The Escape from Pigpen - Hijacking an Art Form: Ken Burns' Jazz

The Escape from "Pigpen" --
Hijacking an Art Form
Ken Burns' Jazz

By Mike Zwerin
copyright © 2000 Mike Zwerin
for the International Herald Tribune
used by author's permission

New York City: The tony lobby of Avery Fisher Hall, a prime venue in Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, was alive with pre-concert buzz. It was a gala, a benefit titled "Swing That Music," presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center -- a/k/a J@LC -- to be followed by a dinner at the New York State Theater Promenade for "$1,000 and up" donors. The event was sponsored by AOL and Time Warner.

Honorary Gala Chair was Sidney Poitier, MC and Board Member Ed Bradley the CBS News correspondent would present awards to the philanthropists Jack and Susan Rudin "for leadership," the saxophonist Illinois Jacquet "for artistic excellence" and others. Featured performers would be Jacquet, the New Orleans entertainer known as Dr. John, Jessye Norman the opera singer was to sing "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen" and Broadway star Andre deShields would sing songs associated with Louis Armstrong. All of them would be accompanied by Wynton Marsalis leading his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The expectant audience milling in the lobby was multi-racial; well dressed, coiffed and heeled; faces expressing the pleasure of privilege.

While off to one side, the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose ten-episode, 19 hour documentary "Jazz" is scheduled to be aired on the Public Broadcasting System in January, was being interviewed. General Motors has announced an "integrated marketing plan" to support his documentary, while Starbucks, Sony Music, Verve, and Knopf "unveil steps to drive tune in" for the series.

Burns talks well and fast with unblinking eye-contact and, like any good politician, has the discipline to stay on-message, does not mind repeating himself and is not too shy to blow his own horn. In answer to a question about how all of this can exist alongside a system where the majority of even the good players perform for something like 75% of a meager door, he said: "The jazz community reminds me of Pigpen in Peanuts. Always surrounded by a cloud of dust. It's always been that way. Sure. You bet. But I completely disagree that it has to be that way.

"Jazz" is part three of "an American trilogy," the first two being "The Civil War" and "Baseball." "When I did the Civil War," Burns said, "I wasn't interested in who won this or that battle. Before I made my Civil War film, there were about five book stores that had Civil War sections and afterwards there were maybe five that didn't. Before, people told me 'I'm not into military history' and I'd say 'This film is for you,' like now people say 'I'm not really into jazz' and I say 'I made this film for you.'

"But I don't see it as just about jazz. I see it about race, about two World Wars, about the Depression; it tells me about sex, about drugs, about cities, it tells me about my country.

"We are a country that is based upon the revolutionary idea that all men are created equal. The man who wrote that owned 200 human beings and never considered freeing them. And these unfree people who lived in a 'free' country, this African-American community gave birth to this music and shared it with everybody. They didn't claim it for themselves. I hope that after this, more people than ever will go to clubs and buy records.

"That's why I forged this alliance between two big record companies that normally don't get along. To publish a single box with five CDs, a sort of best of with 22 of the most important jazz artists. The first truly 'best of.' Normally you just get the best of one label. This is the best of the entire history of jazz. I used the power of Verve/Universal and Columbia/Sony to get other labels to come along. So anybody can now go and get a hugely great jazz collection. Budget price. Budget price. They can begin their jazz collection with this five-CD set that represents the series -- 94 songs out of the 497 that are in the films."

The box, in stores this month, is called "Ken Burns Jazz - The Story of America's Music. There is also a sort of best-of best-of single CD called The Best Of Ken Burns Jazz on the promotional copy of which it is written: "It's the Jazz Event Of The Year! . . . Ken Burns personally produced this special 20-song advance CD, featuring music from his upcoming PBS Special, Jazz . . . The Jazz releases will be supported by a massive promotion and publicity campaign, with billions of impressions - everyone will be talking about Jazz."

I am not making any of this up. It's "hugely great." This is "massive." There will be "billions of impressions." Jazz will now apparently forever be capitalized or italicized or both and prefaced by " Ken Burns." With the help of Wynton Marsalis, who Burns calls "really the star of the film," Burns and General Motors seem to have hijacked an entire art form. According to a press release, there is also a "GM Education Program To Reach Six Million Students Nationwide Jazz College Fund."

"I've been working day and night for six years," Burns said. "Choosing the footage, the still photographs, newsreel footage, educational stuff. GM has spent a huge amount of money trying to get to school kids through music teachers associations. This is the golden opportunity to see what we can do to renew our music. Our art. The only art form Americans have invented."

Mike Zwerin is the longtime jazz correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, and author of Swing Under The Nazis, Cooper Square Press.


C o m m e n t s

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February 10, 01

2/9/01 -- After having read your commentary, I now understand why there are such huge gaping holes in the documentary. It ought to be called "Ken Burns' Jazz Tribute to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong" since they dominate more than 50 percent of the film.

I heard Mr. Burns defend his film in a taped forum held at Chicago's illustrious Harold Washington Library. He said his purpose in making the filmt trying to document jazz's evolution in America [huh?] but to stimulate interest in an art form known to be poorly supported by the masses.

I guess it would take a "knowledgeable" jazz lover and film maker, the likes Clint Eastwood, Gordon Parks or possibly Quincy Jones, to make the jazz film I would want to see.

Jazz Fan in Chicago

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