Better Than Nothing

Ken Burns' Epic PBS Documentary, 'Jazz'

Better Than Nothing

In his own words, here are Ken Burns' objectives for his 10-segment, 19-hour PBS series Jazz, which began airing locally on KLRU (channel 18, cable channel 9) Monday and continues through the end of the month: "All the jazz critics who are sort of sharpening their knives miss the whole point of this ... I see jazz as a particularly objective mirror of who we are as a people, far beyond the music, and telling the story of the music helps us understand ourselves in a much larger sense ... What we're trying to do is enlarge the jazz audience. These people in their 'academic purity' are not being friends of the music they purport to love ...

"I'm relinquishing control of the narrative to journalists, and saying that the last 40 years deserves journalistic attention much more than historical attention ... I'm not really concerned with the jazz community ... What we've done is told a story that can begin to reach the other 99% of the population, and so I have to focus most of my attention on reaching that 99% for whom jazz is an esoteric, dense, and unapproachable music -- made so not by the music, but by the people who talk, write, argue, and fight about it. So there is a paradox."

What Burns seems to be saying here is that jazz would be far more popular if people quit arguing about it and united to praise his work. Unfortunately, as part of his crotchety 1%, I think Jazz leaves a lot to be desired. As a matter of fact, most people I've talked to about it agree. The biggest compliment some can muster is, "Well, at least it's better than nothing."

Burns admits he knew virtually nothing about jazz prior to beginning the project, and that principal sponsor General Motors "... gave us 35% of the [$14 million] budget." Naturally, GM is putting up that kind of money for a reason; the company sees affixing its name to those 19 hours as a way of selling more product. To do that, however, Burns must connect with a mass audience.

By its very nature, then, Jazz can't be too intellectually rigorous, forced to incorporate discussions of non-musical subjects to keep the interest of non-jazz fans. This should have been easy for Burns, since his stated intention is to mirror the American people "far beyond the music" and "help us understand ourselves in a much larger sense." In this light, it's understandable that Jazz contains much political and social commentary about American race relations, the Depression, WWII, and other tangential topics. Overall, the series emphasizes the anecdotal over the technical.

Oft-mentioned, for instance, are the substance-abuse problems of many jazz artists, from Buddy Bolden to Charlie Parker. Insights come not only from musicians, but also a number of authors, some of whom don't specialize in writing about jazz; others, like Negro League baseball great Buck O'Neil and actor Ossie Davis, also offer their views. Like many of the series' commentators, though, they offer the kind of not particularly enlightening impressions about jazz one could get from just about any fan.

The 10 chronologically arranged installments, eight running at two hours and two clocking in at 90 minutes, are: "Gumbo" (Beginnings to 1917); "The Gift" (1917-1924); "Our Language" (1924-1928); "The True Welcome" (1929-1935); "Swing: Pure Pleasure" (1935-1937); "Swing: The Velocity of Celebration" (1937-1939); "Dedicated to Chaos" (1940-1945); "Risk" (1945-1955), "The Adventure" (1955-1960); and "A Masterpiece by Midnight" (1961-2001). Astute readers will note that the first nine segments of Jazz cover periods of roughly three to 10 years, while the last packs in 40. That's 40% of jazz history by my reckoning.

Jazz co-producer Lynn Novick sees it differently. I told her that, to me, history meant everything that had already happened, even one second ago. By her reckoning, events aren't history until a consensus of opinion about them has been reached and set in stone. Like Burns, Novick thinks the jury is still out on many jazz musicians who have emerged since 1960.

Consequently, they are given short shrift or no shrift in Jazz, even though some are middle-aged or older by now. She urged me, even if I thought experimental jazz artists of the past 40 years had been given too little attention during the series' last installment, to consider seriously and hopefully praise the other nine segments. By her math, I was critical of only 10% of Jazz.

Still, I think the series virtually ignores almost two-fifths of jazz history. Even in Chapter 10, new developments in jazz by innovative young musicians are dealt with less than the latter stage careers of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington (who are covered from birth to death), and Dexter Gordon, while the work of reactionary younger musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and James Carter, all of whom appear to have no interest in adding to jazz's vocabulary, are given a disproportionate amount of coverage. If Dixieland revivalists of the Forties like Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, and Bob Scobey are not mentioned in Jazz because their work was so derivative, then Marsalis and the so-called young lions have no business being covered, because they're every bit as derivative.

