Let’s cut to the chase on Ken Burns’s Jazz, which rolled out on PBS January 8, by invoking Wallace Stevens.
1) Is it entertaining TV? Mostly, in PBS fashion.
2) Does it leave out people and places and whole periods and genres
normally considered vital parts of jazz history? Yes.
3) Does it need more editing? Yes.
4) Does Louis Armstrong claim 40 percent of its nineteen hours? Yes.
5) Does post-1960s jazz claim 10 percent? Yes.
6) Does it tell an informed and informative story? Usually.
7) Does it identify the 500-odd pieces of jazz that serve as its soundtrack? Rarely.
8) Does it have rare and evocative pictures and film footage? Absolutely.
9) Is it good history? It’s made-for-PBS history.
10) Will it satisfy jazz fans and musicians and critics? Seems like it already hasn’t, and it hasn’t even aired yet.
11) Will it save the jazz industry? That depends: CDs labeled Ken Burns’s Jazz are bullish.
12) Will it make jazz a part of mainstream American culture again? Not likely, but it may help make it an official part of American popular history.
13) Is it part of the transition jazz has been making for three decades into the academic world? You bet.
Now let’s dolly back and try to tell the story.
The numbers have to come first. The ten-episode, nineteen-hour series was six years in the making, and it sprawls: seventy-five talking heads, thousands of still photos and pieces of film, some 500 pieces of music and so on. Costing some $13 million, about a third of it from General Motors, it’s the biggest documentary that’s been done about jazz.
And yet a lot of jazz musicians and critics and fans, in print and on the web, have been complaining that it’s too constrictive. It’s easy to see why. It’s certainly not comprehensive. For Burns and collaborator Geoffrey Ward, history unfolds in the textures of individual lives. (Ward won the Francis Parkman prize for A First-Class Temperament, one volume of his biography of FDR.) Jazz for them is the story of a few great men (and the odd woman) who changed the way Americans, then the world, hear and think and act. Chief among them: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There are places of honor for the likes of James Reese Europe and Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. This sort of survey is easier to sustain until about 1929, because jazz musicians were few (though not as few or as limited to New Orleans, Chicago and New York as the series implies). But Burns & Co. can tell a credible story of jazz’s first decades using a handful of pioneers.
One reason for the noise is that this overlaps the story of jazz according to the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a flashpoint in the jazz world. JALC teaches that jazz is a clear-cut genealogy of a few outstanding figures, and it excludes many important artists, especially after 1960, often for ideological reasons. The basic plot for both: Taking its building blocks from slave music, marching bands, blues, the church, European dance and classical music, jazz began life as a mongrel in New Orleans, came up the river to Chicago, met up (via Armstrong) with New York proto-swing bands and Harlem stride pianists and exploded, drawing young white players into a black-developed music. This is true enough, though it ultimately means ignoring uncomfortable parallel developments (Red Allen and Armstrong) or scenes (between-the-wars LA jazz) or entire genres (Latin jazz, European jazz). But schematic history can be good TV, and Burns, like earlier PBS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, makes long, long movies that depend on strong, heavily delineated characters and themes to keep them from dissipating.
His story’s heart is Armstrong. Its head is Ellington. And its soul is the Jazz Age and the Swing Era.
In episode five, “Swing: Pure Pleasure (1935-1937),” writer Albert Murray declares, “Jazz is primarily dance music.” Though that hasn’t been true for nearly half the music’s history, it’s clear he’s speaking for Burns: Three episodes, nearly six hours, discuss the big-band era, when jazz underpinned popular music, lifted Depression-era spirits, saved the record industry and dominated that new omnipresent technology, radio. Nevertheless, as the often-intrusive talking heads tell us, from Ellington on down the musicians knew the difference between the business and the music; stage shtick and chart slots were as important then as now. This is a bittersweet Golden Age of speakeasies, hoods, the Great Depression, squealing bobby-soxers, lynchings, jitterbugging, novelty tunes and early moves toward racial integration. It is described as a time of “adult sensibility” and is the series’ gravitational center.
The great-man schematic creates escalating difficulty for the plotting starting with episode seven, which begins with Charlie Parker and spends nearly as much time on Satchmo as it does on bebop. By the mid-1940s, the musicians had multiplied and moved on–out of Harlem and swing time. And so jazz dissolves into hundreds of musicians searching for different sounds, styles, approaches, languages, multimedia formats. The last forty years of Jazz are a choppy and unreliable ride; a lot disappears, and what’s left can be telegraphic or confusing and look exactly like JALC speaking.
