Ken Burns on Jaz

George Snedeker snedeker at
Thu Mar 29 06:31:03 MST 2001


February 28, 2001

Now, That's Not Jazz

By Jeffrey St. Clair <
sitka at>

Ken Burns' interminable documentary, Jazz, starts with a
wrong premise and degenerates from there. Burns heralds jazz
as the great American contribution to world music and sets
it up as a kind of roadmap to racial relations across the
20th century. But surely that distinction belongs to the
blues, the music born on the plantations of the Mississippi
delta. Indeed, though Burns underplays this, jazz sprang
from the blues. But so did R&B, rock-n-roll, funk and hip

But Burns is a classicist, who is offended by the rawer
sounds of the blues, its political dimension and inescapable
class dynamic. Instead, Burns fixates on a particular kind
of jazz music that appeals to his PBS sensibility: the swing
era. It's a genre of jazz that enables Burns to throw around
phrases such "Ellington is our Mozart." He sees jazz as art
form in the most culturally elitist sense, as being a museum
piece, beautiful but dead, to be savored like a stroll
through a gallery of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite

His film unspools for 19 hours over seven episodes:
beginning in the brothels of New Orleans and ending with the
career of saxophonist Dexter Gordon. But in the end it
doesn't cover all that much ground. The film fixates on
three figures: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the young
Miles Davis. There are side-trips and footnotes to account
for Sidney Bechet, Billie Holiday, Bix Beiderbecke, Count
Basic, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane.

But the arc of his narrative is the rise and fall of jazz.
For Burns, jazz reached its apogee with Armstrong and
Ellington and its denouement with Davis' 1959 recording,
Kind of Blue. For Burns and company it's been all downhill
since then: he sees the avant garde recordings of Coltrane,
Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor and the growth of the
fusion movement as a form of artistic degeneracy. When asked
to name his top ten jazz songs, Burns didn't include a
single piece after 1958. His film packs in everything that's
been produced since Kind of Blue (40 years worth of music)
into a single griping episode. Even Kind of Blue -- the most
explicated jazz session in history -- gets shoddy treatment
from Burns in the film, who elides any mention of pianist
Bill Evans, the man who gave the record its revolutionary
modal sound.

This is typical of the Burns method. His films all construct
a pantheon of heroes and anti-heroes, little manufactured
dramas of good and evil. Armstrong and Ellington are gods to
be worshipped (despite their flirtations with Hollywood
glitz), but Davis and Coltrane (both at root blues musicians
to our ears) are fallen idols -- Coltrane into the exquisite
abstractions of Giant Steps and Love Supreme and Miles into
the funk and fusion of Bitches Brew, On the Corner and his
amazing A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Coleman, the sonic
architect of the Free Jazz movement, is anathema.

It's easy to see why. Burns boasts that his American trilogy
-- the Civil War, Baseball and Jazz -- is at bottom a
history of racial relations. But it's not a history so much
as a fantasy meant for the white suburban audiences who
watch his movies. For Burns, it's a story of a seamless
movement toward integration: from slavery to emancipation,
segregation to integration, animus to harmony. For every
black hero, there is a white counterpart: Frederick
Douglas/Lincoln, Jackie Robinson/Branch Rickey, Louis
Armstrong/Tommy Dorsey. In other words, a feel-good
narrative of white patronage and understanding.

This, in part, explains why Burns recoils from the fact that
Davis, Coltrane, Coleman and their descendents have taken
jazz not toward a soft, white-friendly swing sound but
deeper into the urban black experience. When Davis went
electric, it was as significant a move as Dylan coming out
with a rock-and-roll band (and not just any band, but the
Hawks) in 1966. Dylan was jeered by the critical elites as a
"Judas" and, despite the fact that Bitches Brew went on to
be one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, Davis is
still being slammed. Burns includes a quote in his film
denouncing Davis' excursions into fusion as a "denaturing"
of jazz.

The Burns style -- drilled into viewers over his previous
films, the Civil War, Baseball and Frank Lloyd Wright -- is
irritating and as condescending as any Masterpiece Theatre
production of a minor novel by Trollope: episodic,
monotonous, edgeless. By now his technique is as predictable
as the plot of an episode of "Friends": the zoom shot on a
still photo, followed by a slow pan, a pull back, then a
portentous pause -- all the while a monotonous narration
explains the obvious at length.