Burns and Novick's implicit idea that experimental musicians' work cannot be evaluated until decades after they produce it is nonsensical. Consider the case of Fort Worth saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Before he emerged, improvisers were taking more and more liberties with chord progressions, adhering less and less strictly to them. Moreover, beginning with Django Reinhardt's "Improvisation" in 1937 and continuing into the Fifties, a few free jazz records had already been cut, most notably those by pianist Lennie Tristano.

It seemed inevitable to me as far back as 1958 that a jazz musician would come along who would play free jazz on a regular rather than sporadic basis, and that whoever got national attention for doing so first would probably be recognized as a great artist. Ornette Coleman made this step, though he always credited Dallas/Fort Worth saxman Red Connor with doing it before him, but given Coleman's other gifts, it was obvious to me that he was great as soon as I became aware of him. He'd made the breakthrough. Now, of course, he's in the jazz pantheon.

Anyone who follows the evolution of an art form closely can enjoy the innovations within it over the years and shouldn't need much time to evaluate the work of an avant-garde artist. For example, tenorman Joe Maneri first gained a bit of national attention in 1996. By that point, however, he'd already developed a whole new style of music, featuring his systematic use of microtones. Though 68 when his first album began circulating internationally, he was still far ahead of his time. After hearing it, I had no hesitation writing that he was a great musician.

Although Maneri remains unknown to the average Buick driver, those in the current avant-garde community hold him in very high esteem. Those that hedge about evaluating the quality of new music frequently lack courage, intellectual wherewithal, historical knowledge, and/or a good ear. Not surprisingly, Jazz completely ignores Joe Maneri. Perhaps Burns and Novick will deign to give him recognition when he's 100 and the subject of a Hollywood movie biography.

Besides Maneri, John Zorn, Mark Dresser, Chris Speed, and Joey Baron have been keeping jazz alive with their innovations. Going back to the Sixties, there's Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and Paul Bley. Meanwhile, Wynton Marsalis goes around imitating earlier jazz artists. So who does Burns make the most visible figure in Jazz? Guess.

Burns tapped Marsalis as lead commentator for his series, because he's well known to even jazz novices and a PBS darling -- in short, a guaranteed draw. And it's true, when it comes to pre-Sixties jazz, Marsalis knows what he's talking about. He's studied the styles of the men he copies meticulously, and knows what makes them tick. In this regard, Burns has been pretty shrewd about the way he's put Jazz together.

Better Than Nothing

Problem is, Burns, who views his The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz as an American trilogy, fancies himself as a player, and along with Novick, wants to have a role in getting jazz back to the commercial highpoint that big band swing music enjoyed in the Forties and Fifties. To do this, Burns can't preach to the converted. He's got to reel in the uninitiated, and has a fair idea of what they want, because until recently he too was one.

Burns' strategy to hook the general public involves the use of many knowledgeable talking heads: writers Studs Terkel, Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, James Lincoln Collier, and Nat Hentoff; musicians Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison, Lionel Hampton, Joe Lovano, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, and Artie Shaw; and singers Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, and Joya Sherrill. Also on hand are record producer Michael Cuscuna, promoter George Wein, club owner Lorraine Gordon, Thirties-era Savoy Ballroom dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, widows and relatives Chan Parker, Frances Davis, and Mercedes Ellington, and filmmaker Bernard Tavenier. Add O'Neal and Davis, and it's a varied and colorful group of people who chip in a bunch of anecdotes calculated to entertain a mass audience.

Burns doesn't want to bore viewers with a lot of talk about mere jazz music, so he dilutes it by dealing with other issues, those "far beyond the music" that presumably "help us understand ourselves in a larger sense." In the process, we learn Burns has some beliefs we can all agree with and rally behind. He is, for example, for democracy and racial equality and against lynching and fascism.

