Ken Burns is a sycophant. I”m not trying to be mean to the award-winning documentary maestro, but I say it in all earnestness if Burns is willing to persist on insinuating that the tenth episode of his ten-part documentary “Jazz” was inadequate on purpose.
“I refuse to tell the present what it”s about” (my paraphrasing here), is how I”ve read him explain it.
Part ten of “Jazz,” “A Masterpiece by Midnight,” was an insult to anyone who thinks that there is still hope left for jazz (and doesn”t see Wynton Marsalis as the saviour saint Burns portrays him to be).
If Burns really had no interest in interpreting the present state of jazz, then he wouldn”t have bothered making the tenth episode at all. There would have simply been no need, no point to make.
Yet Burns is no fool and he certainly knew all too well that a massive, corporate-sponsored documentary with his name stamped on it would be absorbed by the masses as “fact” and thus was aware of his ability to cast whatever shade on jazz history he pleased.
Unfortunately, he copped out. He must”ve gotten lazy, because anyone who has truly drowned himself in the sea of extant jazz recordings, perhaps the most prevalently documented musical recording style in the history of human civilization, knows that there are far more interesting things to dwell upon than just the legacies of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
This is the music that inspired more pasty-skinned weirdos to lurk alone in dingy basements with their record collections because of transcendental trombone licks they heard when they were 13 than all of the pedantic data crammed into this series put together. That Burns would take on such a subject is a pretty ballsy statement in and of itself. And … you know, I guess I can”t go blaming Burns for his ignorance, since he has readily admitted that he knew virtually nothing about jazz when he first undertook the task of documenting it.
Oh, wait. Yes I can. In fact, I think I”m supposed to. These days I”m so unsure of what I”m supposed to do that I”ll simply go with my gut instinct and say that I think Ken Burns is a waste of space and that if I ever meet him in a bar, it ain”t gonna be pretty.
You can tell that he”s not a true lover of the music simply by the fact that he considers Grover Washington”s “Mister Magic” and Herbie Hancock”s “Rockit” (yeah, the one that won everything at the first MTV Music Video Awards) appropriate to include on his documentary-inspired, five-compact-disc compilation.
And you could tell the music”s never really touched him when he played most of the legendary solos from Coleman Hawkins” “Body and Soul” and the dinosaur 1942 cut of Charlie Parker”s first-figuring-out the changes to “Cherokee,” only to fade the music out during each saxophonist”s most exciting and intense passages in favor of dialogue.
Basically, I think it all comes down to the sheer arrogance of Burns, who was recently spied by the International Herald Tribune hawking his wares at a highfalutin press shindig, claiming he made an alliance “between two big record companies that normally don”t get along” all for the sake of blessing the public with his five-disc box set and various other “hugely great jazz” hits collections marqueed by his name.
“Normally you just get the best of one label,” he was quoted explaining. “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. Ninety four songs out of the 497 that are in the films. Budget price.”
Did”ya hear that kids? Burns”ll give you one fifth of his soundtrack for just 60 bucks! What a deal! I implore you to run out to your local drugstore today because this set is certainly almost as comprehensive and revelatory as the (very similar and still available) set Sony and Smithsonian released over ten years ago.
In general, the documentary”s first seven episodes weren”t awful. Although perhaps a tad mind-numbingly boring (even for a jazz fan) and certainly heavy handed in their portrayal of jazz as an all encompassing force that could even rise above America”s ever present and disparate many-coexisting-conflicting-races problem (one scene was so cloying that it consisted solely of the pianist Dave Brubeck as he fought back tears spurred by the remembrance of his first encounter with a black man), the retrospective did a fair job of covering the bases of early jazz.
Certainly, I have my carps. Many of the juxtapositions of photo, music and dialogue were extremely misleading, often pairing conflicting images and music. Meanwhile, precious little of the soundtrack was ever identified.
Certainly, there were patches of quality film making. But it wasn”t until Episode Eight, “Risk,” that Burns finally reprieved us for a moment from his oppressive, jazz as black and white music, theme to depict the death of the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. It was an ironic point in jazz history at which to do so, since Parker has often been characterized as the quintessential jazz casualty, the black genius victimized by his race. Nevertheless, by simply constructing Parker”s self-destruction as the byproduct of a number of personal tragedies and bad habits, the portrait was much more lamentable and interesting than if Burns had just dolled out more of his he-was-oppressed rigamarole.
In fact, it”s a real shame that the documentary couldn”t have been more interesting until this eighth episode, which finally picked up the pace by substituting archival film footage of musicians in place of Burns” trademark slow panning still photo closeups.
