[Marxism] Ken Burns film would KO injustice

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 8 12:23:02 MST 2004

At 02:18 PM 12/8/2004, you wrote:
>I hate to rain on your parade but, in my view, Ken Burns is not worth 
>watching or listening to. His US patriotism is disgusting: when he was in 
>Canada last year, Bravo TV made the mistake of  conducting a 3-hour (!) 
>interview with him in which he used the phrase "my country" every other 
>sentence (as in the article you forwarded) and appeared with an upscale 
>sweatshirt with the US flag on it. He, and the network he appears 
>exclusively on, PBS, only recognize one conflict in America - racial 
>conflict (with a little bit of candy for liberal women thrown in now and 
>then) Class conflict apparently does not exist in his (or PBS's) 
>worldview, but from my POV class trumps race anyday.
>His series on Jazz and on Baseball was just so much unadulterated 
>tub-thumping for America (although it was fun to see a lot of Louis 
>Armstrong with his dope-smoking habits) And his 4-part series on Mark 
>Twain was an almost total whitewash, hardly mentioning MT's increasing 
>disgust with America as time wore on. And, predictably, no mention of MT 
>as honorary chair (?) of the Anti-Imperialist League.
>Enough of  his codswallop. I want to get back to the flamewars on 
>marxmail. I love 'em!
>steve heeren

Ken Burns Jazz Documentary

After viewing the first week's worth of episodes, I am ready to make a 
provisional judgment. Taken on its own terms, Ken Burns' documentary is a 
stunning success. He has humanized the great masters of Jazz while 
providing a rich tapestry of social history based on period photographs.

The first week, which takes us to the beginning of the swing era, reveals 
that Louis Armstrong wore a 'mezuzah', or Jewish star, around his neck his 
entire life in homage to the Jewish family that employed him as a young boy 
in their junk-carting business in New Orleans (a way that many immigrant 
Jews made a living). The proprietor's wife made sure that he got a hot meal 
every night at their home. A photo of the family focuses in on her stern 
but compassionate face. It is the kind of face I have seen in my family's 
own photo album.

We learn that Benny Goodman's father David swept lard off the floors of a 
Chicago slaughter-house 12 hours a day to eke out a meager living. 
Resolving that his children would have a better life, he scrimped and saved 
to purchase instruments for his children, and to pay for music lessons. 
Benny ended up with a clarinet because as the youngest and smallest, this 
was all he could handle. Soon after he left home at 16 to begin making a 
living wage as a musician, he bought his father a news-stand. Even though 
he was making enough money so that his father would not have to work, David 
Goodman insisted that he needed to earn a living himself--he lived by his 
own work ethic. We see a photo of the news-stand.

Sidney Bechet, who was as highly esteemed as Louis Armstrong in the early 
days of Jazz, possesses a hot temper that knows no equal. When in Paris 
another musician questions his use of a certain chord change, Bechet goes 
after him with a pistol.

Bix Beiderbecke, son of a wealthy coal mine operator in Davenport, Iowa, 
reaches the pinnacle of fame but is always insecure, especially over 
whether his family regards him a success. He dies at the age of 29, having 
drunk himself to death. Back home in Davenport, all the records he sent 
home to his mother and father for their approval lies stacked in a closet, 
never having been played. We see photos of his palatial home and the coal mine.

These musicians built their reputation in the 1920s, a time of brutal 
racism and "Jazz age" effervescence. Photos of ragamuffin black children 
dancing in the street for spare change are interwoven with and contend with 
those of white people in fancy clothes doing the Charleston. We also see 
rare film footage of musicians, including a priceless excerpt of Duke 
Ellington performing "Black and Tan Fantasy" at a piano in a Harlem 
apartment in 1929. As black people only appeared as servants or Stepin 
Fetchit type clowns in Hollywood films, this showed that Ellington had 
earned the respect of the American people. His reputation was sealed by the 
weekly live radio performances from the Cotton Club, the first such live 
performances in broadcasting history.

While the steady procession of photos and film footage marches across the 
TV screen, we hear a non-stop sound-track of 1920's Jazz accompanying the 
visual narrative. That--alas--is the problem. Music is handmaiden to the 
image, when music itself should be the central focus. We never hear bands 
or soloists identified. It is just aural wallpaper. In a peculiar fashion, 
it reminds me of the musical accompaniment to early "Farmer Brown" cartoons 
from the 1920s in which foxes chased chickens around a barn in a non-stop 
loop--the soundtrack always sounded like King Oliver on benzedrene. Even 
more disconcertingly, the music is heard behind the non-stop narration. As 
informative as this narration is, it dominates the music when our interest 
should be in the music itself.

