Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ken Burns Jazz - A Retrospective Review - Part 1B

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Here’s is the continuation of Part 1 of the JazzProfiles retrospective review of the Ken Burns PBS television series Jazz which will run consecutively as Parts 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D. I have broken down Part 1 into four segments to make it more manageable for me to develop into postings and to make it easier for the reader to absorb the writer’s arguments about the series.

There will also be a Part 2 and a Part 3 to Ken Burns Jazz - A Retrospective Review and these will also be divided into segments and run consecutively on the blog]

Two of the most interesting pieces about the Ken Burns series on Jazz were written for the Columbus Dispatch by S.R.B. Iyer, of whom you may never have never heard. Bala Iyer was born in Coimbatore, India. He studied economics in Delhi, moved to the U.S. in 1981 to work on a doctorate, and studied English literature at Purdue and Ohio State universities. He wrote two pieces about Jazz, the first an interview, the second a review.

In order to avoid confusion about who is being heard in this and in other pieces I will quote, I have placed in bold face and italics, the byline at both the beginning and the end of the commentary.

By S.R.B. Iyer

Ken Burns, the television documentarian, was asked recently to reflect on American indifference to the past.

He was in Walpole, New Hampshire.

"It comes," he said over the telephone, "from the relative youth of the country. I live here in a village, one of the oldest on this continent. And yet there were Indians here 225 years ago, killing off the first white people. So, you know, it's a very, very young country. The response to the Civil War (series) was flabbergasting, not just for me, but for the rest of the country, because we suddenly realized we had a past and wanted to have one ...."

His new documentary series, Jazz, is the final installment of his "trilogy on American life." Burns says he began his Civil War television series without any idea that he was embarking on such a long project. But the pattern of American history made his trilogy inevitable. The Civil War, he says, quoting Shelby Foote, "defined us." Baseball (his television series and the game) "helps us understand what we had become." Jazz (the music, and possibly his series as well) is "a very accurate witness of the twentieth century" and "suggests some sense of what we might become." This is because "the model of jazz is so democratic, is so without barriers, so utterly American."

Burns has been listening seriously to jazz for about six years. And in all his pronouncements on the subject, one hears the fervor of a recent convert. He acknowledges, when pressed, the irony that he has discovered jazz during what is widely agreed to be one of its most fallow periods. However, he feels that this is a superficial view.

"Jazz isn't as popular as it used to be, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a vital art form. Witness Citizen Kane, the greatest film of all time: a huge box-office disappointment when it first came out. Van Gogh was essentially a suicide. Today his paintings sell for more than anyone else's on earth."

Some Americans feel that jazz is old-fashioned, he says. Others think "it has an esoteric dimension." They think that to understand it, they "need advanced degrees." This "is an unfortunate consequence of a jazz community that is consistently fighting and bickering with itself." Burns has made Jazz to dispel all these misconceptions. He is confident "that after 25 years of experience, that the sorts of things that I have done have sort of hit the Zeitgeist of my country quite accurately at times."

He says that the good news about jazz has spread all over the world. Its appeal is universal. He visited the president at the White House not long ago. "We stayed up all night listening to jazz. He told me about meeting a saxophone player in Russia. The president is a huge jazz aficionado. He said that when this guy was on, "it was as good as anything I have heard."

One gets the sense that Burns is exasperated by "the jazz community" even as he is preparing to carry the gospel of jazz to millions of American television viewers. He complains that his documentary has already been criticized by members of this "contentious" tribe for omissions, misplaced emphases, etc.

When this subject is raised, he becomes declamatory, even ecstatic.

"My story," he says, "is much larger. I'm a very controlling and in-control film maker. Nobody is going to arrest my agenda. And my agenda is to tell a compelling national narrative to my countrymen, in the most compelling way I can, filled with the undertow of contradiction and irony that attends any manifestation in this universe and to eschew the kind of simplistic philosophical, dialectical, or political solutions that criticism often applies to things. I'd rather deal with a complex relationship to minstrelsy, a complex relationship to race in the early white practitioners of jazz, to drugs, to war and things like that. And I think the film has done it and done it magnificently."

Jazz also "parses the question of race in America." Burns says that "the greatest poetic justice that I have ever come across is the fact that the only art form Americans have created was born out of the community that has experienced a lack of freedom in a supposedly free land."

Asked how the series ends, Bums says, "We quite consciously turned the spigot of our narrative off about '75." He made this decision not out of fear — "I have been fearless about the other aspects in all the episodes" — but because he "is in the business of history" and prefers to "deal with the past."