Moreover, Burns is always looking at jazz as a microcosm or a metaphor. "In addition to being a pretty objective witness to the 20th century," he postulates, "[jazz] was also a vision of the redemptive future possibilities of our republic. Because embedded in the message of jazz is a finely tuned constitution at work: all people listening, incorporating, are dealing with the question of the individual as well as the collective. And you have essentially in jazz a model of what we become when we live out, as Dr. King would say, the true meaning of our creed."

Marsalis opens one installment by saying that "jazz objectifies America." We learn also from him that a jazz band works the same way a democracy does. That's when Burns plays the patriotism card: We are told that only in America could jazz have evolved. I wonder if Burns has considered that only in Eastern Europe did klezmer evolve, only in Cuba did son evolve, only in Brazil did the samba evolve, only in Italy did Italian opera evolve, only in France did French pastries evolve?

Every nation has something unique about it, for crying out loud. Regarding the similarities between jazz and democracy, jazz is hardly unique as a form of collective activity that involves cooperation between individuals. Volleyball does as well. Can we, then, look forward to Burns doing a series on the history of volleyball?

Since music and substance abuse are inseparably linked in many people's minds, we learn that Buddy Bolden, Bix Beiderbecke, and Lester Young were alcoholics, that Louis Armstrong smoked marijuana, and that Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and others hit the harder stuff. Burns does not disappoint those who expect the mirror music holds up to society to have a little suspicious residue on it.

Maybe the actual history of jazz is not as important to Burns as these other, "larger," issues. Personally, I'm sick of writers and filmmakers who use music as a means to discuss their favorite political and social issues. Frequently, they do this because they don't have anything important to say about the music. I wish they'd deal more directly with the stuff that's important instead of trying to get at it in a roundabout way. Jazz is important enough to be dealt with as an end in itself. As it is, the way Burns deals with both the music and politics is half-baked.

end story

From a technical standpoint, Jazz is put together competently, if not arrestingly or originally. There's a lot of narration over photos or film clips, and plenty of talking head appearances by the commentators. For its part, the music is wonderful; the soundtrack contains some of the greatest jazz recordings ever made and the sound quality is very good. Unfortunately, complete performances are relatively few, and the music is sometimes used as a background for the talking. If the speakers consistently had a lot to say it'd be one thing, but folks like Ossie Davis don't have much to offer and wouldn't be missed.

As for the notion that Jazz is going to help revive the music's bygone commercial fortunes, Burns can forget it, although there may be a brief spike in record sales. A few retro-oriented performers, including Marsalis and Redman, are doing well for themselves, but they're not going to bring back the days when jazz and pop were virtually synonymous. The vast majority of young people are involved with the music of today, not 50 years ago.

Moreover, from the advent of bop to the present, jazz has been too difficult for most people to make sense of. The average listener cannot follow a 1948 Charlie Parker solo any more than they can figure out a 75-year-old Arnold Schönberg composition, Finnegan's Wake, or a Mark Rothko painting. Through the 19th century, the public was able to catch up with the work of experimental artists after a few decades had passed. However, 20th-century modernism confuses people now as much as it did in 1915 or 1930.

What Burns could've done without damaging the commercial appeal of his series would've been to give more attention to the efforts of today's (i.e. living) innovators. Their performances might have posed difficulties for most viewers, but no more so than what Burns uses to illustrate Parker, Coltrane, and Coleman. Guys like Maneri and Dresser are unlikely to get rich with their music, but more people might support them if they were at least exposed to it.

There has been and will continue to be a lot of debate regarding the relationship between Burns and Marsalis. Certainly they've scratched each other's backs. Burns provides Marsalis more publicity, which he thrives on, and a platform from which to espouse ideas that support his Lincoln Center program, as well as an opportunity for the horn man's Lincoln Center advisors, Crouch and Murray, to express their views.

However, Burns doesn't buy all of Marsalis' views wholesale. He gives white musicians a lot more attention than Marsalis has, and cites briefly the fusion movement and the music of Cecil Taylor and Chicago's AACM, which Marsalis and Crouch do not consider jazz. In effect, Burns plays it safe; he doesn't take such extreme positions as Marsalis, although their views are generally in accord.

