Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ken Burns Jazz - A Retrospective Review - Part 2A

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

"My other feeling is that it seems to suggest that the heroes are all in the past and they all happen to be dead. It also seemed odd that, when there are musicians alive from the thirties and forties and fifties — and even beyond — who have stories to tell that they weren't [asked]. I mean, why are we listening to Wynton talking about things that happened before he was born? Why would they ask Wynton about Miles when Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter are still around?"
- Herbie Hancock

As we noted when the first series of criticisms [I use the term here to denote an analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work and not its negative connotation] about Ken Burns PBS TV series Jazz posted to the blog, 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 pianist Keith Jarrett who wrote a letter about the series that was published in the New York Times, New York Times Jazz columnist, Ben Ratliff, Terry Teachout, Jazz essayist and author Francis Davis, pianist Herbie Hancock, Los Angeles Times Jazz columnist Don Heckman and Ken Downey of the Seattle Weekly.

As I explained at the outset of this feature, the retrospective review of the Ken Burns PBS television series Jazz would run consecutively as Parts 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D. I have broken down each of the three Part 1 into multiple 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

Here is Part 2A which is drawn from Keith Jarrett’s letter and Ben Ratliff’s column, both of which appeared in the New York Times.

Keith Jarrett

“Regarding Ken Burns's (or was it Wynton Marsalis's?) Jazz, now that we've been put through the socioeconomic racist forensics of a jazz-illiterate historian and a self-imposed jazz expert prone to sophomoric generalizations and ultraconservative politically correct (for now) utterances, not to mention a terribly heavy-handed narration (where every detail takes on the importance of major revelation) and weepy-eyed nostalgic reveries, can we have some films about jazz by people who actually know and understand the music itself and are willing to deal comprehensively with the last forty years of this richest of American treasures?

Ben Ratliff

“It is a documentary with a grave tone that doesn't try to be comprehensive and fumbles in its treatment of the last forty years of the music ....

[Most] of its quirks are due to a small number of critics and musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch, Albeit Murray and Gary Giddins, who are used extensively as commentators in the film . . .

You would never know that jazz exists in other countries; over and over you hear that jazz is an American music through and through ....

Part of the problem here is the film's rigorous maintenance of the old saw that jazz is "democracy in action" — a facile way to understand a music that can also be perfectly autocratic ....

No matter how [Burns] tells the story, he valorizes the players. There's a particular tone to this. It is in the deep, mellifluous voice of Keith David, the film's narrator, making every action of a jazz musician richly portentous. (It's like God narrating a slide show.)

It is the out-of-control hyperbole that floods the entire film, both in [the] script and in the contributions of the talking-head experts. The great Art Tatum, for example, may call for a special set of adjectives, but the script gushes over, saying that "he had an ear for pitch so uncanny that he could tell the difference between a penny and a dime dropped on a table by the sound it made." Well, probably, so can you ....

[The] verbal cliches march onward; someone who has read the histories can almost anticipate what the script will say about Parker, Miles Davis, Paul Desmond and Thelonious Monk. The hyperbole of the narrative becomes surreal by Episode 8, when every new figure is garlanded with superlatives so fat and rich that they become meaningless ....

The film's heroes of the last forty years are Dexter Gordon — not so much for his influence as a musician as for his archetypal story of a jazzman gone abroad who returns home to find a new audience for jazz — and, of course, Wynton Marsalis ....
What will the film do for the sake of live jazz, other than Mr. Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra? Not much, besides suggesting that the last forty years has been uneventful. Sorry, kid ....

But the greatest service it could provide for the world would be to initiate other films about jazz that might be more educational about music, less isolationist and long-winded.

And, Lord, give me no more gumbo metaphors.

[This last refers to the opening segment, titled Gumbo because Marsalis oozes on about the music being a gumbo in its original mix. This prompted alto saxophonist Phil Woods to call it Mumbo Gumbo.]

To be continued ….

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