He is happy to leave the present to "reviewers, critics, journalists."”


“To enjoy (this) documentary series, it is helpful, if not essential, to know as little as possible about jazz. If one knows very little — absolute ignorance is ideal — about the history of this country in the twentieth century, one might be Burns's perfect audience.

Burns's basic assumption is breath takingly simple-minded: jazz reflects, at every stage of its evolution, the social, cultural, and political circumstances of the period. It has been a running commentary on American life. We are told, for instance, that Louis Armstrong's monumental West End Blues, recorded in 1928, was "a reflection of the country in the moments before the Great Depression." How a piece of music does this is not made clear. One might wonder then whether Charlie Parker's Cool Blues is a vote for or against Keynesian economics.

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.

Structurally, Jazz is both repetitious and unimaginative. A musician, say Sidney Bechet, is introduced. His social-political-historical context is established with period photographs, documentary footage, and the testimony of experts and contemporaries. Sometimes the order is reversed. Wynton Marsalis then reassures us of this person's worthiness. The process isn't complete without this intrusion by Marsalis.

In Sidney Bechet's case, could we not have heard instead from the soprano saxophonist Bob Wilber? He knew Bechet; he was a student of Bechet's in the late '40s; he played with Bechet. He is alive; and he speaks English.

Burns seems to have learnt about jazz from Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, and Wynton Marsalis. The ideological tilt of the film is recognizably theirs. Those who follow jazz might wonder at the experts Burns has chosen. Fortunately Gary Giddins is among them. He is vivid, funny and memorable; and especially eloquent on Armstrong and Parker.

Gerald Early, who is heard from at great length, is at the other end on the spectrum of eloquence. Early is Burns's expert on race. His commitment to opaque generalization is total: "Jazz seemed so much to capture the absurdity of the modern world." "Jazz is a kind of lyricism about the great American promise and our inability to live up to it in some ways." Etc. He opines that Miles Davis "had decided he was going to be the ultimate Walt Whitman," but the description of Davis's Whitmanesque trumpet style is beyond him. "It was a kind of piercing sort of sound," he offers. "It was piercing and mellow at the same time."

The story of jazz, in Ken Burns's narrative, is essentially the story of four or five representative figures. Louis Armstrong -— the Shakespeare, Bach and Dante of American music (Gary Giddins) — is unknowable. Duke Ellington, "the greatest American composer," is presented as something of an exemplary figure. Charlie Parker is the jazz martyr, undone by drugs, drinks, and "inner demons." Benny Goodman, a lesser musician, is an expert popularizer, the white face of jazz. Miles Davis epitomizes black militancy.

In addition to these suns, a number of satellites arc considered in passing. They are chosen to illustrate some socio-cultural point.

The naive jazz lover, expecting to see his heroes celebrated, will get some nasty shocks. The treatment of Benny Carter, for instance. Carter was, with the exception of Johnny Hodges, the finest alto saxophonist before Charlie Parker and is, perhaps, the most versatile musician to grace jazz. Besides the alto saxophone, he has been recorded playing the clarinet, piano, trombone, the tenor and soprano saxophones, and he is a brilliant trumpeter. Carter was a fine bandleader and one of the most influential composers and arrangers in the history of jazz. Unfortunately, his importance is merely musical, and he is therefore not usable by Burns. He doesn't rate even a moment's consideration.

The parochialism of Jazz is another surprise. "Utterly American," a "uniquely American music." Jazz is undoubtedly all of that. But, almost from the beginning, it has had a passionate following outside the United States. The importance to jazz of the French writers Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay — as critics, record producers, magazine editors, and discographers — cannot be emphasized too strongly. There arc large jazz festivals every year in France, Wales, England, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, and other countries. The working American jazz musician understands the importance of all this, even if Burns and Co. don't.

When Louis Armstrong died, in 1971, Philip Larkin wrote that he had been "something inexhaustible and unchanging like the sun," that he was "an artist of world stature, an American Negro slum child who spoke to the heart of Greenlander and Japanese alike." The universality of jazz is a miraculous achievement. It should be one of the themes of a documentary like Burns's. It isn't. And perhaps, understandably. For it would have meant examining those qualities of jazz — musical and emotional — that resist simple sociological interpretation.

Philip Larkin wrote in his poem For Sidney Bechet: "On me your voice falls as they say love should / Like an enormous yes."

While suffering through the epic dreariness of Ken Burns's story, I found myself, all too often, entertaining feelings of an altogether different sort.”

— S.R.B. Iyer

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