Ken Burns’s Jazz

Everyone who cares about jazz is jealous of Ken Burns. Where does this guy who admits to owning only three jazz records get off making the definitive TV record of the art?! Millions of people who are not jazz fans are going to remember Burns’s history as the truth.

During the run of the series the jazz news groups and chat rooms were full of invective. The game was to list all the great artists he ignored, and to argue about the relative weights of the people he included. “It took him nine out of ten episodes to get to 1962?! What about the last 40 years!”

The real upsetment for jazz folk is that the art has now been codified. And publicized. One of the exhilarating aspects of being a jazz buff has been the privacy of this knowledge. For fifty years jazz has been cool, strange, outré, underground— molto hip: the ultimate badge of the outsider.

Now it’s just more fodder for the Burns TV machine to grind into middlebrow edutainment. Now everybody knows about Billie and Prez, Satchmo and Duke, ’Trane and Monk. Expect the Gap to come out with a line of “Bird Lives” t-shirts before summer. You can understand why veteran jazz fans are troubled: so much of the pleasure of jazz knowledge was its exclusivity. Burns’s series has destroyed that intimate relationship.

There’s a parallel with film study. In the sixties, film buffs who knew about Hawks and Hitchcock, Welles and Ford, reveled in their exclusive knowledge. It took ten years, but by 1980, everybody knew what a jump cut was, everybody had a list of his or her favorite tracking shots. Film knowledge was no longer esoteric.

Like film studies, jazz studies have been institutionalized in the academy over the last twenty years. The difference is that jazz has never had a public face until Burns and Marsalis. Unlike movies, jazz is no longer a popular art form. Jazz has had no Siskel & Ebert.

So now everybody knows the savory secrets of the art. Will it make a difference? Certainly not. American popular music has been moribund since that day more than 30 years ago when Don McLean told us “the music died.” I don’t know why this is true. I don’t know when, if ever, it will recover. Make no mistake: jazz is alive. The generation of the nineties and the oughts is inventive and engaging, with a breathtaking degree of musicianship. But whether it’s a matter of a lack of taste, or the power of pop marketing machines, jazz has less and less influence on popular music. It remains a niche market, vying with classical for an elite audience.


Enough background. Let’s look at the film itself.

Burns uses the same simple structure he developed for The Civil War: lots of stills, central interviews with experts, and aural quotes of historical documents. If it weren’t for the music, and the occasional absorbing interview, you’d fall asleep—just as you did with The Civil War.

This is minimalist documentary technique: a limited number of talking heads, many stills, and a few clips swaddled in a persistent narration. And while it apparently has proven lucrative, it leaves you longing for what might have been. It’s a technique out of the 1930s—The March of Time: telling rather than showing. After a few hours of portentous historical pronouncements you begin to crave the freshness of the Direct Cinema and cinéma vérité movements of the sixties.

It’s almost as if Burns is afraid to let the music speak for itself. Or maybe, as an admitted jazz agnostic, he doesn’t trust it to communicate. With a larger budget, or more time, he might have been able to uncover more historical footage. (Actually, come to think of it, much of that footage has been archived and codified in the last thirty years—it shouldn’t have taken much effort to include it.)

The footage that is included seldom—if ever—gets its own space. I don’t think there is one piece in the thirty-hours-plus that gets played from beginning to end without interruption or narrative overlay. The viewer who wants to hear the music often finds himself fighting with the filmmaker. You might be better off buying the book and the five-disc CD set: then you could skim the text. Stop. Listen to the music.

When there isn’t live footage, Burns gives us collages of images to entertain us. A lot of them seem to be left over from his brother’s documentary on the history of New York. More than a few get repeated. Thirty years ago Godard had the courage to give us a black screen when the sound was more important than the image. A touch of that courage would have vastly improved the Ken Burns Jazz experience, where sound, of course, is everything. The visuals don’t add: they detract. It takes brain cycles to process them that are needed for the music.