During the first week's episode, we only hear a single classic Jazz 
performance from beginning to end without any competition from narration or 
image. That is Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" which is not only one of 
the first instances of the soloist's art, it is one of the greatest 
performances in Jazz history--along with Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul" 
and Miles Davis' "All Blues". Except for this, the only other time the 
focus is exclusively on music is when Wynton Marsalis is peerlessly 
illustrating some point on his trumpet. Unfortunately, there is only so 
much that can be done with a single trumpet. It would have been far better 
if a Jazz ensemble had been available to demonstrate the style of one type 
of Jazz or another from the period.

In some cases, the lack of a focus on the music itself is quite glaring. 
For example, while there is an altogether sensitively drawn profile of Bix 
Beiderbecke, we never really learn what made his style different from Louis 
Armstrong's, even though Bix considered Louis his main inspiration. 
Marsalis even mentions that Louis and Bix jammed together once, even though 
there is no recording of the event. Anybody who has a knowledge of the Jazz 
idiom would be intrigued to think about this combination. It is a little 
bit like imagining a double piano concerto with Artur Rubenstein and 
Vladimir Horowitz. Marsalis never even attempts to use his trumpet to 
demonstrate the unique contribution of Beiderbecke, whose languid, 
medium-tempo solos might be characterized as "white" on a superficial 
level. In reality, the kind of sound that Beiderbecke produced was to 
become one of the central poles of Jazz styles over the years. It might 
even be argued that Miles Davis alone synthesized the "hot" style of 
Armstrong and the "cool" style of Beiderbecke. Well, it would have been 
argued thusly if I had been a writer working for Burns...

So what is Jazz?

Jazz, first of all, as the documentary makes clear, is a musical genre that 
could not exist without the prior example of the blues. From the blues it 
derives a tendency to slightly augment or diminish a tone. Instead of 
hearing intervals such as those played on piano keys, we hear "dangling" 
intervals that exist between the keys. Needless to say, the guitar and the 
human voice--the sole instruments available to the impoverished black 
masses--alone are capable of creating this non-diatonic sound. Furthermore, 
despite the humble origins of the blues and Jazz, it paralleled experiments 
in 20th century classical music--first with chromaticism and then with 
atonality. It is no accident that composers like Ravel and Shostakovitch, 
who both stressed heavily chromatic harmonies, both wrote piano concertos 
that tried to approximate Jazz tonality.

Another important element is syncopation, which also originated in the 
blues. In standard popular music, the four bar phrase serves an rhythmic 
underpinning for the melody. With syncopation, the melody is often a beat 
ahead or behind the start of the bar. This gives the music its 
characteristic drama and novelty, since it defies expectations. Undoubtedly 
the term "off-beat", which means fresh and unusual, stems from its use in 
Jazz, as would the term "square" indicate sticking to the beat.

Finally, there is improvisation which can relate either to the basic melody 
or the chord progressions of a song being played by the Jazz musician. In 
the early days of Jazz, improvisations were very simple and largely 
embellishments of the song's melody. Gradually with Louis Armstrong and 
others, improvisation started to focus on chord tones, until in the Bebop 
era improvisation tapped the deepest level of the song, the scale progression.

One can only suppose that any technical discussion of such matters as these 
were sacrificed in the interests of appealing to the lowest common 
denominator, a guiding principle of Public Broadcasting Television. It was 
not always like this. In the 1950s network television had regular 
programming which educated viewers about classical music without talking 
down to them. I speak here of Leonard Bernstein's programs for children, 
which was equally appealing to adults. I also speak of Jazz pianist Billy 
Taylor's weekly shows. While Bernstein and Taylor respectively explained 
the nuts and bolts of symphonies and bebop, nowadays one can only turn to 
Peter Schickele's Public Radio show (http//www.schickelemix.org/) to be 
educated about music. Schickele, aka PDQ Bach, is not only witty and 
engaging, he is catholic in the examples to illustrate his points, ranging 
from the Beatles to Chopin.

