Ken Burns’ Jazz

I got around to watching Ken Burn’s Jazz, the 2001 PBS documentary series. I didn’t love it for reasons different from what I expected. I started out agreeing with the well-known criticisms of the series limitations. It focuses on jazz before 1960, and dismisses post-50s genres, notably fusion and avant-garde. There are ten episodes, nine covering jazz til 1960, and just one covering the subsequent 40 years. The opinions in the show are presented from on high – for one example, Count Basie’s rhythm section in the 40s was “the best rhythm section in the history of jazz.” Key narrative voices on the show are Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, known for advancing a neoconservative, traditionalist philosophy of jazz music. I was familiar with these criticisms going in, and expected to watch the series for what it is, which is a history of jazz before 1960, told from the opinionated perspective of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch.

The series is primarily a social history of African-American culture – New Orleans, the migration from the south to Chicago, Kansas City – and a social history of American racism, reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, discrimination and prejudice, and painful change. Quotes from the New York Times and other “authoritative” publications with ugly stereotypes are cited without commentary. It’s cheering that the film presumes that its audience is horrified, without needing to explain. Much of information isn’t new to me, but it’s told with a lot of contemporary photographs, film footage when it became available, and quotes. The social history through image was perhaps the strongest aspect of Jazz.

The narration over the images focuses on jazz as allegory for the social history, for the struggles and achievements of black folk, for the euphoria and despair of the roaring 20s and the depression, the promise and glaring flaws in American democracy. The narration is broad and full of cliche – I should go slog back and get quotes to illustrate this point – clouds of war gathered over Europe, people danced to forget their troubles – the voiceovers are often unbearably trite. And the allegory is too much burden to put on music.

What’s most disappointing is that almost all the music is talked over. Only one song – the 3 minute West End Blues – is played in its entirety. Perhaps Burns felt full songs and longer clips would be much for listeners – but then why take on the topic? The series has much less listening than I expected, less discussion of the music itself, and many more blanket assertions of the genius of the soloists and composers. The musical narration is padded with the epiphanies of listeners – writers, actors, other bystanders – who were struck and personally moved by the music. Perhaps the series is seeking to empower nonexpert listeners to acknowledge their own responses, but it doesn’t add much to someone seeking to get more out of the music itself. Also, it is very “great man” focused – music is described with a focus on the composer as auteur and the soloists, less on arrangements, less on relationship of parts to whole, less on interplay between musicians in ensemble.

My favorite parts of the documentary are when Wynton Marsalis picks up the trumpet and plays little examples to illustrate what the music is doing. I also enjoyed hearing Marsalis talk about Louis Armstrong – he phrases in objective terms, of course, but you can hear through the pronouncements that he’s telling his own experience of being moved and fascinated by Armstrong’s music. Does Louis Armstrong – clearly important – deserve the double digit percent share of jazz history he’s given in this show? The disproportion has been argued by people with more knowledge than I – but the central place Armstrong occupies in Wynton’s pantheon – that’s indubitable and personal, and charming.

In all, I didn’t enjoy the series all that much, and I honestly don’t recommend it, but I did get something out of it. I don’t have a deep background. So I got some helpful context from the music history. I heard more distinctions among the generations and subgenres of “big band” music. I got to listen to some musicians that hadn’t gotten through my episodic exposure to older jazz – Lester Young, Bud Powell – and subjectively here – get more of the instrumental aspects of jazz vocals that eluded earlier listening. Part of the challenge in hearing earlier music is that it’s innovations have been assimilated and are taken for granted – it was useful for for this listener to hear Louis Armstrong, the swing bands, the be-boppers, from the perspective of what they were doing that was new at the time.

Some may recommend the series as an intro for those who are new to Jazz – I’d do this only if it was accompanied by a teacher or a dedication to self-teaching that can get beyond the documentary’s perspective, and get to more of the music itself. For listeners with some knowledge, the series is a slog. There are a few blogs and websites that include retrospectives of older jazz – has a nifty series where contemporary musicians select favorite tracks from previous generations – this is drummer Nasheet Waits narrating his favorite recordings from Max Roach.. The Jazzwrap blog has reviews of new music and coverage of earlier musicians. I’m looking forward to dipping into these, and maybe someday getting a book to help with listening.

I disagree philosophically with the “great works / great man” theories of canon – the idea that you become educated when you learn to appreciate a set of pre-approved great art. I object to the social construction of jazz as “classical music”, which Wynton Marsalis has helped to establish. But I also listen better when I have some vague clue about what’s going on, and appreciate learning that helps me hear more. To the extend that it did that, “Jazz” was not a waste of time.

p.s. my personal introduction to jazz was through the out/avant garde side of things. Some of my favorite music these days is modern jazz that seems to have gotten beyond the tradition/avantgarde split.

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