Burns-Eye View of Jazz

Living History or Death Sentence?

In the months leading up to Ken Burns's 10-part, 17-and-half-hour documentary, Jazz, which airs on PBS beginning this week, the director hit the road. His campaign was about defining an American identity and building a coalition. And Burns projected the very focus, charm, and confidence Gore and Bush lacked.

There he was in New Orleans, describing his project before a packed house at the International Association of Jazz Educators, enjoying a rousing ovation at the Telluride Film Festival, embracing members of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church after the showing of one episode, screening segments in a midtown conference room for record-label executives. He was promoting his film and its companion book and CDs. And Burns was amplifying a quote in his Civil War, from the scholar Gerald Early—that 2000 years from now, the three quintessential American contributions to civilization will be the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. Burns followed the Civil War documentary with a film about baseball. Now he's turned his lens to jazz. Forget the fundamental issues behind hanging chads and the latest Supreme Court decision, goes the logic; we can better learn about our more perfect union by analyzing swinging jazz and A Love Supreme.

It's an appealing thesis, one that opens up troubling as well as enlightening avenues of thought. A November stop along Burns's tour—at Manhattan's Riverside Church, hosted by Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies—offered a telling moment.

Miles Davis gets abstract.
photo: Urve Kussik
Miles Davis gets abstract.

Professor and author Krin Gabbard praised Burns's craft, calling the cinematic effect "a series of small miracles" and highlighting rare photos and footage Burns's team unearthed. But Gabbard suggested disturbing aspects, too—specifically, that Burns covers jazz history through roughly 1970, with only a cursory view of the years since. "The program really doesn't give us a reason to care about the present and future of jazz," he complained.

Burns is prepared for such skirmishes, much as he had previously braced for Civil War buffs armed with battlefield quibbles or baseball fanatics firing off complaints like Roger Clemens purpose pitches. "We're engaged in the process of history," Burns said. "We believe the present is off-limits. And besides, who on the current scene can be considered alongside giants like Armstrong and Ellington or Parker?"


Burns's film may raise jazz's water level in our culture at large, as the record-company executives hope, but it may also signal a final dry season for the music's forward flow.


Burns then compared Gabbard and jazz critics in general to Pig Pen from Peanuts. "There's a perpetual cloud of dust surrounding him, obscuring the clarity the other characters have. And, you know, a good deal of why the general audience is afraid of jazz is that the critical discourse has reached a level disproportionate to its importance. It's become a Tower of Babel, splintering and clouding our appreciation of the music."

For some, Burns's attitude is supported by simple music-industry math: Some 60 years ago, jazz accounted for nearly 70 percent of the American market, whereas today it's more like 2 or 3 percent. The ironic flip side to the notion that jazz is "America's indigenous music" is the fact that most Americans don't listen to it. All of which has made Burns downright evangelical. His documentary is meant as a curative of sorts. But it also points to curious truths about the relationship between jazz and contemporary American culture, between the music as it's heard today and its underlying, timeless ideals.

Burns may be right about the Pig Pen effect. Truth is, jazz's story kicks up a good deal of dust—it's a messy affair that has grown messier in recent decades, as with any discussion of race or ideology in America. Like the music, which has wriggled out of strict adherence to form again and again, the story stubbornly defies a linear, frame-by-frame telling. And any attempt to shape it that way would inevitably crumble somewhere around the 1960s. Burns's decision about the last 30 years is both political and practical. His film may raise jazz's water level in our culture at large, as the record-company executives hope, but it may also signal a final dry season for the music's forward flow.

"Frankly," Burns says, "I'm not really concerned with the jazz community. I mean, I hope they like it, and I think we've done a good job. But I have to focus most of my attention on reaching that 99 percent for whom jazz is an esoteric, dense, and unapproachable music."

"To me, these are gnats," Burns says of insider critics. "Wait'll you get the people who just can't stand the notion that African American culture might be at the center of our thing. There'll be people who'll watch it and seize, because there seems to be offered some sense of black equality—not political, but social and artistic and intellectual."

This is perhaps the film's strongest theme. On the surface, Jazz is typical Burns: reel upon reel of wonderful footage and photography, woven with voice-over narrative and interview clips. Keith David's big, rich voice—he could give James Earl Jones a run for his money—carries the narrative thread. The script, by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, strives to be deep and authoritative as well, and is supported by a mountain of research built largely on the sturdy work of reliable historians such as Dan Morgenstern.

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