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"Ken Burns's Jazz isn't jazz; it's politics and ideology — at times one is tempted to say racism — masquerading as history and sociology."
- Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“Three elements in Jazz compete for the viewer's attention: the script, the music, and the pictures on the screen. The pictures — still photographs, documentary footage, clips of musicians — are superb. The music, some curious choices notwithstanding, is often as good. But both pictures and music are overwhelmed by the sheer badness of the script.
The script is everything good jazz isn't: sentimental, solemn, melodramatic, and deficient in both humor and subtlety. It is oppressively defensive. It is sanctimonious and self-important. Crammed with superlatives, it often seems less history than advertisement.”
- S.R.B Iyer, The Columbus Dispatch
“... [Jazz] depended almost entirely on the vision of jazz shared by the Holy Trinity - Wynton Marsalis and his mentors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray.”
- Whitney Balliett, The New Yorker
“... [Ken Burns’ Jazz] … is a vigorous exercise in political correctness, a distortion of cultural history that only deepens racial division while ill-serving the music it sets out to celebrate. Even more dispiriting is the fact that Ken Burns passed up a genuine opportunity to showcase one of the only organically and expansively multi-cultural movements in American history — the evolution of jazz.”
- Diana West, The Washington Times
If you want to stir up a controversy among Jazz fans, do a retrospective about the music and you will be certain to hear from someone about who and what you left out of it.
On the other hand, the tendentious, prepossessed and misrepresented supposed documentary on the subject of Jazz produced by Ken Burns deserves to be skewered for both what is was and what it wasn’t.
If you doubt the “wisdom” in this statement read the following essays and correspondence by Gene Lees, S.R.B Dyer, Diana West and Robert Parker, all of which will appear in a four-part consecutive posting on JazzProfiles.
Here is Part 1A.
Ken Burns Jazz — to the Ground
March 2001 edition of the Jazzletter
“Any way you look at it, the Ken Burns PBS series titled Jazz is, if not the biggest thing ever to happen to this music, one of the biggest. It was widely publicized and ubiquitously advertised with funds from General Motors, occasionally received tepid praise, usually in the conventional jazz magazines — extensive beneficiaries of its ad budget — and was everywhere excoriated by critics and musicians alike. It depended almost entirely on the vision of jazz shared by Wynton Marsalis and his mentors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray. These three — the Holy Trinity, as James T. Maher and Whitney Balliett have called them — were among the series' main talking heads, endlessly drilling one singular vision of ethnic exclusion. But whatever one thought of the series, it was big, in physical size (ten broadcasts totaling nineteen hours), in the scope of the publicity expended on it, size of its budget (publicly said to be five million dollars but according to some reports the real figure was twenty million), and range of its impact. In a pre-broadcast story published in its Arts and Leisure section on Sunday, January 7, the New York Times expended four full pages on the subject. More on that later. Two days earlier, on January 5, the Christian Science Monitor, which has far less space to play with, gave it almost two full pages.
The January 31 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that on the average, 10.3 million Americans per night watched its episodes. How many saw the full nineteen hours of it was not stated, but the paper did report that the series averaged a 3.6 national rating.
"The series also is having a dramatic impact at record stores and online outlets, where sales of CDs with the Burns imprint are soaring," the Chronicle reported. A group of CDs produced in a cooperative arrangement between Sony and Verve bore a broad yellow banner on the cover saying Ken Burns Jazz. "Three of them," the paper continued, "are on Billboard's top 200 albums chart — it's unprecedented for that many jazz discs to hit the paper's charts — including the 5-CD box Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music."
But how accurate are the polls? Christopher Kitchens of Vanity Fair is ardently skeptical of political polls. During his lectures, sometimes to as many as three thousand persons, he asks that whoever has been polled hold up a hand. No one, he says, ever does. Then he asks if anybody knows anyone who has been polled. No one ever does. And I don't know anyone (do you?) who has ever been polled about television, including whether he or she watched Jazz. .