Burns says post-1960s jazz is too controversial even in the jazz world to be history. Maybe he should have ended, then, with John Coltrane; Baseball, after all, stopped at 1970. For in less than two hours, faces from Charles Mingus’s to Sonny Rollins’s flash across the screen between inevitable reprises of Duke and Satchmo. Miles Davis’s push into fusion shrinks to his alleged desperation for teen fans. Ornette Coleman is dismissed. Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea don’t appear. The 1970s and 1980s are a quick-blur artistic wilderness until the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the film’s senior creative consultant and prime talking head. And there, after a brief survey of new stars (Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman) and a recapitulation of key figures and themes, it ends.
The signal irony: If Burns had cut the final episode and billed this as Jazz: The First 50 Years, more of the discussion might be where it belongs–on the movie.
Until pretty recently nobody thought enough of jazz to point a movie camera in its general direction for very long. There are snatches of footage of Armstrong, Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and the like from the early days. By the mid-1930s the popular swing bands cropped up in films and then in “soundies.” But the video record of what fans like to call America’s greatest art form is sporadic and discouraging.
This problem plays to Burns’s strengths: He loves having his staff dig up old photos (for this, they turned up millions), and he loves working stills to make them kinetic. He pans across and slowly zooms in and out of a single shot to give it a movielike temporal depth. In one vignette about Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, where drummer Chick Webb held court and introduced Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s, Burns intercuts shots of separate white and black dancers to hammer home the voiceover’s point about its integrated patrons–a first in America. He assembles a deft mix of photos and film to re-create the stage-fright-to-triumph of Benny Goodman’s 1938 “Sing Sing Sing” concert at Carnegie Hall.
The series boasts tours de force. The evocative segment called “The Road” strings out a head-turning daisy chain of wondrous footage: bands on trains and buses and touring cars, chugging 500 miles a day, six days a week, making whoopee and changing tires, riding high onstage and coping with breakdowns and prejudice offstage. The recently deceased bass and photography great Milt Hinton recalls how at band stops his wife would head into town to look for black homes where the musicians could eat and stay, how musicians were people of prestige in the community. Readings from journals and newspapers and diaries sample big-band life’s dizzying ups and downs, while the film rolls from impromptu baseball games to a couple of female jazz fans puffing fake reefers while hugging the sign of a town named Gage.
And in the background rolls out more jazz by far than 99 percent of America has heard. Much of the time, it’s as snippets in the background when one after another talking head pops up. The heads are duly identified time after time. The tunes aren’t, unless they’re keyed to a biographical or sociological set piece. Why not flash a subtitle to tell the audience what’s playing?
Because jazz is the soundtrack for this series as much as or more than it is its subject. To put it another way, this isn’t really a movie about jazz history. Think of Burns as PBS’s Oliver Stone. Like the Civil War and baseball, jazz for Burns and Ward is a lens to focus on basic questions: Who are Americans, and how do they manage to get along–or not? And their central query concerns race.
So they film jazz as the tale of black redemption in and of America, a narrative of conversion and triumph whose shape recalls St. Augustine and Dante. From the days of slavery through the humiliations of Jim Crow and minstrelsy to the assertive freedom of the blues and jazz, Burns’s movie resounds with the apocalyptic ring of apotheosis, as it examines a few crucial candidates for cultural sainthood. For it wants both to carve jazz greats into the American pantheon and to underline jazz’s pivotal centrality to twentieth-century America as an affirmation of African-American creativity and endurance.
This, coupled with Marsalis’s camera-savvy polish as a spokesman as well as his insistent championing of jazz education over the years, explains why a filmmaker like Burns would feel drawn to JALC’s version of jazz history. (Actually, Dan Morgenstern, the respected head of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, was the film’s senior historical consultant and vetted the script; there were twenty-three consultants in all, so until the final episode there are inevitable points of similarity, but not identity, with Lincoln Center’s tale.) But dramatic necessity also helps explain why some characters, like Armstrong and Ellington, are the story’s recurrent focus.