Since Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch are omnipresent in the Burns 
documentary, one is forced to contend with the "Lincoln Center" 
controversy. To what extent is the television show reflective of the 
"neo-classical" aesthetics enshrined in the Jazz program there, which is 
largely the product of Marsalis and Crouch's thinking.

Since the scenario for Burns' documentary was written by somebody not 
connected to Marsalis and Crouch, we can assume that at least one part of 
their system of beliefs was mercifully eliminated, namely that Jazz was a 
particularly African-American expression. The ample space devoted to 
musicians such as Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman should be sufficient 
evidence. However, others have complained that the show gives short shrift 
to non-American Jazz musicians such as Django Reinhardt and all of the 
lesser known Europeans who made it possible for expatriates like Dexter 
Gordon to continue working. Although they are not celebrities, their work 
is essential.

This brings us to a more important question which does touch upon the 
attitude of Marsalis and Crouch toward the singular importance of Jazz. 
This can be boiled down to their oft-repeated statement that, for example, 
Duke Ellington is our Beethoven or that Louis Armstrong is our Bach. (The 
"our", in a chauvinistic sense, refers to the USA since--as I have 
stated--the show seems barely interested in what happens overseas.)

I would suggest that at one level, while this may be true, it is the source 
of Jazz's greatest malaise in its mature phase. The notion of Ellington, 
Armstrong, etc. as belonging to the constellation of Great Composers 
inevitably subjects Jazz to the same crisis that affects classical 
musician, namely the desperate search to create novelty, which in itself is 
a function of the commodification of all of the arts in bourgeois society.

Although I somehow doubt that Marsalis and Crouch can make the connection, 
it is no accident that nearly all of the graphics from the first week of 
the show depicted people dancing. Jazz was dance music. People went to the 
Cotton Club to dance to Ellington's music. They danced to Benny Goodman as 
well. Although records were made for listening, such as the Hot Five and 
Hot Seven sessions led by Louis Armstrong, Jazz was essentially music that 
you lindy-hopped to or did the Charleston to.

In the 1930s, as Jazz became championed by friends of the Communist Party 
such as John Hammond who organized the Carnegie Hall concerts with Goodman, 
Count Basie and other superstars, it was part of an effort to lend dignity 
to a pariah group. Performing written-out compositions in formal garb was 
supposed to be a blow against Jim Crow, just as getting Jackie Robinson 
into the major leagues.

While political and social changes such as these explained the 
transformation of Jazz into a music more for listening than dancing, on 
another level internal musical evolution accelerated this development. For 
example, Charlie Parker began his career as a member of Jay McShann's 
territory swing dance band, the Blue Devils. While strongly influenced by 
Lester Young, Parker already began to develop be-bop harmonies, which were 
merely a logical extension of Young's own innovations with the Count Basie 

Around the time that the be-bop movement became hegemonic, swing bands had 
already become commercially unviable (see David Stowe's "Swing Changes 
Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America"). This meant that one would by necessity 
go to clubs like Birdland to hear solo-dominated, rhythmically and 
harmonically complex performances by Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, John 
Coltrane and others. Their music was impossible to dance to, even if there 
were a dance floor in such venues. By the 1960s, Jazz had become part of 
the avant-garde and even the conventions that tied be-bop to earlier forms 
had been dropped. This was a music that was intended to provoke and 
agitate, not dance to.

Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch emerged as a dialectical contradiction 
to the "free Jazz" experiments of the 1960s and 70s, seeking to return Jazz 
to its "classic" roots. This means performing Ellington at Carnegie Hall or 
recording standards for Columbia records (Marsalis Standard Time, vols. 
1-3). Neo-classicism of this sort has also encouraged a kind of very safe 
and commercially ambitious careerism of the sort typified by musicians such 
as Harry Connick Jr. (a neoconservative like Stanley Crouch) and Canadian 
Diana Krall, who is as esteemed for her blond good looks as she is for her 
warmed-over re-interpretations of Nat King Cole. With the success of such 
people, one can only wonder if somebody as homely as the late singer Betty 
Carter could get started nowadays, even with all her talent.

I believe that once a music such as Jazz breaks its ties with its 
indigenous dance roots, it almost inevitably is forced to go down the trail 
of all "art forms", with their attendant woes in late capitalism. That is 
why I continue to regard African and Latin music, which never lost those 
connections, as the most vital music in the world today and one whose 
spirit alone can serve to re-invigorate Jazz today.



More information about the Marxism mailing list