On February 5, Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post:
"The tempest stirred by Jazz, the ten-part series that finally (mercifully) ground to its conclusion last week, may be boiling in a teapot. As one of my occasional correspondents wrote, 'No one I work with watched it. No one in my family watched it.' It was pretty much the same here, too: Only a handful of my fellow workers seem to have paid much attention to it, and even the person in my family who is most passionate about music caught only glimpses of it.
"So the avalanche of e-mail that has tumbled into my inbox since I wrote about the PBS series three weeks ago may be misleading. The only people who really care about Jazz may be die-hard aficionados — whose numbers, as is well known, are lamentably small — and others keenly attuned to the subtlest nuances of race relations in the United States. The rest of the country — I'd guess something on the order of 275 million souls — seems to have been blissfully unaware of the series; given the distortions, omissions, and fabrications with which it was riddled, doubtless that is for the best."
Yardley's review appeared in the Post January 15. He said of the earlier Burns epic, The Civil War, that "it is undeniably powerful, if overlong and emotionally manipulative. For this work he has been praised, and he seems to have come to believe his own press clippings. Not merely is he content to recycle all the formulas that were once fresh but are now exhausted, he has assumed a self-aggrandizing near-messianic pose. Thus we have various films (about Congress, the Statue of Liberty and so forth) presented as aspects of "Ken Burns's America," and now we have Ken Burns's Jazz.
"Well it isn't Ken Burns's America and it certainly isn't Ken Burns's jazz."
Yardley, in common with many other writers, notes that Burns focuses almost entirely on a few dead giants, while ignoring many major later figures. This, he says, "may be good news for record companies that can repackage their backlists at minimal expense" but "it so obsessively places race at the center of the tale that it manages to politicize jazz in ways that would have deeply offended, say, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and that surely will offend many potential converts, whatever their own race may be.
"Ken Burns's Jazz isn't jazz; it's politics and ideology — at times one is tempted to say racism — masquerading as history and sociology."
This, he noted in the piece that followed three weeks later, "sat well with some readers (mostly white) who were angered by the gratuitous slights inflicted by Ken Burns et al on even the finest white jazz musicians, but poorly with others (mostly black), who argued that, as one reader put it, 'jazz may be color-blind but the musicians and society in which they live and play definitely [are] not.'"
Yardley notes that the series, while never claiming that black musicians had "natural rhythm," nonetheless came close to the Noble Savage idea of the past: "Marsalis wouldn't say that blacks musicians are 'savage' — quite to the contrary — but that their blackness affords them, ex post facto, a 'nobility' that white musicians cannot hope to attain. This was a leitmotif in Jazz from beginning to end. Indeed the series ended with a shameless glorification of Marsalis himself as savior of jazz — and it did far more to widen the racial divisions among jazz musicians than to narrow them."
A number of writers observed that Burns acted and spoke, in interviews, as if he had personally invented the art. Jelly Roll Morton also claimed to have invented it. Comment on this extended, confused, and ponderous television series has been flowing to me in a stream, or perhaps I should say scream. And although I had vowed never to say another word about Marsalis, who once was a very good trumpet player and lost it, such is the uproar (I have never seen anything like it) that I have no choice but to organize an extended survey of reaction.
The critics were universally dismissive — all those I read, in any case — and musicians were frequently furious. Some of the best writing, as so often is the case, was that in the New Yorker by Whitney Balliett, who said that some of the interviews are invaluable, but noted:
“Many first-rate musicians are tapped only in passing or are ignored altogether. Those who are mentioned briefly, then left on the cutting-room floor, include Charles Mingus, a great bassist and a wildly original composer and bandleader; the Modern Jazz Quartet, for forty years the most lyrical and swinging of jazz chamber groups; and the seminal pianists Earl Hines, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans, who, taken together, invented modern jazz piano.
There are more: Pee Wee Russell, an endlessly original and lyrical clarinetist; the trombonists Vic Dickenson and Jimmy Knepper, utterly different but both inimitable and ceaselessly inventive; Jim Hall, Charlie Christian's successor; and the cornetist Bobby Hackett, whose solo on Glenn Miller's A String of Pearls belongs with Armstrong's baroque edifice on West End Blues.”
