Ken Burns's 'Jazz': Beautiful Music, but Missing a Beat

Ken Burns's 'Jazz': Beautiful Music, but Missing a Beat

By Krin Gabbard
copyright © December 15, 2000
first published in The Chronicle of Higher Education
reproduced with permission

When Ken Burns received lavish praise for his multipart documentary films on the Civil War and baseball, he succeeded in large part by negotiating the often contentious views of the appropriate intellectuals, acknowledging their disagreements while maintaining the momentum of his story. But when he decided to make a similarly comprehensive documentary about a subject as definitively American -- jazz -- he relied almost entirely on journalists.

Beginning on January 8, PBS stations will devote much of their schedule to the latest Burns event, all 17½ hours and 10 parts of it. The program could have used a bit of demystification from a few of the more plainspoken jazz academics. Yes, they are out there. And any one of them will tell you that there is much more to jazz than Ken Burns suggests, even before the first notes are played.

Let's begin with the word itself. The term "jazz" probably started out in the 19th century as slang for sexual intercourse. By the first decades of the next century it had acquired a more sedate meaning, usually referring to energy, activity, and wit. For F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920's, the term meant nightlife and fast living; for Henri Matisse in the 1930's, jazz could mean paper cutouts of circus animals. The descriptive legitimacy of the term for various styles of music was contested throughout most of the 20th century. In fact, musicians as eminent as Duke Ellington and Max Roach have denounced the term as inadequate and insulting. Today, when a young actor says she's learning "jazz," she usually means a style of dance that has much more to do with Bob Fosse and Broadway shows than with Louis Armstrong and improvisation. Burns, however, works with a much more narrow sense of the term.

If you know a good deal about jazz music, Burns's program will have you talking back to your television set. If you know only a little about the music, and if you have the patience to spend 10 long evenings in front of your TV, Burns's documentary is not a bad place to start. As with his earlier documentaries, Burns and his staff have found superb vintage photographs and the best available film clips. The editors perform small miracles in knitting together footage of interview subjects, bits of old film, and carefully chosen examples of great music. Sometimes the choices are inspired, as when film of a mushroom cloud is accompanied by a Charlie Parker recording from around the end of World War II. Both the image and the sound announce the beginning of a profoundly new era.

Burns and his writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, build their story around key figures in the history of the music, usually devoting 3 to 15 minutes to each musician. As the program moves along chronologically, it cycles back to familiar musicians at later stages in their careers. More-generous amounts of time are devoted to the two giants, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, who appear in all 10 of the segments. Other artists receiving more than passing notice include Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, Sarah Vaughan, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Dave Brubeck. The program is primarily invested in glorifying those artists, but it does not turn away from unsavory aspects of the music, and it openly explores jazz's association with drug addiction and prostitution.

Burns emphasizes the centrality of the African-American experience to jazz history. In fact, black history is the dominant theme of Burns's jazz history. The program looks squarely at lynchings, civil-rights demonstrations, and the daily humiliations of black people in American society.

But in spite of its length and its repeated insistence on the topicality of jazz, much is missing from this series. In Part 8, for example, we are told that the 1950's was a time of "prosperity, the cold war, suburbanization, urban hopelessness, new forms of racism, and drugs," and that "jazz music would reflect it all." The documentary does not explain how that is possible, but more important, it pays no attention to the reverse of that grandiose statement -- that American culture reflected jazz.

What about the music's effect on writers, painters, and choreographers? Frank O'Hara, for example, wrote a stunning tribute to the exceptionalism of jazz in his 29-line poem "The Day Lady Died." After cataloging the mundane aspects of his walk along the streets of New York one July day in 1959, the poet learns that Billie Holiday has died, and he remembers a night at the 5 Spot when she whispered a song to her pianist, Mal Waldron. At that moment O'Hara gives up his solipsistic stance and recalls how "everyone and I stopped breathing."

Burns might also have drawn upon the rapturous jazz fantasies in Jack Kerouac's On the Road or the powerful novelization of the legend of the jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden in Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. Then there was the jazz-inflected dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, who literally embodied the most elegant and physically demanding elements of African-American music. Although we see many shots of anonymous lindy hoppers, where is Alvin Ailey, who reinvented the ballet in jazz terms? Or Romare Bearden and Jackson Pollock, who jazzed modernist painting? You will not find them in Burns's long but limited tale.

