Burns-Eye View of Jazz


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.

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.

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.

“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.”