by Jan Stevens

Looking at the overall picture, it seems reasonable to say that Ken Burns' 19-hour "Jazz" series was a cultural and marketing triumph. It was quite often visually stunning, and emotionally and musically compelling as it tried to encompass a hundred years history of jazz, (but left out that last 30 or so) . At the outset, it deserves great praise on many levels. However, upon closer examination, the much-hyped PBS series was not without a few serious problems as a document for future jazz students and historians, as we will see. "Jazz" was certainly a marketing coup for jazz-as-consumer product: the expensive coffee-table book, the one-size-fits-all "main selections" CD release, the many single-artist compilations and the many video and DVD copies that will be sold. Then, there is the unprecedented deal made between Verve and the colossal Sony/Columbia record labels, allowing Burns to release selected compilations of various artists who were once with either label. These "Ken Burns Jazz" - labeled recordings are selling quite well according to industry sources, and the attention to the music is generally good for all of us, yet somehow problematic. The editorials of jazz critics and comments by jazz fans are widespread in print and on the Internet, and the renowned documentarian has received many accolades from the entertainment media and some in the jazz world. Yet there have been more judicious and often vitriolic responses from many critics, musicians and fans. ("To me, these are gnats," Burns says of insider critics.) (1) Often-stated objections include the "sins of omission" (or at least, missed opportunities), the problem of what has been called the series' zealous Afro-centrism, and Burns' historical cutoff point being the mid-60s. Though Burns defends much of this on the grounds of a limited time frame (19 hours?), and on the difficulty of presenting a realistic and legitimate historical perspective of the last 30-odd years, many won't buy it. As someone on the Web remarked "Did baseball cease to exist after 1960?"

As wide-ranging as this "Jazz" series was, it existed and was intended as metaphor for the American experience: the music's freedom of expression and its "negotiations" --as Marsalis referred to improvisation -- representing democracy to the world. Burns himself has said the film was intended as the third part of a kind of trilogy ‚ his Baseball film and the benchmark The Civil War being the others. That his trilogy had at its very core the African-American experience has been greatly heralded, and Burns deserves applause inasmuch as jazz was, of course, created and nurtured by African-Americans. Burns remarked: "The great irony, the great poetic justice in history is that the only art form that we have invented, that will commend us to the world, to all of posterity for that matter, is a work born mostly in a community that has the historical memory of being unfree in a free land. And yet that apparent tragedy can become affirmation... jazz has kept the American message alive." (2)

Burns seems to view jazz history as a series of primarily black tragedies and affirmations of the human spirit enacted within a panorama of social and political travesties, and highlighted by musical victories and the triumphs and disasters of its heroes, most prominently Armstrong, Ellington and Parker. As one critic said: "Burns suffocates the jazz tradition in his superlatives. He deadens everything with his wonder. He has come to be ravished. A helpless hero-worshiper, his success threatens to make hero worship into a respectable historical standpoint. It is easy to see why Burns flourishes in this culture of worthless admiration. He is really just a fan: Bob Costas with an NEA grant. S› There is also too much celebration in 'Jazz'. For a fearful quantity of pain, individual and social, went into the making of this music. Burns is not comfortable with pain. He turns it into tragedy, which is the condition of triumph. Jim Crow was terrible, but here is Armstrong; dope was terrible, but here is Parker. Burns makes you almost grateful for their adversity, which is indecent. The happiness of sad people is not so easily grasped. Jazz is the sound of stoicism, and it, too, is not so easily grasped." (3)

Besides criticizing Burns' choices of which jazz luminaries received attention in his sprawling series, much of the heat focused on the series' "Executive Consultant", the enfant terrible trumpeter and educator Wynton Marsalis. A highly visible spokesman for the cause of jazz, Marsalis' frequent on-camera observations and insights were quite articulate and intelligent, albeit sometimes pontifical. In his enthusiastic segments, he would often effectively demonstrate on his horn a certain riff or jazz lick, and at such times he was indispensable as a translator of the jazz language. Yet he often spoke of long-gone musicians as if knew them personally ‚ such as early jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden -- of whom no recordings were ever made. No stranger to controversy, Marsalis' highly visible position as director of the Lincoln Center Jazz program with its main emphasis on traditional and conservative jazz, has been a topic of debate for a few years in New York. Therefore, his extensive involvement with this project by Burns (who admittedly knew next to nothing about jazz beforehand) was bound to ruffle some feathers.