Swing, you might guess, is a buzzword in this series, and you’d be right, even though the film itself doesn’t swing much. The earnestness that suffuses PBS cultural products won’t let it float for long. At times, the music’s lilting ease and fire contrast vividly with its deliberate, self-conscious pace. That’s exacerbated by Burns’s seventy-five talking heads: Watching can be like sitting through a course team-taught by the UN.
Besides Marsalis, Burns’s other main soloist is writer Gary Giddins, and Giddins swings: His wide-ranging erudition rides his love for jazz easily. Other commentators–Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Artie Shaw, Gerald Early, James Lincoln Collier, Dave Brubeck–give good camera and consistent historical edutainment. But too many proffer vague impressions, clichéd memories, breathless interpretations and warmed-over anecdotes. They could easily have been edited or edited out. Then there are periodic pileups. In episode seven Joya Sherrill, Mercedes Ellington (Duke’s granddaughter) and a few others repeat that Duke and Billy Strayhorn were a rare and wonderful match. In episode five, the same two dancers appear twice with virtually the same observations about Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.
Sometimes the anecdotes are fun or fabulous, sometimes they’re bad history. Take Jon Hendricks, who in episode four retails the disproven mythic origin of Armstrong’s scatting (sheet music fell off his stand at a recording session). Or director Bertrand Tavernier, who gushes about Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli introducing the guitar-violin combo to jazz, though they themselves would have fingered Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Ballplayer Buck O’Neil rambles good-naturedly about Billie Holiday giving listeners “the greatest moments” and “the saddest moments,” demonstrating how a tighter edit could have sliced out the lapses into vacuity.
Marsalis’s starring role has several sides. He delivers very effective musical glosses and explanations, polished by years of shows and clinics with adults, teens and kids. His knowledge of and passion for the jazz he loves, and his conviction that it represents American life in full, are infectious, if sometimes hyperbolic. But when he holds forth about Ellington and Armstrong and the semilegendary Buddy Bolden as if he knew them intimately, it’s TV, not history.
History can be light-fingered instead of heavy-handed, and Jazz could use more humor, more of the “light” Marsalis ascribes to the best jazz musicians. It has some fabulous vignettes from Crouch, the third-ranked talking head. Except for the last two hours, Crouch swings. In one priceless bit he mimics pre-Armstrong pop vocalists and then Armstrong himself, and asks why anyone would want to revert. “That would be a bad choice,” he deadpans. Anybody who makes that choice, he adds, should be deported–count a beat–“to somewhere.” Another beat. “Maybe Pluto.” It’s impossible to disagree, especially when you’re laughing.
To some extent, Burns has himself to blame for the unjoyful noise in the jazz world. In conversation, he tends, rightly, to underplay his work’s ambitions. It’s not the history of jazz, he says. Viewers will get to know a handful of musicians, meet another dozen or two and brush past a few dozen more. He can’t possibly compete with books like Giddins’s Visions of Jazz or jazz histories like those of Ted Gioia or Marshall Stearns; he’s made a movie that tells an educational story for a mass audience. This is reasonable, accurate and no small feat. And, in fact, the movie is steeped with rich human detail of the sort most music historians rarely touch on. But the PR bombast trumpets him as jazz’s Joan of Arc, and once he’s on-message he can’t stop selling. Jazz, like academia, is small and marginal with plenty of defensive, combative types; “the music” is a secular religion. Burns’s perceived power inevitably lights the territorial fuses.
As it happens, the jazz industry, now down to about 1 percent of US music sales once you exclude Kenny G and his clones, looks like a Victorian maiden lashed to the tracks awaiting her hero. Burns’s movie is a mantra, as record labels crunch despairing numbers and weed out personnel and artists after the latest wave of megamergers and Internet terrors. For his well-designed five-CD companion set (subtitled The Story of America’s Music), the filmmaker brokered a deal between Sony and Verve (Universal), bitter corporate rivals, then brought in other labels; all are hoping for sales like the companion book’s, which had a first printing of 250,000. This is mind-blowing if you’re a jazz-label head used to dealing in niche sales (Marsalis himself rarely moves more than 10,000 CDs) and waiting for the next guillotine stroke.
Potential audience numbers get tossed around fervently: 40 million viewers for Baseball and The Civil War, and Jazz will probably draw less, but… It fascinates me that few of the film’s critics address that. Why not consider an America where 20 million more people–or 3 million, or however many finally watch–know something, anything, about Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis and a few others? Where, if they survive the overstatements, talking heads and pacing, they learn some hidden history?