I thought the Civil War series Burns did was good, though lugubrious and not up to the level of the wanton ecstatic praise it received. For one thing the use of music in that series should have alerted me to Burns' insensitivity to this art, a country-fiddle dirge endlessly repeated and played, as it turns out, by Matt Glaser, of whom more later on. But it was time someone did a protracted documentary on jazz, and, when someone on Burns' staff contacted me, I agreed to an interview. I gave the Burns people a day of my time, including two or three hours on camera.
Ah, and then I made a fatal error: I told the young woman conducting the interview that if they wanted to have a good series, they should not allow Wynton Marsalis too much say in it. With cool dishonesty, she neglected to tell me he was "senior artistic adviser" on the project, and had been from the beginning. Indeed, he suggested the project to Ken Burns. Had I been told this in advance, I would never have assented to the interview, and had I been so advised after the interview, I would never have signed the release form. It was inevitable that I would end up on the cutting room floor.
All you see of me in the series is a brief segment in which I seem to trash Cecil Taylor. I say that he had a perfect right to do whatever he wants musically and I (meaning anybody) had a perfect right to listen to something else. The fact is that I have a lot of respect for Cecil Taylor, and I mentioned him in a larger context of the dilemma facing all music at the end of the twentieth century, the restrictions of tonal music and the theme and variations form and the loss of audience for those who break out of them. But Wynton Marsalis doesn't like Cecil Taylor, and he doesn't like me, either. "That Gene Lees," he told Chip Deffaa, "he's pathetic." And so, he and Burns apparently thought, they could kill two birds with one comment, and thus he used me as a weapon to hurt Cecil Taylor. If anybody reading this knows Cecil Taylor, please convey this to him.
Far more significant than my excision was the omission of Benny Carter. I remember telling the young woman that the one man she must interview was Benny Carter, for he is the only still-active jazz musician whose career was coeval with that of Louis Armstrong: Armstrong was bom in 1901, Carter in 1907. More to the point, Benny Carter is one of the massively significant jazz musicians. Phil Woods (who also isn't in the series) asserted,"My inspirations were Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, and Charlie Parker — in that order."
Carter is seen briefly in a background shot, and there is no serious treatment of him as the major artist he is. I believe he is mentioned twice, the second time only in a list of bandleaders who broke up their groups at the end of 1946. I called him to ask, "Did they interview you?"
"Yes. I guess they didn't like what I said."
John Clayton, the bassist, composer, arranger, and bandleader had a similar experience. In an interview with Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times, he expressed the hope that the series will accomplished something positive, but said he was dismayed at Carter's almost total absence from the history
"I was outraged by that," Jon said. "When I asked Benny why he hadn't been interviewed for the show, he said, 'I was.' And when I asked him why material from this interview wasn't included, he said, 'I guess they didn't like what I said.'"
The question is: What did they ask? Knowing Benny as well as I do, I doubt that we will ever know.
Bassist John Heard was equally incensed at the exclusion of Nat Cole. Cole was beyond question one of the most influential pianists in jazz history. Horace Silver has attested to his influence on his own work. So have Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, and if you want to extend out from these three to all those they in turn influenced, the length of the man's shadow is astounding, not to mention his own superb, haunting playing. But Cole is not mentioned at all.
Marsalis, who is ubiquitous in the series, sometimes illustrates a point by playing his trumpet. He can, it is said, like Clark Terry and the late Harry Carney, do the trick of rotary breathing, which permits one to inhale through the nose while maintaining pressure in the embouchure with the air in the mouth and thus sustaining the melodic line without a break. Marsalis seems to have gone further: he has mastered the trick of rotary speech: making the same points over and over in long, tortured, tautological and often nonsensical maunderings delivered into your face with a rebarbative condescension, his expression fixed in a perpetual slight snigger, his head shaking in almost orgasmic tremors of self-love. Had Burns simply cut some of the Marsalis redundancies, he might have had time for a few kind words about, well, Big Sid Catlett for one. Marsalis's defenders often say that he is good at teaching children. Teaching them what? His own blinkered view of jazz history? Or his mangled grammar? He referred to someone as "de most wisest sage."
Is that as opposed to the de most stupidest sage? How is it that his brother Branford (far the better musician) doesn't talk that way?
To be continued in Part 1B.