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“Ken Burns Jazz has an unwholesome preoccupation with heroin addiction. One odious sequence shows a young man sticking a needle into his arm. An elder musician said, "It makes us look like a bunch of drunks and dopers." It shows nothing of the gracious (and sometimes wealthy) lives lived by Benny Carter, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry, and many more, nor does it show the remarkably long list of addicts who, like Mulligan, kicked the habit. In this it is deeply, grimly, morbidly misleading.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author, essayist and publisher
“Wynton Marsalis shares Burns's long-standing propensity for overstatement in the service of high ideals. Burns lets Marsalis and others get away with so much in Jazz — presenting the character and motivations of long-dead musicians, for example, without distinguishing between legend and actual memory — that his methods as a documentarian are open to question, along with his credentials as a social historian.”
- Francis Davis, Jazz author, critic, essayist
We continued our retrospective review of Ken Burns PBS television series on the subject of Jazz with the following pieces by Terry Teachout, Jazz author, critic and former bassist, Francis Davis, a Jazz author who frequently writes for The Atlantic Monthly magazine, Don Heckman the Jazz columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Ken Downey with The Seattle Weekly.
“By his own admission, Ken Burns knew little about jazz when he undertook to tell its long, complicated story. Hence it should come as no surprise that Jazz has little of interest to say about the music with which it is nominally concerned. I find it revealing that Mr. Burns rarely allows any piece of music to play more than a few seconds, uninterrupted by the distracting chatter of a talking head (usually Wynton Marsalis).
Instead, he gives us hour upon hour of garrulous anecdotage and gaseous generalizations, many of the latter seemingly intended to suggest that jazz was less a musical phenomenon than a sociological one.
"Jazz" says Mr. Burns, "necessarily becomes a story about race relations and prejudice, about minstrelsy and Jim Crow, lynching and civil rights." That may be what Jazz is but it's not what jazz was. Of course you cannot properly tell the story of jazz without closely examining its cultural context, but to treat the aesthetic achievements of geniuses like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as mere opportunities for historical point-making is to distort them beyond recognition. Jazz is neither a war nor a sport — it is an art form, one significant enough to be chronicled in its own right and on its own terms, something that Jazz scarcely even attempts to do.”
After remarking that he found the series “enjoyable television,” Davis went on to make these observations about Ken Burns Jazz:
A few seconds into the first episode the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis — a senior creative consultant on the series who is onscreen so much that he might as well have been given star billing — informs us that "jazz music objectifies America" and gives us "a painless way of understanding ourselves." His declaration is followed by a montage of the music's major figures over which the actor Keith David, reading copy supplied by Geoffrey C. Ward (who also co-wrote the scripts for Burns's two previous series) is an "improvisational act, making itself up as it goes along, just like the country that gave it birth." The lecture continues throughout the series, delivered by Marsalis and others. Close to the end, Marsalis restates the theme with a little extra spin, as he might with a melody to conclude a performance with his band. Jazz "gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself," he says, talking in the way that presidential candidates are prone to do — as if believing that democracy is a form of existentialism.
Marsalis shares Burns's long-standing propensity for overstatement in the service of high ideals. Burns lets Marsalis and others get away with so much in Jazz — presenting the character and motivations of long-dead musicians, for example, without distinguishing between legend and actual memory — that his methods as a documentarian are open to question, along with his credentials as a social historian.
After some preliminary flag-waving, Burns's new series begins with the hoariest of creation myths: that New Orleans was the single birthplace of jazz, something I doubt anyone besides Burns and his New Orleans-born senior creative adviser believes. It's one with the latest in resurrection myths that Marsalis's arrival on the scene in 1980 saved jazz from death at the hands of self-indulgent avant-gardists and purveyors of jazz-rock fusion (we're even shown snapshots of the baby Wynton)....
Burns has admitted to knowing nothing about jazz going into this project, and he seems to have learned most of what he now knows about the subject from Marsalis. With Crouch and Murray on the board of advisers and serving as commentators, what we're getting is the party line ....
