From Autumn 2001: Thanks to all of you
who wrote in to share your thoughts on this artricle -- it meant so
much! I have decided to select just a few of the most astute observations
-- for a sampling of the many emails received from all over the world.
It's good to know that there are so many devoted fans of Bill Evans'
music-- and that the travesty of how the KEN BURNS documentary failed
to acknowledge this major innovator was keenly felt.
NOTE: There has been no content
editing done by me -- except for the fixing of an occasional grammatical
error in order to facilitae the narrative flow.
Thank you all!
I just read
your skillfully rendered piece about Ken Burns Jazz. I couldn't agree
more with your analysis. I too am left with ambivalence in place of
the excitement I was expecting from this series- and not just from the
fleeting perception left by Ken Burns that Bill Evans sprung fully formed
from Miles Davis rib only to evaporate after "Kind of Blue"
was in "the can". If anything, the historical perception of
Bill's role in "Kind of Blue" if anything is growing almost
daily. Where were the "goods" on people like: Nat Cole, Wynton
Kelly, Oscar Peterson,Dr. Billy Taylor, Marian McPartland, Dick Hyman
or Joe Pass- to name but a few, both African-American and not ? In the
last bit about contemporary artists - no mention of Diana Krall or John
Pizzarelli whatsoever. The musical canvass itself may be the most "short-sheeted"
of all Burns subjects, as you so ably point out. Songs of the day were
the canvass and they formed a grand framework for most of 20th century
jazz performance. No where was this more painfully obvious than the
complete omission of the Brazilian influence of (Bill Evans one time
building neighbor), Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose music was immensely
popular in the 60's and which took Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd and others
to the heights of their careers. There must be more of the Jazz story
told than Ken Burns wonderful yet myopic vision. Burns vision is Dickensian-
truly schizophrenic: the best and worst of times". Why doesn't
"BET on Jazz", "History" or "A&E"
(for instance) make an ongoing series on Jazz to fill in the Burns-blanks
? Surely, sooner or later the big Hollywood media celebrities and or
their pets will have to be exhausted as subjects for these channels...I
for one hope it will happen before all first hand accounts of artists
who have left us is no longer possible. Maybe someone will interview
the roster of Bill Evans bandmates on video for posterity, even if it's
home video. Perhaps the "Smithsonian" or some other repository
could organize or collect such tapes for Jazz artists against the day
Burns or someone else gets "corrective lenses".
I was not able to watch ALL of [Ken Burns'] "Jazz" due to
work and other commitments. What I did see seemed to be very well
done - especially regarding the early years.
do agree that the entire work was really a portrait of America as
seen through the evolution of Jazz. It was certainly less concerned
with the music than with the social and cultural milieu.
Being a Bill Evans fan, I was certainly disappointed that he, among
many others, received such short shrift. I suppose this slight had
to do with the concentration on the social and cultural as opposed
to the musical. I suppose one has to give Mr. Burns some license to
dwell on that which interested him. It was his show. But it makes
one want to go out and put together an addendum work that would say
"Hey, what about this guy or that?" No doubt, though, that
such an effort would again fall short, leaving out still others whose
contributions should have been examined more fully.
The program was certainly a good primer for the history of Jazz (as
far as it went.) However, I don't imagine the average Garth Brooks
or Faith Hill fan spent much time watching it. But I feel that anything
that attempts to get the word out about Jazz is worthwhile. Much the
same can be said of the Three Tenors' appearances, and the rise of
Charlotte Church's popularity over the last few years in bringing
operatic music into the spotlight. I suppose it's a toss up depending
upon who you talk to as to which is the harder sell - jazz or opera.
Basically, both camps simply don't want their favored forms to die
from neglect. Ken Burns "Jazz" may have added a little fuel
to the dwindling fire. For those whose curiosity was tweaked, perhaps
they will happily discover Bill Evans music on their own.
(If you find any of the above twaddle having enough merit to reprint,
you may use my name. I don't think there are any outstanding warrants.)
found your editorial extremely interesting, balanced and thoughtful.
However, I do wonder about us jazz fans. We seem to require separation
into groups or niches, there has always been, and no doubt always
will be such divisions, therefore nobody can agree on much, especially
at the extremes. Just like all human endeavours. Though I haven't
see the Burns thing I've read lots about it, most of it itemized by
yourself. It seems more a sociological study (as I found the Barnes
& Noble University site on it to be) using Jazz as the vehicle
and no doubt has merit in that light. It is always good to see rare
or new footage and listen to the stuff, but I feel that covering everyone
in it would have been impossible.
My own vision of jazz is contained within three expressions; Jazz
is a freedom of musical expression (Stan Kenton) The swing is THE
thing (Bob Brookmeyer) and anything said by Duke Ellington on the
subject. Let's just enjoy it as we see fit, arguing does nothing but
waste time, keep things in a mellow tone is best. we love and hold
in awe people like Bill Evans, Miles, Gil, Duke, Ben, Hawk, Gerry,
Brookmeyer and a thousand others, and we're lucky to have them.
think it should be remembered that Bill Evans and Miles Davis were
both to be congratulated for ignoring the race discrimination that
was going on and happily played together without any issue of race
being in their minds. Jazz, it seems cuts through these things as
does and did classical music. It's the public political climate that
gave rise to such awful things as physical violence being done to
Nat King Cole when he gave concerts in a racially over-sensitive areas.
One quote I have never seen in print of Bill Evans's goes "I
think jazz music is the purest tradition this country has ever had.
I has never bent to strictly commercial considerations, but has made
music for its own sake, that's why I am proud to have been a part
Bill was a very modest man and to malign him as a non-swinger who
didn't have any blues element is really a reverse kind of racism.