The series is narrated by a troika of neo-cons: Wynton
Marsalis, the favorite trumpeter of the Lincoln Center
patrons; writer Albert Murray, who chastised the militant
elements of the civil rights and anti-war movements with his
pal Ralph Ellison; and Stanley Crouch, the Ward Connerly of
music critics. This trio plays the part that Shelby Foote
did for Burns' previous epic, the Civil War -- a
sentimental, morbid and revisionist reverie on what Foote,
an unrepentant Southern romanticist, wistfully fantasized as
being the war between the states.

Instead of interviewing contemporary jazz musicians, Burns
sought out Marsalis, a trumpeter who is stuck in the past.
"When Marsalis was 19 he was a fine jazz trumpeter," says
Pierre Sprey, president of Mapleshade Records, a jazz and
blues label. "But he was getting his ass kicked every night
in Art Blakey's band. I don't think he could keep up. And
finally he retreated to safe waters. He's a good classical
trumpeter and thus he sees jazz as being a classical Music.
He has no clue what's going on now."

Crouch brings similar baggage to the table. "Crouch started
out as a modern jazz drummer", a veteran of the New York
jazz scene tells CounterPunch. "But he wasn't very good. And
finally he was booted from a lot of the avant garde
sessions. He's had a vendetta ever since."

The excessive emphasis in the series on Louis Armstrong,
often featuring very inferior work, no doubt stems from the
fact that Gary Giddins, another consultant for the series,
wrote a book on Armstrong. Burns' parting shot is the story
of Dexter Gordon, a tenor saxophonist whose life is more
compelling than his playing. Typically Burns transforms
Gordon's life into a morality play, a condensation of his
entire film: born in L.A., Gordon mastered the Parker/be-bop
method and when it passed him by, he battled depression and
heroin addiction, fled to Copenhagen, and finally returned
to the US in the late 1970s enjoying a brief renaissance in
high priced jazz Clubs in New York and DC, starred in
Bernard Tavernier's tribute to be-bop 'Round Midnight and
died in 1990. How different Burns' film would have been if,
instead of Gordon, he had trained his camera on Sonny
Rollins, who, like Coltrane, learned much from Gordon but
ultimately surpassed him. Of course, Rollins is still alive
and still making strikingly innovative music. His latest
album, This Is What I Do, is one of his best. But this, of
course, would have undermined the Burns/Marsalis/Crouch
thesis that the avant garde and Afrocentric strains, which
began about the same time Gordon left the states, killed

After enduring Jazz in its entirety, there's only one
conclusion to be reached: Burns doesn't really like music.
In the 19 hours of film, he never lets one song play to
completion, anywhere near completion. Yet there is a
constant chatter riding on top of the music. It's annoying
and instructive, as if Burns himself were both bored by the
entire project and simultaneously hypnotized by the sound of
his own words, interpreting what he won't allow us to hear.

This may be the ultimate indictment of Burns' Jazz: the
compulsion to verbalize what is essentially a nonverbal art
form. It's also insulting; he assumes that the music itself
if allowed to be heard and felt, wouldn't be able to move
and educate those who (unlike Burns) are willing to open
their ears and really listen. In a film supposedly about
music, the music itself has been relegated to the
background, as a distant soundtrack for trite observations
on culture and neo-Spenglerian vaporings about the arc of
American History. In that sense, Burns and his cohorts don't
even demonstrate faith in the power of the swing-era music
they offer up as the apex of jazz.

There are some great documentaries on popular music. Three
very different ones come to mind: Bert Stem's beautiful Jazz
on a Summer's Day, which integrates jazz, swing, avant
garde, gospel and rock-n-roll all into one event, Robert
Mugge's Deep Blues, a gorgeously shot and recorded road
movie about the blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta,
and Jean-Luc Godard's One+One, which documents the recording
of the Rolling Stones Sympathy for the Devil. All are
vibrant films that let the music and musicians do the
talking. But Ken Burns learned nothing from any of them.
Watching his Jazz is equivalent to listening to a coroner
speak into a dictaphone as he dissects a corpse.

Copyright (c) 2001 CounterPunch. All Rights Reserved.

3220 N. Street, NW, PMB 346
Washington, DC 20007-2829

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