Am I a Pollyanna? Maybe. Reality check: This is a made-for-TV movie. But I too think race is America’s central issue, even more multifaceted in the twenty-first century. What holds this joint’s pasted seams together, beyond the Founding Documents, is the frequently intangible glue called culture. TV is a major place American culture gets made. Can anyone measure what it meant to have Bill Cosby playing an upper-middle-class dad-next-door for a generation? What it means now that there are black and Hispanic and Asian and gay and you-name-’em channels filling cable and satellite TV? Can anyone guess what it might mean in five years to have Jazz, whatever its warts, playing over and over to a country as terminally divided and in search of itself as this one?
These are not delusions of grandeur about the power of jazz or Ken Burns. They are possibilities written in the history of jazz in America. Take Burns’s vignette about Charlie Black, a white Texas teen who saw Armstrong perform in the 1930s. It changed his life. He joined the NAACP’s legal team working on what became Brown v. Board of Education. The sociology of jazz is full of such stories. And they are very real.
For instance, no one with a brain disputes that jazz was initially an African-American creation. But as Marsalis, Giddins, Crouch, Murray and Early point out over and over, jazz was welcoming, inclusive, open. It replaced minstrelsy with a cultural site where all Americans could participate, speak to one another, override or ignore or challenge or slide by the society’s fixations on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Black Americans (and other ethnic outsiders) could use it to enter mainstream society, white Americans could flee to it from mainstream society, and the transactions created a flux and flow that powered American cultural syntheses.
Jazz, the theme goes, represents America at its best–the dream of America. In the Depression, as Early reminds us, it rivaled MGM musicals in lifting the country’s spirits. Of course, since jazz is a human activity, it also reflects the deepest divisions as well as the ideals at America’s core. Race, sex, money, power, capitalism, creative freedom, the interaction of the individual and the group–these are all questions embedded in jazz history. They’re the questions Burns and Ward are truly interested in. At its best, Jazz gets us interested in them too.
Burns admits he never listened to jazz until he started considering it as a subject. Ward became an Armstrong fan at age 10, when he was hospitalized with polio. Jazz is lucky they’re interested in it.
Right now, jazz’s commercial future is murky. The major labels are mostly wreckage. Marsalis, who used to get $1 million a year to make niche-market records in the hope that they would turn into catalogue gold, doesn’t have a label; neither does Redman. High-profile jazz promoters are hemorrhaging. The Knitting Factory is reportedly in the hole for $2 million, after luring a big entertainment firm to take a stake, opening a club in LA and losing its annual jazz-festival sponsor. The Blue Note chain is said to be spurting red ink from expansions into Las Vegas and midtown Manhattan. Nor are jazz’s nonprofit arms thriving. The Thelonious Monk Institute, so closely aligned with the Clinton/Gore Administration that its head was reportedly hoping for an ambassadorship if Al won, is looking pale. And the long-dormant board of Jazz at Lincoln Center has just fired executive director Rob Gibson in a swirl of intrigue: changed door locks and computer codes, fired and rehired personnel, amid persistent rumors of financial malfeasance, bullying and drug abuse.
Jazz has been on a commercial slide since the 1970s, when it racked up 10 percent of retail music sales. At the same time, it began entering the groves of academe. Today most jazz musicians are trained at schools; jazz history is laced through American studies and music curriculums.
This process has already fundamentally changed jazz itself and its relation to American culture, though how isn’t always clear at first. As a colleague reminded me recently, in the jazz heydays celebrated by Burns’s Jazz, musicians fashioned their own idiosyncratic solutions to musical problems, drawing on oral tradition (which varied considerably) and their own ingenuity and needs. This meant finding individual creative solutions to problems–how to finger this note or sequence, how to get that timbre, how to connect those chord changes. Now, a professor distributes computer analyses of famous solos, templates for solutions that are shared by hundreds and thousands of students. This has a paradoxical effect: It raises the general level of and standardizes jazz training, but it also tends to vitiate the individuality traditionally at the music’s heart. This is why older musicians routinely complain that younger schooled players all sound alike. On the other hand, they’re well suited for jazz repertory programs like JALC.
That is part of jazz’s changing contemporary dynamics. So is Ken Burns’s Jazz.