Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ken Burns Jazz - A Retrospective Review - Part 3

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

“Among the many important subjects Ken Burns’ Jazz does not explore is this:If jazz bespeaks the black experience, and only blacks can play it, why does it have, and has had since its beginning, such appeal to people of all races and nationalities? What is there in this music that would electrify a white boy in Canada, namely me? I cannot count how many letters I receive in which the writer says something to the effect,  "The first time I heard jazz I was . . . ."

That first exposure usually lingers vividly in memory. Why were six or seven thousand white people in an arena with me when I first saw Ellington? They weren't responding to this music because they were full of rage or regret over slavery and at last had found a voice to express these emotions. Jazz became a world music, and quite quickly. I am friends with two French writers who specialize in jazz, Paul Benkimoun and Alain Gerber. Paul in fact is a physician who is the medical correspondent for Le Monde. Each of them, particularly Alain, has written me letters explaining the passion he had for jazz from the moment of first exposure.

Musicians from behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain will often tell how they were instantly enthralled by the Voice of America jazz broadcasts of the late Willis Conover — someone else, incidentally, who isn't even mentioned in the series, though he did more than any man in the music's history to spread it around the world, and he — and this music — did more to bring down the Iron Curtain than all the politicians and generals and armies put together.

Why has a similar experience of instantly musical love not occurred in people suddenly exposed to Indian ragas, Japanese koto music, or Chinese opera, which remains as opaque to Westerners as the Chinese language itself? What is there in Chinese opera that we just don't get — and in jazz that we do? What gave it this enormous and often instantaneous appeal? This is an awesome question. It isn't even addressed in Jazz, much less answered..

Jazz, in the end, gives me what it gave Jon Faddis: the blues of sadness — sadness for a lost opportunity. This series could have been: the finest instructional and introductory tool the music has ever known, something I could recommend to anyone. It is appallingly distorted, driven by the payback agenda of Murray, Crouch, and Marsalis.”
  • Gene Lees, Jazz author, critic and publisher

As we noted when the first and second 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 on 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 assertion read the following correspondence by Dick Sudhalter that was addressed to Gene Lees at the Jazzletter. May 2001

By way of background, trumpeter Richard M. Sudhalter had two careers, one as a musician, the other as a journalist. He co-author a biography of Bix Beiderbecke with Philip Evans and the author of Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz 1915-1945. The latter book documents the contributions of white musicians to jazz. He wrote this rejoinder especially for publication in the Jazzletter.

By Richard M. Sudhalter

“While watching one of the early episodes of the Ken Burns Jazz series, I was surprised to find myself thinking not about Louis Armstrong or any other musician present or past, but about Leni Riefenstahl. No, she insisted in talking about Triumph of the Will and Olympische Spiele, her films weren't Nazi agitprop. They were above politics, beyond ideology; done solely in the interest of Kunst, high art.

It was disingenuous balderdash back in Third Reich days, and balderdash it remains today. Similarly, Mr. Burns keeps telling us he's set out to tell the story of jazz as the great American experience; what he's done instead, I fear, is loose a vast political tract, a multimillion-dollar example of special pleading race for a theory of the centrality of race in twentieth century American culture — all in the guise of a series putatively about music.

That saddens me: not so much that he and his collaborators have created this artifact as the prospect of viewers sitting through it without a thought about the audacious, even insulting, deception that's been worked on them.

Jon Faddis got it right in decrying presentation of a body of disputable opinion as fact. To be sure, Albert Murray's theories about the role of the black experience have a certain strength and inner logic, and are worth discussion; but they are far from revealed truth. Other interpretations, no less responsible, will contest and contradict his at every turn.

Viewers of Jazz aren't permitted to hear those interpretations. Burns, and with him Murray, Marsalis, Crouch, Early, and the stunningly underqualified Margo Jefferson, are relentless in peddling their unidimensional cultural view. It's a view that activates, nurtures, and plays on the racial guilt still endemic in large numbers of white Americans. Hardly a moment goes by when some reminder of the past isn't replayed and reiterated on the screen and in the voice-overs, as if making certain no viewer tunes out or is allowed to forget.

With a boyish candor meant to be disarming, Burns has told interviewers that he regards the history of jazz as a metaphor for the story of America's civil rights. It's a clever gambit: no one of good heart and social conscience will dare publicly challenge him, for fear of being branded a racial atavism. It seems to me that Burns has it exactly backwards: rather than mirror the turbulent struggle of black Americans in a predominantly white society, jazz came about, came of age and flourished, in spite of it. The music, in other words, established its own democracy, an extraordinary freemasonry thriving in the face of society's worst depredations. It guaranteed a warm welcome and instant understanding for everyone, regardless of who he was, if he could play. [Emphasis mine].

Even the phrase "our language," title of one of the episodes, sends a message that is at best ambiguous, at worst exclusionist. Does the "our" identify something solely, defensively black? Or does it refer to something understood and embraced by all who were "inside" regardless of race? I'd like to think it was the latter but fear it is the former.