Basically, I missed several enticing episodes of “Temptation Island” to watch what was really a spruced-up biography of Armstrong and Ellington with lotsa zoomed-in snap shots. Not that their stories aren”t an integral part of jazz history, but the fact that Burns focused as much of part ten on how those two musicians ended their careers and died as on discussing the new music that was created between 1961 and yesterday is sorta morbid and ends up painting jazz as a museum piece, a phenomenon unique to the 20th Century that died with its two heroes.
That”s the broad picture of Episode Ten, but life is supposed to be in the details and in this sense getting specific can show you just how slick a filmmaker Burns really is. Sure, it seems contrary to state that Charlie Mingus was “second only to Ellington in the breadth and complexity of his compositions” and then spend less than five minutes talking about the man, but you have to realize that a work of art was in the making, and to really get the message it”s obligatory to understand the editing. Some things had to be cut and some things had to be repeated in order to really express something …
Considering that the documentary”s unrelenting message was that jazz is utterly American, its improvisational freedom a mirror of our freedom-embracing democratic ideals, it was odd in part ten when the narration”s tone about the Art Ensemble of Chicago, initially praising the group for its musical and creative independence, suddenly turned despondent, citing the AEC”s small audience as if minimal popularity was a detriment to the band”s musical legacy. Mr. Burns, no doubt, was up to something. (“Ehhhx-cellent.”)
When the subject switched to the pianist Cecil Taylor, critic Gary Giddins discussed how most listeners have to train their ears to appreciate his atonal style. “That”s total self-indulgent bullshit, as far as I”m concerned,” retorted saxophonist Brandford Marsalis. “I mean, that”s what we pay to see them do.” (This statement was certainly the low point of the documentary. In the episode that most reeked of series “senior creative consultant” Wynton Marsalis” infamously neoclassicist approach to jazz history, such a comment was too flagrant to come from the political Marsalis brother. Instead, why not see what Wynton”s good old accommodating brother has to say? Wink wink, nudge nudge. News flash to Brandford: If you really want your audiences to start expecting entertainment, then you better try hard to get that gig back on “The Tonight Show,” because I never saw any picture shows coming outta your horn.)
This trend continued as the music of the avant-garde was consistently characterized as “asking a lot of audiences” and unpopular. Yet when the influence of John Coltrane was discussed, the first thing mentioned was that A Love Supreme was “one of the best selling jazz records of the decade” and Miles Davis” electric period was explained as a means of gaining a wider audience.
Suddenly, the hidden message should be clear and the answer to why the series focused four of its segments, almost half of its air time, on swing (America”s popular music for nearly three decades) is apparent: Jazz isn”t good jazz unless it”s popular! Yes, improvisers are only free to play what they want if people will pay money to listen to it, which sounds like, if nothing else, a truly American idea.
As if that wasn”t enough, Burns buried one more psychedelic-profundity below the surface of Episode Ten. Since the point of criticizing the avant-garde for not having an audience was to bring up the pitifully low register jazz now makes on the Billboard sales charts, the question “how will the music survive into the next century?” emerged.
Well, the answer is clear if you follow the clues. First, note the stoic photo of Wynton, the only evidence of stability as the narrator listed the stylistic divisions that have fragmented jazz over the last 40 years. Then, bear in mind the brief biography of Wynton that wasn”t as brief as the one given to Mingus and came directly after the “jazz music is dead” quote by Miles. Finally, think about what Giddins stated hopefully at the end of the documentary: “Some young musician”s gonna come along … and he or she will play a music that no one else has heard and that will be the next movement,” which segued directly to a clip of a New Orleans street band. The music that audiences heard playing with this parade, however, wasn”t the music of that band, it was an overdub of Wynton”s band edited to seem like the real soundtrack.
So … who is going to be jazz”s 21st Century hero? Well, Wynton Marsalis is a good guess, but as I mentioned earlier Marsalis was “senior creative consultant” of the entire series and as such was probably the most important influence on which artists were covered in “Jazz,” rendering any such self-important label given to his own legacy an obvious conflict of interest and not an appropriate message for a professional documentary to make.
The jazz hero of the next century will actually be Louis Armstrong again, who will be cloned successfully sometime in the next twenty years, with any luck, thanks to advances in science and the spit he left in his trumpet at the Smithsonian.
If you actially watched all 17-and-a-half hours of “Jazz,” tell John what you thought via e-mail at email@example.com