If we trace Wynton Marsalis' trail back, we come to his chief mentors, famed critic Stanley Crouch and the superb writer Albert Murray, both who appear in "Jazz" and are quite riveting and intelligent commentators.  In 1991 Marsalis said, "So thank God for Crouch... I love him, he's my best friend in the world. He's like a mentor to me, I'm not really equipped to discuss a lot of stuff with him on his level. He's not 29. I've never had a real true camaraderie with my peer group like I would want to have." (4) And elsewhere: "but actually the man who really and truly was my mentor in that way was Albert Murray, who's a writer in New York. And his whole thing is always understand the meaning of what you're doing. He always deals with understanding the meaning of things." (5) The fact that Marsalis and his highly-regarded mentors had so much to do with the 'meaning of things' in the Burns series may be what is most at issue here. All three are staunch advocates of the orthodoxy of jazz as intrinsically an African-American music -- a classicist viewpoint of great inherent merit indeed, yet by being exclusionary, it is one which leaves many major jazz innovators like Bill Evans and others languishing on the periphery. This familiar quandary of interpretation and emphasis has once again become a borderline racial issue in all post-Burns "Jazz" writings, and that is unfortunate although perhaps unavoidable, by virtue of Burns presentation. Even the brilliant critic Gary Giddins (a brillaint, well-versed jazz historian, who was also a big part of the success the film) differed on perspective here. As the NYC paper Village Voice wrote: "Giddins even-mindedly comments that jazz's combination of European [emphasis mine] and African musical elements could have happened nowhere but in America." Wynton Marsalis seems to agree when he claimed that "jazz objectifies America." (6) If that is so, and the documentary constantly put forth the concept of jazz as symbolic of American freedom and inclusion, then why such little time spent on the European influence, and why were major white artists like Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Barney Kessel, Scott LaFaro, and others left out, or given such short shrift? I am in no way saying this neglect was based solely on their race, since Brazilian and Latino artists were not acknowledged either. In addition to Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and the other 20s and 30s seminal figures who couldn't be avoided for their historical notoriety and impact, we did see players like Gerry Mulligan, drummer Stan Levey, arranger Gil Evans and Dave Brubeck given their due.

The answer may lie with the Marsalis-Crouch-Murray idea that the European and classical traditions present in the music are of much lesser import to jazz, and are thus dispensable. Both Marsalis and Crouch have been militant in pointing to the blues as necessary to all good jazz; as its history shows, the blues are indeed paramount to the language of jazz improvisation. However it is essential not to exclude the beauty and purity of the European influence as if it were some sort of annoying, bastardized corollary. To do so would be downright absurd, since so many of the great standards played by jazz artists were written by Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter and the other remarkable songwriters of the 20th century -- men whose European harmonic backgrounds were part and parcel of the centrality of their work. But overlooking this is exactly what Burns ostensibly did vis-a-vis Marsalis' strong hand in the project. Burns went so far as to refer to Marsalis as "the backbone of the film.'' (7) Yet after the attacks were made by critics he stated: "A lot of folks were trying to say that Wynton's got his claws into me, and he doesn't. This is my vision, my appreciation, and it just so happens that Wynton is an impassioned and expert voice that helps articulate that story." (8) Trumpeter and bandleader/ Jon Faddis angrily disagreed, saying that the Marsalis jazz philosophy was "presented as fact, rather than opinion or interpretation." (9) Any work of such major proportions like "Jazz" would probably be slighted in this way, but Wynton's singular impact and influence here -- and by extension Crouch's and Murray's -- is undeniable.

However, perhaps it goes beyond color sometimes, as jazz is supposed to do, and maybe it goes even beyond Marsalis occasionally, since major jazz contributors like Wes Montgomery, Horace Silver, Quincy Jones, Cannonball Adderley and Eric Dolphy, just to name a few, were also inexplicably missing or sorely neglected. In the episode on Bird, others, both Caucasian and African American -- like Tadd Dameron and Stan Getz were only briefly mentioned in a terse litany of jazz musicians addicted to heroin. This is sad, by any standards.

My position is one often taken by others -- that perhaps some of these musicians, whether white or black, didn't fit in with Marsalis' and/or Crouch's grand vision or philosophical criteria for what constitutes "important" or "essential" jazz. And as for those veterans still among us, former Evans bassist Chuck Israels recently noted, "How about living musicians? Could not Horace Silver have been asked to speak about Art Blakey's influence, or his own? How many situations has Clark Terry experienced about which he could provide insight? How about Percy Heath, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Ray Brown, Donald Byrd, J.J. Johnson, [only recently deceased] Joe Wilder, and Benny Carter, who has lived creatively through so much of the history of this music? Oh well, there's another pontifical moment with one of the anointed instead." (10)

As far as Bill Evans is concerned, readers should note that Stanley Crouch, Marsalis' admitted mentor, is responsible for serious negative attacks on the pianist, as noted by jazz writer Eric Nisenson: "I once overheard [the jazz critic] Stanley Crouch giving a diatribe against Evans. It was just before a kind of symposium of jazz critics.... Evans, according to Crouch, was a 'punk' whose playing could scarcely be considered jazz. He could not swing, according to Crouch, and there was no blues in his playing." (11) These are simply inaccurate and derisive remarks, especially since musicians as diverse as Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Cannonball Adderley and scores of others clearly disagreed. That Evans considered the blues a limited harmonic structure for his own purposes, and only rarely used it as a vehicle for blowing, is a given. That the often blues-based solos of Monk, Bud Powell, Horace Silver and others were, as he himself noted, a big factor in Evans' own pianistic development is also a given. That all of this ought to somehow diminish his brilliant artistry and widespread influence is just plain silly and inexcusable. For proof, just open any decent jazz history book.