Bill Evans was the most influential pianist of the last forty years, but all we learn about him is that he once played with Miles Davis and was white. You'd think he was significant only as an example of the black trumpeter's enlightened employment policy .. .
Burns is big on sociological context, so the music unfolds against a backdrop of speakeasies and bread lines, dance crazes and world wars, lynchings and civil rights marches. The series certainly looks good, and it sounds good, too, if you ignore Keith David's overenunciated delivery (he sounds like he was bitten by the same bug that got Maya Angelou) and the melodramatic readings by a host of other actors ....
As annoying as Marsalis can be, though, he takes a back seat to the preening Matt Glaser, a violinist who performed on the sound tracks of The Civil War and Baseball who turns up every so often to share an insight on, say, Armstrong's relationship with the space-time continuum. Glaser sounds like one of those guys you overhear trying to impress their dates in jazz clubs, only it's us he's trying to score with ....
The larger problems with the series stems from the dubious habits Burns has picked up since The Civil War. For every person we hear speaking from experience, another comes along to tell us things he couldn't possibly know. Talking with certainty about events in the lives of Armstrong and Ellington, Marsalis might as well be a televangelist chatting confidentially about Jesus. Of the semi-mythical early-twentieth century New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, Marsalis says his "innovation was one of personality, so instead of playing all his fast stuff, he would bring you the sound of Buddy Bolden." How could he know? No recording of Bolden survives, and he is said to have played in public for the last time in 1907. [Emphasis mine] As Marsalis speaks, we hear a trumpeter on the soundtrack playing a rollicking blues, with no indication that it's a recent performance by Marsalis. Most viewers will probably assume it's Bolden, and will surely accept what Marsalis says about him.
As in Baseball, Burns shows tendencies toward cockeyed legend, cut-rate sociology, and amateur psychoanalysis.”
[Don Heckman, in the Los Angeles Times, noted how little attention was given to jazz on the West Coast. He wrote:]
"From the early appearances by Jelly Roll Morton in the twenties, through the glory days of Central Avenue, into the cool sounds of West Coast jazz in the fifties, through the edgy sixties and into the diverse blends of funk, blues, avant-garde and revisited mainstream ... Southern California has been a primal, if underappreciated, producer of world-class jazz."
Heckman quotes John Clayton: "And it fails to acknowledge the special relationships — as co-workers and friends — that have historically existed between most jazz musicians, black and white, in Los Angeles."
“... the way Burns & Co. cram the last forty years of the music's hundred-year history into the last tenth of the series' running time, and the way Marsalis and his cronies dominate much of that, is as comic as it is arrogant."
[If the series raised jazz record sales through the ceiling, he says], that "is good news for the media conglomerates who hold the copyrights on past masterpieces. Most have shut down their jazz divisions; why spend money recording the living when you can do so nicely fattening on the dead?"
[Downey wasn't even enthralled by it as movie-making. He wrote:]
“As one who can claim not to have missed one second of [its] 1,067 minutes ... I am here to tell you that Jazz is one hundred percent twenty-four karat Burnsiana, in every respect a meticulous stylistic copy of his earlier PBS blockbusters, The Civil War and Baseball.
And that's exactly what's wrong with it. Never have subject matter and style been so ill-matched in a non-fiction film: Imagine Roger and Me's Michael Moore documenting daily life in a nunnery — that far off key. Jazz, the music, is exuberant, anarchic, mercurial; Jazz the film is solemn, plodding, relentless. ...
Even in The Civil War, Burns' unremitting solemnity and death-march pacing troubled some viewers (well me, anyway) but at least the approach suited the seriousness of the subject. Apparently due to the enormous commercial appeal and critical success of that film, Burns has approached every subject since in the same spirit and with the same set of technical tools until both have hardened into invariable formula. Once again we have the slow pans across grainy historic photos intercut with interpretive color by contemporary experts, both bathed in the reverential musings of an omniscient narrator .. . and evocative, ever-changing background noise.”
To be continued….