Gradually, carefully, the series compounds and reinforces its message. Having sat through the entire nineteen hours, a neophyte viewer can be forgiven for thinking the entire century of jazz yielded little more than a handful of titanic figures — "geniuses," in the script's inflated language — who excelled against a field of mediocrities, pretenders, and brigands, most of them white. It's also worth noting that each time a white musician receives any credit, it is as a dropout (Beiderbecke), a popularizer (Goodman), or amanuensis to a black creator (Gil Evans to Miles). That a substantial number of white musicians also qualify as genuine innovators and trailblazers (Norvo, Teagarden, Lang, Gifford, for starters) remains unspoken and, ultimately, inadmissible. We're watching a masterful exercise in synecdoche, peddling the part as the whole.

A small personal digression here. Ken Burns interviewed me for some ninety minutes, mostly about Bix, but also about the white New York-based jazzmen of the late 1920s. With care and, I hoped, clarity, I explained how Beiderbecke brought into jazz a new emotional complexity, a layering hitherto absent from the majestic operatic conceptions of Bechet and Armstrong. Where their utterances proceeded along a vaulting emotional arc, his looked inward, using restraint and even indirection in something of the European manner, freely mixing what might otherwise have been considered mutually contradictory elements. The white New Yorkers, I went on to say, were the universally acknowledged modernists of their time, experimenting imaginatively with form, harmony, and melodic organization.

These were innovations of far-reaching import, facilitating myriad developments now accepted as integral to jazz. Above all, they fostered new awareness in other musicians, just as Louis had done with the idea of swing. Jazz before Bix lacked a certain kind of emotional texture; jazz after him was seldom without it. Nor was that all, I said: free use of substitutions, construction of melodies based on chordal extensions, use of shifting tonal centers, experimentation with forms breaking the tyranny of two, four, and eight-bar patterns — all these traced their origins to a readily identifiable circle of early New York-based musicians who happen to have been white.

Obviously, such views comported ill with the overall "message" of Jazz. Therefore all that survived of our ninety -minute conversation was a pair of supremely innocuous sound bites. Instead, we were treated to Margo Jefferson blithely taking the cheapest of all shots at "Paul White-MAN" and expressing the truly lunatic notion that Bix (who by 1930 was distancing himself from the cornet and hot jazz in general in a quest for broader musical horizons) would somehow have been a more fully realized musician if he'd worked in black bands.

I mention this only to illustrate the degree of manipulation and outright distortion that has allowed Burns and his advisers to put across their socio-political message. In a distant sense it echoes the drumfire of social-justice propaganda that informed (or blemished, depending on how it's read) so much of the earliest critical writing about jazz; back in those prewar days the social-justice propaganda of the New Masses regularly trumped any merely musical consideration. It's all there, self-evident, in the writings of Fred Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith, and any number of others, including the hallowed John Hammond.

It's been heartening, at least momentarily, to read Internet parodies of the Burns series, and easy to sympathize with protests at the cavalier neglect of jazz developments since the 1960s. I'll happily add my favorites to the roll-call of key musicians scanted and slighted, in particular the cadre of often extraordinary players who surrounded Eddie Condon. To a man, they've been swept from the picture, like Stalinist-era apparatchiks airbrushed out of a Politburo portrait into un-personhood after falling from party favor.

And, too, what of the songs, the great standards that provided the raw materials for dozens of nonpareil flights of jazz fancy? We hear Louis playing Stardust on the soundtrack, for example, but never the name of Hoagy Carmichael. Are we really to understand that Billie Holiday's chief claim to immortality resides in the blatantly political Strange Fruit! Albert Murray's pet conflation notwithstanding, it wasn't all the blues: whether emanating from the Brill Building or from the Broadway stage, the pop songs were essential and indispensable. They're hardly acknowledged.
I can't help wondering what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, men of dignity and no little humility, would have made of so many distortions and fatuous sanctifications made in their names.

I'd like to think that increasing numbers of jazzfolk, players and chroniclers alike, are aware of, and exercised over, the mischief that's been worked here. I'd like to bury the Panglossian notion that all the media hype and saturation publicity will somehow have a beneficial trickle-down effect on those of us who have spent our lives trying to prise a living out of playing jazz. But I know better: the listening and recreational habits of the public aren't about to change. However momentarily consoling to think of an Armstrong or Ellington CD sharing shelf space with Madonna and Metallica in some twenty-something's luxury Manhattan duplex, it's ultimately cold comfort.

It's been a long uphill struggle bringing the rich and varied traditions, and the joys, of a century of hot music to the attention of a generally unheeding public. I regret that the wildly disproportionate success of Burns's Jazz is only going to make the grade that much steeper. Leni Riefenstahl has lived long enough to witness her own disgrace; I doubt we have world enough and time to wait for Burns and his accomplices to suffer a comparable, richly deserved, fate.”

— Richard M. Sudhalter

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