Burns-Eye View of Jazz

Living History or Death Sentence?

The film is at its best painting the arc of the lives and music of Armstrong and Ellington; these stories serve as connective tissue. Among the other artists who receive detailed consideration are Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman.

Through some crafty editing, Burns does an admirable job of contextualizing each era's music. Episode 2: The Gift connects jazz's widespread appeal with the aftermath of World War I and the advents of aviation, X-ray technology, Freudian analysis, and Einstein's theories. Swing is presented as not just a dance craze or musical style, but also as "a symbol of democracy in a world threatened by tyranny and fascism." Charlie Parker's explosive bebop innovations are first heard along with film footage of a mushroom cloud unfolding.

The first musical voice heard is that of Armstrong's horn playing "Stardust," a choice few would question. But some have accused Burns of falling under the spell of the first onscreen voice—Wynton Marsalis—and the trumpeter's neoconservative forebears, Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch.

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

"A lot of folks were trying to say that Wynton's got his claws into me," Burns counters, "and he doesn't. This is my vision, my appreciation, and it just so happens that Wynton is an impassioned and expert voice that helps articulate that story."

Marsalis is ubiquitous in Burns's film, but no more so than he is in jazz's public persona these days. Murray and Crouch serve as frequent onscreen authorities, but they are balanced by commentary from critics including Gary Giddins, Nat Hentoff, and Gene Lees. Giddins relates the elation he felt upon first hearing Coltrane live. Crouch describes Parker's phrasing as the mortar to bebop's elemental bricks. Musician Matt Glaser virtually narrates an Armstrong solo to "Up a Lazy River." For aficionados, all of this is both exciting and tiresome to a point. For those who know little of jazz, it's a fascinating introduction.

Still, there are aspects that undercut the truth and cohesion of Burns's tale. Avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor suffers an undeserved fate. A voice-over relates Taylor's ethos: that the listener should prepare for his performances. Cut to Branford Marsalis, who calls such logic "total bullshit," then to critic Gene Lees, who dismisses the music entirely. No other artist is subjected to this type of scrutiny, and Taylor—alive and still playing mightily—doesn't get to speak on camera. Having spent hours honoring the "spontaneous art," Burns can't seem to focus on the abstract tendencies of truly modern jazz. He details how Miles Davis's electric fusion was modeled after the appeal of artists like Sly Stone, but ignores well-documented connections between this music and contemporary composers such as Stockhausen. The film's aesthetic bias is best exemplified by Albert Murray's on-camera pronouncement that "you can't embrace entropy." But isn't that what modern improvisation is largely about?

The elegiac tone that serves most of Jazzso well becomes damning in the final episode. A tossed-salad montage of current players—including pianist Jacky Terrasson, vibist Regina Carter, pianist Geri Allen, and saxophonist Greg Osby—appears a shallow afterthought. Burns would have been better off ending his story 30 years ago. If jazz is a vehicle for personalized, American expression, why not tell of Asian Americans like Jon Jang and Fred Ho or Jews like John Zorn and Anthony Coleman bringing their backgrounds to bear? If jazz is about extending lineages, why not explore how saxophonist Steve Coleman (not to mention Coltrane's own son Ravi) extends Coltrane's principles? If it's about empowerment, why not detail how Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson have changed a woman's place on the bandstand? If it's a story about particular places and existential dilemmas, why ignore the importance of the Knitting Factory, a culture that gave rise to a festival titled "What Is Jazz?" These aren't glaring omissions so much as missed opportunities.

And they point not so much to Burns's failings as to the precarious pedestal he and others place jazz upon in honoring it. One episode quotes Miles Davis saying, "Jazz is dead, the music of the museum." Now, with actual museums dedicated to jazz and monuments such as this film serving fine historical purpose, has Davis's statement transformed from figurative to literal?

Burns may see these problems as nit-picking, but their essence runs deeper. When one clip shows Ellington instructing an audience on how to snap their fingers with a swinging attitude, it's not just posturing—it's about dealing correctly with the concept of time. And when Jazz shows a television interviewer asking Ellington, "Which of your tunes do you think is the best?" Duke doesn't hesitate. "The one coming up tomorrow," he says. "Always."


Kind of Blue by Richard B. Woodward
Jazz Competes With Its Past, Settles for the Hard Sell

Jingo All the Way by Michelle Mercer
Burns Stays Blind to Jazz Abroad

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