Just how did Ken Burns treat the enormous importance of Bill Evans to jazz history in his 19-hour presentation? In less than about 90 seconds, and only within the context of a section from Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue", the best selling jazz album of all time. The narration mentions Evans only inside a black-and-white narrative framework of Miles being colorblind when it came to the music. As "All Blues" played in the background, veteran critic Nat Hentoff, who was a friend of Miles, commented on how Evans' employment in the band came at a time when blacks were wary as to whether a white guy "could even play the music", and also of West-Coast jazz (played mostly by whites). Burns' film at least had the decency to add that Miles liked Evans' quiet fire" and "cascading waterfalls" piano sound, but after this brief mention of Evans on perhaps jazz' greatest album, the pianist is gone for good. And this was all before anything about the 1960s was even introduced. (Virtually the same can be said for McCoy Tyner, that other pianistic innovator, who was cast merely as a Coltrane sideman -- nothing more.) Furthermore, why wasn't jazz writer Gene Lees used in this segment? He was brought out much later, only to talk about his well-reasoned dislike for pianist Cecil Taylor, yet he could have been used far more effectively. Mr. Lees was an Evans aficionado, and a close friend of the pianist's, and wrote much about him in a long career of distinguished jazz commentary. His potential was all but wasted in the Taylor segment altogether. "CATS OF ALL COLORS" -- Lee's amazing book that belongs in anyone's jazz library--is very highly recommended for some incredibly insightful commentary and interviews on these very issues, and it was written long before the Burns' series was a reality.

Bill Evans always had a very devoted following of all races and nationalities during all the phases of his more than 25-year career, one that outlasted and some might say outshined that of pianist Dave Brubeck -- who was given considerable screen time. Not to diminish Brubeck's popular acclaim in the 50s and 60s, or his innovative use of odd time signatures, but was it reasonable to allow him such lavish screen time in lieu of Evans -- especially in light of Burns' apologetics about time constraints? (Such "constraints" did not keep Burns from going on about Louis Armstrong hitting the charts in 1964 with the sappy pop tune "Hello Dolly" -- which barely rates a jazz footnote!) Mentioning Bill Evans merely as a Miles Davis sideman and nothing more is indefensible and without rhyme or reason. But it is the film's stellar example of the Burns-Marsalis-Crouch approach which sees European and classical influence on jazz as probably irrelevant, or at least, very secondary. That flies in the face of even Bix Beiderbecke's immortal tune "In a Mist" ( a piece ahead of its time) and his experiments with French impressionistic music in the mid-1920s, let alone the work of John Lewis in MJQ, the music of George Russell and others who broadened jazz horizons with what was once called "Third Stream". Even several of of the later works of Duke Ellington could be cited, for that matter.

Jazz has always been big enough to encompass all the musical influences of its practitioners, whether African or European, as reflected by the social and economic changes of any given era. But the film seems to pass itself off as definitive history when, in crucial ways, it is perhaps more indicative of a particular mindset about jazz. As one observer noted: "...Burns' subject isn't an art form. It's the social history of America.[...] Thus, 'Ken Burns' Jazz' is about America in the first half of the 20th century. 'Jazz' serves as a metaphor for internal conflicts related to race, injustice, integration and freedom. Now there's nothing wrong with that premise. It's as valid as any other. But there's something wrong with the title. It should be 'Ken Burns America As Symbolized By Jazz' ". (12)

Many have asked "why all the whining?" from certain circles in the jazz community when it is clear that this documentary does jazz a great service by bringing the music to a potentially wider audience. Ken Burns' "Jazz" has been and will be viewed by a larger public and in educational institutions for years to come, and will expose many to this music and its pioneers for the first time. This in and of itself is a fine achievement. The film's careful nurturing of the music used, and of the lives of masters like Bird, Duke, Pops, Sonny, Prez, Monk, Lady Day --- and so many others whose music overcame great social injustices and private demons --- was thrilling and went a long away in breaking down walls of ignorance. But "Jazz" has the serious problems of barely considering any jazz produced after the mid 60s as even relevant (except for he great Wynton Marsalis and his great sidemen), and the mystery of its almost complete snubbing of Latin music as an important jazz tributary. It will become in many minds a definitive document about the lives and times of jazz' greatest figures -- Bill Evans notwithstanding -- and thus with all its omissions, still remain a basically admirable work, but one that for history's sake, must be regarded as a significantly flawed document.

© Jan R. Stevens 2001

Jan Stevens is a professional pianist and teacher

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