If the program ignores much of the art inspired by jazz, it generously represents the arts of jazz photography and jazz film. The explicit discourse may be the African-American experience, but the unacknowledged discourse is the jazz photograph and the jazz documentary. Unfortunately, the photos and film clips almost always slip by without identifying marks. If Lester Young seems like a graceful, mythic figure as he slowly emerges from beneath his porkpie hat, it's because the Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili and the concert impresario Norman Granz wanted to present him that way in their groundbreaking film from 1944, Jammin' the Blues. If Dizzy Gillespie seems a bit of a clown with his pelvic bumps and strange dance steps, it's because he is appearing in Jivin' in Be-Bop (1947), a low-budget film aimed at the African-American audiences before whom Gillespie was working hard to popularize his challenging music. But both film clips are presented as unmediated representations of the two musicians.

And why is the trumpeter Clifford Brown being presented by Soupy Sales in a grainy old kinescope? We are not told that this is probably the one and only film of Brown, recorded in 1955 when he passed through Detroit and was invited to appear on a local variety show hosted by Mr. Sales, a devoted jazz fan who later spent several months hunting through his old programs for this rare footage. Although the documentary tells us that the arrival of the immensely gifted but clean-living Clifford Brown was a historic moment -- proving that "it wasn't about drugs" -- we hear nothing about where the footage came from and how it betrays the tragically marginal status of a genius like Brown. The trumpeter may have sent a message with his joyous and drug-free music, but very few Americans were paying attention.

Jazz would have been a substantially richer account of the music if Burns had paid more attention to the academics, especially since Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and director of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of the documentary's most incisive voices. More typically, however, a journalist tells us about the early history of minstrelsy, and a professional actor talks about race relations in the 19th century. Instead of historically informed discussions of the music, its practitioners, and its reception, we hear, for example, that Louis Armstrong's talent was "God-given," and that his playing could "make the angels weep." We are also told that Charlie Parker's genius is "unknowable," and that if Armstrong's solos were like poems, John Coltrane's were like the novels of Tolstoy. A little of this goes a long way, but it's the dominant rhetoric of the documentary.

Burns also retreats from even the most simple musical analysis. When Wynton Marsalis, the "senior creative consultant" for the project and the single most ubiquitous figure among the talking heads, demonstrates the importance of Gillespie's trumpet improvisations, he picks up his own trumpet and plays a solo typical of the 1930's. He then plays a more elaborately embroidered solo that sounds like Gillespie in the 1940's, complete with fast but symmetrical triplet patterns in the upper register. Marsalis looks up, and instead of offering a few words to explain how Gillespie was different, simply says, "I mean, what is that?"

But if there is one objection that you're likeliest to hear from jazz aficionados, it is that Burns devotes fewer than 30 minutes to the past 25 years of jazz history. Much of the 10th and final segment is devoted to the last days of John Coltrane (who died in 1967), Louis Armstrong (who died in 1971), and Duke Ellington (who died in 1974). Except for Marsalis, no other jazz figure gets more than a brief mention in the program's final half-hour.

The most exciting music I've heard in the past 10 years has been by musicians like the vocalist Betty Carter, the saxophonist Bobby Watson, and the pianist Tommy Flanagan, as well as by uncategorizable composer/improviser/conceptualists like Don Byron, Dave Douglas, and John Zorn. Burns mentions none of them. Artists of the stature of the saxophonist David Murray, the pianist Geri Allen, the drummer Lewis Nash, and the pianist Jacky Terrason appear quickly in black-and-white photos as the narrator reads their names. We do, however, see 45 seconds of the French rap artist MC Solaar performing with the bassist Ron Carter. Some of my more cynical friends in jazz circles have pointed out that the only musicians we see in Burns's finale are the ones with major-label recording contracts.

The mostly elegiac tone of the final segment is obligatory for a program that accepts Marsalis's argument that the only valid way to promote jazz is to look backward. But even then, it makes no sense to devote fewer than three minutes to Charles Mingus, surely the greatest jazz composer after Duke Ellington and the author of an extraordinary autobiography. And why is no time at all devoted to Art Pepper, who came closer than any other white saxophonist to occupying the intensely emotional musical universe of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and who also wrote an extraordinary autobiography? Burns opens himself up to this kind of bean counting with his gestures toward comprehensiveness. He has, after all, called his program Jazz, not Jazz: The First Seven Decades or Ken Burns's Favorite Jazz Musicians.