The filmmaker seems to be a rather shallow dilettante, satisfied with conventional wisdom, and probably would have made the same documentary whether or not he had a major corporate sponsor. Novick maintains GM doesn't interfere with or oversee Burns' projects, that she and Burns have complete independence and aren't selling out. But the most likely explanation for GM's hands-off approach could well be that company officials are confident Burns will produce on his own the kind of middlebrow, populist history that suits their needs. It's still a little troubling when a giant corporation like GM gets so heavily involved in public television, although Burns would probably argue that without GM Jazz wouldn't have happened.

The process of being co-opted is an insidious one, though, and there is a commercial aspect to Jazz. In addition to the series, a 5-CD history of the genre, Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music, a similarly titled $65 coffeetable book, Jazz: A History of America's Music, and 22 single-disc series spinoff Best-ofs for Armstrong, Basie, Bechet, Blakey, Brubeck, Coleman, Coltrane, Davis, Ellington, Fitzgerald, Gillespie, Goodman, Hancock, Henderson, Holiday, Mingus, Monk, Parker, Rollins, Vaughan, and Young.

Better Than Nothing

The box set, issued jointly by Columbia and Verve, draws material from many labels and is just fine -- up to a point. Just about any reasonably intelligent person could've put together four of the first five discs after reading several good histories of jazz. The fifth CD, on the other hand, contains some pretty debatable choices, dictated at least partly by opportunism.

The first disc, 1917-1959, includes "Livery Stable Blues" by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, thought to be the first jazz record ever cut; stride pianist James P. Johnson's "Charleston"; Louis Armstrong leading his own groups and with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and Clarence Williams; Jelly Roll Morton playing unaccompanied and with a band; early Ellington; Bix Beiderbecke with Paul Whiteman and Frankie Trumbauer; Bessie Smith; Ethel Waters; and a 1934 Fletcher Henderson track featuring trumpet great Red Allen.

Disc two has big-band tracks from the Thirties featuring Ellington, Armstrong, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb, Bennie Moten, Noble Sissle with Sidney Bechet, plus cuts by Django Reinhardt, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, and Joe Turner.

Disc three spotlights the later swing era and early bop: Coleman Hawkins, Ellington again, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool nonet, Sarah Vaughan, Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker, and another Armstrong cut.

Disc four features post-bop and experimental Fifties and Sixties recordings from Horace Silver, Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Charles Mingus, plus Dave Brubeck's hit "Take Five." So far, so good. A few selections could be questioned (the Miller and Brubeck tracks), but for the most part, the contents are unquestionably significant. Then we get to the fifth CD, and some problems arise.

Here, Marsalis' influence kicks in alongside Columbia and Verve's greed, evinced by pop-jazz selections such as Grover Washington's "Mr. Magic" and "Un Ange en Danger," by bassist Ron Carter and rapper MC Solaar. Armstrong reappears for "Hello Dolly," a big hit but far from his best work. There's a nice Ellington track, but again, the Duke was past his prime by this point. Does it need to be here, especially when five discs aren't enough to adequately cover jazz's history? No.

A better choice would have been "ESP" from Miles Davis' great band with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Fusion tracks include Davis' "Spanish Key," Weather Report's "Birdland," and Hancock's "Rockit." Cassandra Wilson's "Death Letter" is included on the set, but isn't necessary. Ditto Dexter Gordon's "Tanya" from 1978, in view of the fact that he did his best work nearly 30 years prior.

Disc five's real drag is the inclusion of one track apiece by Marsalis and his Lincoln Center repertoire band. Columbia co-produced this set and it appears that they were determined to have their star attraction, Marsalis, represented, even though it's ludicrous to have him in the same set as Armstrong, Ellington, and Parker. And like Burns' documentary, many important innovators from the Sixties to the present are completely absent from the box set.

The book, Jazz: A History of America's Music, is credited to Burns and Geoffrey Ward, but it's the latter, who wrote the narratives for Jazz, Baseball, and The Civil War, that seems to have done most of the work. Unsurprisingly, the basis for the book is Ward's documentary script, and like it, Jazz: A History of America's Music is composed of 10 segments that cover essentially the same material as the series.

The book opens with Burns' banal, cliché-ridden preface, wherein he claims that "the genius of America is improvisation," and that "the Constitution is the greatest improvisational document ever created." Pardon me, Mr. Burns, but the Constitution was not written in half an hour; its creation involved a great deal of preparation, debate, and discussion. Even ordinary school kids know it was far from "improvised." What kind of crap is he handing us?

