Ken Burns’s Jazz puts its would-be critics beneath the underdog—in his mind, an American public tragically oblivious to its national artistic treasure. Built into the series is empowerment rhetoric which works as a preventative: Faulting the film can only perpetuate the infighting that has incapacitated jazz, relegating the art form to a cabal of esoterics and a paltry 2 percent market share. Especially given the film’s treatment of jazz as a metaphor for democracy, such bad sportism would seem downright un-American.
And for all Jazz’s considerable pleasures, this resolutely nationalist worldview is a problem. In the opening segment, Gary Giddins even-mindedly comments that jazz’s combination of European and African musical elements could have happened nowhere but America. Wynton Marsalis goes further when he declaims that “jazz objectifies America.” This truth Burns holds self-evident, and he so strains to present abstract, motivational symbols of America’s soul that he’s nearsighted about the music’s evolution.
“History is not about the past; it’s the questions the present asks about the past,” Burns says. This admittedly reclamatory project, though, must deal with 100 years of history. And jazz has hardly embedded itself in the national consciousness as deeply as the last topic with which Burns stole home: The phrase “As American as baseball and apple pie” is not for nothing.
In the interest of what Burns calls “triage”—his economy of dogma—all Jazz’s portrayals of the music overseas hinge on American resistance: “In Word War I, jazz was called on to play a new role as a symbol of democracy in a world threatened by fascism and tyranny.” But with this exportation, jazz was inevitably adopted, and adapted, in other countries. Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt is in fact included in the film—but pitched as merely a homegrown alternative to the American jazz artists a French audience craved. His musical influence on a lineage of jazz guitarists both American and non-American is not considered. In the past 40 years, numerous jazz musicians from abroad have assumed the right to keep and bear arms. Even glancing attention to some of their music—Brit Evan Parker’s electro-acoustic group improv, Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona’s fusion, the Willem Breuker Collective’s whimsical Dutch swing—counters Burns’s funereal depiction of jazz in foreign hands. (In one of Jazz’s more apocalyptic scenes, narrator Keith David laments that in the ’70s the Art Ensemble of Chicago found its largest following among white college students in France. The screen fades to black.)
“The assumption is that people are looking for great-man rescue for jazz: It might be a great woman, just as it might be someone outside of the U.S.,” Burns says. But if the next Satchmo or Bird or Ornette comes from France, Germany, or South Africa, he or she will have a hard time earning recognition as a stranger in Burns’s strange land—could a foreigner bear the burden of American ideals?