It's a way of saying "He's white therefore he can't have "the
blues" and "the swing" in him, you have to be black
to have that naturally". It's a shame that this is an untypical
attitude of those few black musicians who criticized Bill for being
an outsider looking in and not an insider looking out.
Admittedly the "College Jazz" of great musicians like Dave
Brubeck sometimes have got that kind of element inbuilt where the
background of the musician is formally Classical and it hasn't got
that in-born African American chromosome-based "feel" for
the way the emotion of the music overtakes bodily movement and the
whole being of the person becomes the music. In a way Brubeck was
a kind of Jazz-rocker who could ride the piano stool like bucking
bronco - I've seen him close up during concerts in the UK four times
in my life.
Yehudi Menhuin the great Classical Violinist tried to pay homage to
Jazz by recording with the late Stephane Grappelli and Menhuin admitted
he hadn't got the jazz feel. Grappelli wrote out Menhuin's solos for
him and the performance was stiff and stilted and sounded nothing
like jazz. One could hardly level that kind of criticism at Bill Evans.
He had one of the most envied senses of timing and rhythm that any
jazz pianist has ever had. Wasn't it the wonderful Helen Keane who
brought to attention the later recordings of Bill Evans, who said
if she could live her life over again, she'd like to be born with
Bill Evans's sense of "time"?
His phrases had a length and structure that were the
approach of a jazz horn player and that marks someone who really can
feel jazz. The color of his skin should be of no consequence. Either
you can or you can't. Henry Mancini could swing like Basie and Mancini
wasn't black. I think it's a great shame the race issue ever came
into it. I also think it very unfair to call Evans a punk even if
he did say he wanted to prove he was a bum. Eddie Gomez who was the
longest associated bass player with Bill Evans and a virtuoso Jazz
bassist himself has been interviewed on TV about his association with
Bill and he's the one to ask if Bill could swing or not. Gomez understood
every nuance in Bill's playing and got a rapport with him that even
Scot Lafaro couldn't match but would have done if he had lived long
The geniuses are all so often robbed of life early on and so are the
rest of us. Gomez misses Bill Evans probably more than any other person
in his life. Together they made some really magical moments in music-art
that have enriched my life no end. I have fed myself a diet of Bill
Evans music now for ten years and listen to almost nothing else. That's
not an obsession it's simply that Evans takes me to a place that only
exists in a plane above this ghastly earth and I know from my experience
of listening to Evans that he was a player who kept his "ego"
completely out of the music and played us a gift from his heart at
He had supreme respect for the music and wanted us to
hear just how great it was that the music was "there" -
He played with it and reveled in it, in a way few have ever or will
ever match. I think he was close to being a Mystical musician. Shame
that drugs had to bring him to that stage, and rob him of life and
us all of a great force for good. I regret that when Evans was playing
in London while I was studying to be a piano technician Tuner, I never
got to see him at Ronnie Scott's club. I didn't really know about
his music then in 1974 sadly.
Mr. L. Prior
on the most even-handed commentary on "Jazz" that I have
seen yet. The description of the Crouch-Murray-Marsalis nexus explains
a lot about the series' peculiar biases. Yet your commentary also
illustrates how difficult it is to discuss this art-form in any objective
way. (It may be an oxymoron to discuss art objectively.) Your paean
to Bill Evans illustrated how the best and brightest got short shrift
in the series; but by singling out Bill Evans, it fell into the same
trap. To substitute my non-objectivity for yours, Gerry Mulligan got
about the same treatment in "Jazz" as Bill Evans; but he
was a more important contributor as a composer, player, arranger.
leader and innovator. The point here is that whoever is involved in
a project like "Jazz" is going to bring his/her own biases
(tastes). The big flaw is that Burns was evidently blind to the fact
that he was focusing on the same biases by giving all three of the
CMM nexus such prominence.
I had some other problems with the series that you did not mention.
One was the extensive, maudlin, God-has-clay-feet account of the personal
lives of some of the musicians. The extended account of Charlie Parker's
grief-stricken actions at hearing of his daughter's death is a prime
example. It is not social commentary nor musical commentary, just
On the question of cutting off the history at about 30-40 years ago,
I don't have a big problem with that as long as it is made clear and
a rationale is presented. What did cause me to gag, though, was the
inconsistency of the treatment of Wynton Marsalis, given the "It
is too soon to tell" rule for not discussing current musicians.
Given his influence on the series and how much was untold, that was
simply disgusting. Maybe at some point, his contributions will be
recognized as genius; but that time has not come and may never come.
My bottom line on "Jazz": I am awfully glad that Ken Burns
did it -- warts and all. If new listeners hear "Kind of Blue,"
they will hear Bill Evans and maybe want to hear more. If they hear,
"Birth of the Cool," they will hear Gerry Mulligan. If they
tune into jazz radio as a result of Ken Burns, they will hear others
and develop their own tastes/biases.
(OK to use my name if you publish this.)
commentary was spot on and the thoughtful opinion I had been searching
for since the airing of [Ken Burns'] "Jazz". As a fan and
avid collector I was so looking forward to the inevitable placement
of my personal hero, Bill Evans, squarely before the world as one
of the greatest practioners of the art of Jazz. To say I was crushed
by his treatment in the film would certainly put it mildly. I am glad
that Burn' s "Jazz" was made. I'm even grateful for it.
The complexity of Evans was simply too much for poor Ken. I'm sorry
he doesn't get it but I'm glad I do. However, I might have expected
a major disappointment, as a southerner I'm still smarting from his
comparison of Robert E. Lee to Hitler in the Civil War film.