Burns also seems to insist that there can be only one narrative of jazz history, as if PBS viewers cannot handle complexity even as they flee from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Everybody Loves Raymond. In their published writings, many of the program's interviewees have strenuous disagreements with one another, but you'd never know it from Jazz. Only toward the end, when the relentlessly avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor is featured, do we see talking heads condemning the music of a jazz artist who had earlier been praised by someone else. At no point in this long program does someone say, "The usual way of thinking about Armstrong (or Coltrane or Paul Whiteman or Ornette Coleman) is one thing, but my view is that . . ."

In the real world of jazz criticism, every moment of the music's history has been a battleground, with innumerable figures, both before and after Cecil Taylor, provoking vigorous disagreement about what is and is not the true jazz, which artists have or have not sold out, and what the jazz critic must or must not write. The debates among jazz lovers about the direction the music ought to be taking today are as loud as ever. Burns's documentary is suffused with the lament that the jazz audience is withering away, but because he has not risked broaching the contested subjects and taking a serious look at contemporary jazz, he contributes to that withering. Why should we listen to the music today, when it all seems to have ended 30 years ago?

Burns deserves credit for making African-American history the glue that holds his project together. We seldom see images of African-Americans suffering and overcoming bigotry presented as compellingly as they are in Jazz. Dave Brubeck breaks down and cries on camera when he talks about the time his father asked a black friend to open his shirt so that the young Brubeck could see the scar from a branding iron on his chest. Recovering, Brubeck refers to his service in World War II and says, "That's why I fought for what I fought for." Unlike a long line of jazz critics who say it's only about the music, Burns acknowledges that both the tumultuous improvisations of Archie Shepp and the sublimely spiritual music of John Coltrane can be heard as responses to racism.

But even that asset becomes something of a liability, because Burns is not willing to confront the complexities of the interracial encounters that produced jazz. One interviewee says whites who heard something special in jazz had to confront, often for the first time, the humanity of black artists. That may be true, but there were also plenty of white people for whom jazz was primarily an occasion to fantasize about orgiastic freedom and/or dark-browed primitivism. An essential element of jazz history has always been an obsession with blackness among white Americans, one that is deeply ambivalent, multifaceted, and often bizarre, especially because it is so seldom acknowledged. Think of all those pictures by white photographers in which black jazz artists are caught profusely perspiring. Think of the sexual fantasies in Norman Mailer's "White Negro" apocalyptics. But those uniquely American delusions are not a subject that Ken Burns is prepared to face. He'd rather facilely hit the right emotional buttons with the right images of pain and joy, and keep the story simple.

The most revealing moment in the documentary's handling of jazz and race comes toward the end of the first segment. Recalling jazz's early days in New Orleans, Nick LaRocca, a white cornetist with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which made the first jazz records in 1917, is quoted as saying that white artists always played better than black artists.

Much could be said here about the dynamics of black/white interactions in old New Orleans, not to mention the various forces that compelled LaRocca to make so reckless a statement. Instead, the program cuts to Marsalis, who says, "Well, race is, uh, . . ." The camera then holds his face in a tight close-up while he pauses for an astonishing 14 seconds. Finally, he takes a breath and says, "Race is like, for this country, it's like the thing in the story in the mythology that you have to do for the kingdom to be well. It's always something you don't want to do, and it's always that thing that's so much about you confronting yourself." He continues for a while in this abstract vein, but that long pause says so much more.

Although Burns probably told his editors to leave in that long silence as evidence of Marsalis's thoughtfulness, it also symbolizes how the program would rather not confront some of the crucial issues raised throughout the documentary as well as in LaRocca's inflammatory statement.

You may be moved by Ken Burns's images in Jazz. I certainly was. Ultimately, however, the program eschews nuance and complexity for the emotive gesture, even if it sometimes means saying nothing about issues that beg to be lucidly discussed.


Krin Gabbard is chairman of the department of comparative literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His books include Representing Jazz (Duke University Press, 1995) and Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

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C o m m e n t s

Episode 10 1 of 2
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Hello- Does anyone knows the name of the female artist who performed the last song on episode 10 and the name of the song? I know she was wearing a hat.

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