Saturday, January 2, 2016

Ken Burns Jazz - A Retrospective Review - Part 1D

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

The following posting is Part 1D 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 divided 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. Parts 2 and 3 will follow shortly.

Many critics who took exception to the Murray-Marsalis-Crouch ideological approach to the subject matter had praise for the film at a technical level. Not so Robert Parker, the brilliant Australian jazz scholar and recording engineer who a few years ago did the remarkable restorations of 1920s jazz in quite convincing stereo, issued on CDs by the BBC. Parker, who now lives in England, wrote me:

“A friend has sent me the first three episodes of the Ken Burns PBS Jazz series. I was horrified.

The picture quality is excellent. Little care, however, was taken with much of the early silent film material, which was not slowed down to correct viewing speed — easy to accomplish in these days of vari-speed tape replay, and de rigeur for all UK historical productions. The resulting pixilation of the action is an insult to the era depicted.

The sound quality of the historic jazz recordings is, frankly, appalling. On a budget reported to be $5 million there is no excuse for this. There are now around a dozen sound engineers, several working in the USA, who could have produced superb reproductions from this source material.

But even worse — where was the jazz? Buried behind endless, turgid voice-over and talking head interviews, that's where. And all too often, not even the right jazz. Burns must rate early jazz so lowly, or understand it so poorly, that it took him until near the end of episode three to let us hear any of these master-works under discussion in full — West End Blues.

All well and good, perhaps, if what we were hearing from the pundits was a deathless revelation of the heart and soul of jazz. What we got was reasonably factually correct, true, but laced with so much needless hype and turgid political correctness and so endlessly repetitive as to become, ultimately, just plain boring. I mean, how long does it take to say "jazz is an amalgam of European and African culture, is largely improvised, comes straight from the heart and soul and is a great force in the world for racial social justice and general enjoyment and life enhancement"? Four hours?

If only Burns had musical as well as social perception he might have realized that the heart and soul of jazz is the music. West End Blues said more in three minutes than all the talking heads laid out in line from New Orleans to Chicago to New York and back. And if you don't understand it, from just hearing it, all that explanation will make not a whit of difference to your ability to feel the emotion being transmitted from Armstrong's amazing brain to your own poor instrument.

My friend's fourteen-year-old watched the first ten minutes or so of episode one and then left the room. Later, asked why, he replied, "No music."”

Inevitably, whenever there is a travesty — and the Burns ecries is nothing less — laughter eases the pain.

Claudio Slon is an outstanding Brazilian (although he was born in Argentina) percussionist, who was with Sergio Mendes for several years. This went zipping along the e-mail circuit:

Announcing Claudio Slon's PBS 12 Part Series "Samba"

Part 1: Creation of Samba by White East African tribes.
Part 2: Arrival of tribes in Brazil.
Part 3: Commercialization of music by Portuguese sailors.
Part 4: Milton Nascimento and social unrest.
Part 5. Accidental discovery of Bossa Nova by Stan Getz.
Part 6: Wynton Marsalis on Louis Armstrong's influence
in Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave.
Part 7: Louis Armstrong.
Part 8: Luis Bonfa and racial tensions.
Part 9: Louis Armstrong.
Part 10: Louis Armstrong, Barbra Streisand, and Dindi.
Part 11: Louis Armstrong.
Part 12: (last ten minutes, if enough time left) Heitor
Villa-Lobos, Guerra Peixe, Pixinguinha, Tom Jobim, Edu
Lobo, Chico Buarque, Dorival Caymmi, Noel Rosa,
Milton Nascimento, Marcos Valle, and a special tribute
to  Louis  Armstrong,  Stanley  Crouch,  and  Wynton
Marsalis by Sergio Mendes and Brazil '01.

To Be Continued...

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