This kind: Burns goes on to assert that Jazz offers "the explosive hypothesis that those who had the experience of being unfree in a free land might actually be at the center of our history. African-Americans in general, and black musicians in particular, carry a complicated message to the rest of us, a reminder of our great promise and our great failing, and the music they created and then generously shared with the rest of the world processes the contradictions many of us would rather ignore. Embodied in the music ... is our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in the unfolding drama we call America history ... Jazz has kept the American message alive."

What a bunch of melodramatic nonsense. Consider Burns' statement that African-Americans "generously shared" their music with the rest of the world. Actually, non-African-Americans heard jazz, liked it, copied it and/or shaped and modified it to suit their needs, just as African-Americans did with the music they heard from whites. It's an aesthetically healthy exchange that's still mostly about hearing and taking without permission. There was no love lost between the Jews and gypsies on one hand, and their hostile European neighbors on the other, but they influenced each other's music without being "generous."

Remarkable as jazz is, Burns' statements about it are sometimes nebulous, hyperbolic, and absurd. He can make it a metaphor for anything he wants to, but jazz is a form of music, not a political movement. Moreover, he has ignored the musicians currently keeping it alive and adding to its vocabulary.

The book reflects the same views as the box set. It makes for pleasant reading, but isn't very challenging. Its ideas amount to conventional wisdom, and it doesn't contain a lot of technical information that general readers might have trouble with. Little of the abundant material about social and economic issues is new, and despite plenty of anecdotes, there simply isn't much new light shed on anything. Taking the last word, Marsalis ends the book by talking about jazz's "sweet taste."

As a sop for people bound to criticize him for his project not being up-to-date, Burns has jazz scholar Gary Giddins write an eight-page essay on "Extreme Jazz: The Avant Garde." The first two pages define the term "avant garde" and mention that jazz has always had an avant-garde. On page three, Giddins gets around to Cecil Taylor's first album, cut in 1956. During pages four to seven, he discusses the avant-garde of the Sixties and Seventies. Giddins squeezes the Nineties into two paragraphs at the end, mentioning David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp, who play free jazz, but aren't experimenters by contemporary standards. The free jazz movement began in 1960, for crying out loud; 40 years is a long time in jazz terms. By contrast, only 20 years separate the creative peaks of Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker.

To be fair, Giddins does cite John Zorn. But not Dave Douglas, frequent jazzman-of-the-year honoree and subject of magazine covers. Also excluded are Joe and Mat Maneri, Baron, Roy Nathanson, Tim Berne, Chris Speed, Herb Robertson, Marc Ribot, Brad Shepik, Michael Sarin, Tom Cora, Mark Helias, Skuli Sverisson, Cuong Vu, Mark Feldman, Jamie Saft, Anthony Coleman, and a host of other brilliant musicians who perform not far from Giddins' office at the Village Voice. Surely he's run across their names in articles and ads, but maybe he's unable to enjoy music that's evolved after 1979 or 1982 or 1987. Or perhaps he doesn't want to spoil young artists who have recently come to the fore by praising them too early.

It always bothered me that the history courses in my school days ended long before the present. The most recent composer discussed in my 1951 music appreciation class was Tchaikovsky. The World History course ended with WWI. To me, history is useful primarily because of the light it sheds on contemporary events; the further it stops from the present, the less relevant it is for me.

By ignoring recent developments in jazz history, Burns' Jazz makes it appear that the genre's evolution is over. By devoting so much time to political issues and so little to music, he implicitly undermines jazz's importance. He does this explicitly when he constantly refers to jazz as part of a bigger picture, and as a metaphor. Burns documentary doesn't harm jazz overall; it'll probably help sell some recordings. In that sense, it's better than nothing.

And because jazz is so difficult for Burns' 99% of the public to understand, there's not much he could've done for it anyway. But, man, he could've done better by it. end story

Ken Burns' Jazz airs Jan. 8, 9, 10, 15, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, and 31 at 9pm on KLRU-TV (broadcast channel 18; Time Warner Cable 9). Its companion book and CD set are available at the usual outlets.
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