as he ever was. On the other hand, Nat Hentoff, looking no more than 10 years older than he looked when I first met him in 1959, is as sensible as ever, and reminds me all over again that he was the best critic who ever wrote for Down Beat. But I agree with complaints that too few talking heads were used – some of them discussing familiarly events which occurred long before their own birth.
If it did nothing else, Jazz restimulated in me my long-held interest in jazz, reminding me of my own experiences in New York City in the early ’60s – the nights at the Five Spot, the Jazz Gallery (where I was “treated” to one of Coltrane’s 40-minute solos), the Village Gate, the Showplace and the Village Vanguard. Nights of sitting only a few feet away from Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus while they played. Catching Johnny Hodges with Coleman Hawkins at the Village Gate. Wishing Herbie Mann would shut up at the next table while Eric Dolphy was soloing with Coltrane. Finally seeing Monk live. Taping an afternoon rehearsal session for vibraphonist Dave Pike and being asked to produce his record – and declining because I thought he needed someone more experienced. Hanging out with John Handy and Eric Dolphy. Getting phone calls sometimes from Mingus. I was a lot younger then, and I can now look back on that era in my life with nostalgia and affection.
I suspect Jazz will have this effect on a lot of people. It may not satisfy us, but it has stimulated us, reminded us of what jazz once meant to us – and maybe it has prompted some of us to find out more about jazz, to explore its history and music further, just for the pleasure of it.
One shouldn’t ask for more than that.
Return to Dr.Progresso Back to Top