Ken Burn’s 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-and-roll, funk and hip hop.
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 Brotherhood.
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 didn’t cover all that much ground. The film fixates on three figures: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the young Miles Davis. There are sidetrips and footnotes to account for Sidney Bechet, Billie Holliday, Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie, 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 guarde recordings of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor and the growth of the fusion movement as a form 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 fllirtations 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 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 on with a rock-and-roll band (and not just any band, but the Hawks). In 1966. Dylan was jeered by the folkie 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’s 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 take on what Foote, an unrepentant Southern romanticist, wistfully referred to as 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 to the Parker/bebop 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 bebop ‘Round Midnight and died in 1990.
How different Burns’ film would have been if, instead of Gordon, he had trained his camera on Sonny Rolllins, who, like Coltrane, learned much from Gordon but ultimately surpassed him. Of course, Rolllins 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 Afro-centric strains, which began about the same time Gordon left the states, killed jazz.
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 of 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 artform. It’s also insulting; he assumes that the music itself, if allowed to be heard and felt, wouldn’t be able, largely on its own volition, to move and educate those who (unlike Burns) are willing 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 notions about the arc of American cap-H 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 Stern’s beautiful Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which integrates jazz, swing, avant guard, 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.
This essay is excerpted from Serpents in the Garden (CounterPunch/AK Press).
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.