As everyone has noted, Ken Burns deserves the possessive here only in terms of cinematic style (and intellectual property rights). In regard to attitude, knowledge, and drive, it’s clearly “Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz” from beginning to end. Marsalis has come under a lot of criticism the past fifteen years for his conservative view of jazz history. As far as he is concerned, not much of importance happened after 1970. You can argue this point: there has been good music to listen to throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But when you judge the art by innovation—of course he’s right. So what? There hasn’t been any innovation in film, literature, or painting for thirty years, either. I don’t think you can blame jazz for a lack of invention. The Modern period is over. And so is the idea of an avant-garde.

The marketing plan for this show must have set a record for its thoroughness. There is the obligatory book, but there is also a one-disc CD, a five-disc boxed set, the VHS set and a DVD-Video set. As of this writing, there is no radio series, nor is there a video game. I don’t know where you can buy the t-shirt, either. Stay tuned: we’ll let you know. (I wonder if Marsalis gets a cut of the ancillary rights?)


This suggests to me a follow-on product: an interactive DVD that gives you all the wealth of material there is here and lets you recut it, refine it, and recast it to let the music shine.

There’s great stuff here. Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddens take the lead roles as commentators. Both are eloquent and personable and entertaining. They are accompanied by a number of equally engaging and incisive commentators: Gerald Early, Margo Jefferson, Stanley Crouch, Jon Hendricks, Jackie McLean, Albert Murray, Matt Glaser, Nat Hentoff and others.

The first thing we do in our remake is lose the lugubrious narration. We let two or three or all of these likable and impassioned commentators tell the story. We put them on site in New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Paris. Yes, most of the landmarks are gone, but enough remain to give us a sense of place. We’ll review Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (1969) to learn how to open up the narrative.

Next, we make sure that the key recordings get their space, without interruption, with black screens when appropriate, so we can hear the music. (Maybe we borrow some of the psychedelic shots from Bert Stern’s Jazz On a Summer’s Day to accompany the music.) Required viewing: Stern’s film, and Godard’s Letter to Jane.

Next, we refresh the interviews. There are some great moments here: the reminiscences of two Savoy Ballroom dancers, Dave Brubeck breaking down as he remembers learning about racism as a child on the banks of the Sacramento River, Arvell Shaw’s voice cracking as he recalls Louis Armstrong’s last days, Artie Shaw’s wistful reminiscences, so many years later. Burns edits these interviews tightly for dramatic effect. How nice it would be to hear the conversation leading up to the drama. More emotionally effective, too. Reference: any film by Donn Pennebaker or the Maysles brothers.

Next, we tighten up on the editing. Burns lets Marsalis compare jazz and democracy about six times—three in the same episode. This isn’t Wynton’s fault; it’s Burns’s. We can fix this in the interactive edition.

And while we’re at it, we’ll spend some time taking the discussion of race and jazz to a higher level. To its great credit, the film never loses site of this intimate, driving, and refulgent aspect of the music. But it never takes time to make the synthesis. What excites me about jazz is the synthesis: black and white, African and European roots, come together to create a breathtaking rainbow. Marsalis hints at this in his comparison of jazz and democracy—but never states it. And, moreover, there is no mention of reverse Jim Crow. It existed—it still exists. Hinting delicately that Bix Beiderbecke or Dave Brubeck is a credit to his race is not enough. We can discuss this in the new version: we can make progress. Maybe add a piece to the rainbow. It’s a new century.

And finally, we add our own footage to fill the most glaring omission: Latin jazz. Aside from half a sentence in connection with Dizzy Gillespie (and maybe a mention of Bossa Nova in Stan Getz’s thirty seconds), I don’t remember any discussion of the importance of Afro-Cuban and Latin American music to jazz.

Forgive them, Tito, they knew not what they did.


On reflection, you realize that Jazz was simply too big a subject for Burns to tackle. He should stick to simple stuff: baseball, and the Civil War. Despite Wynton’s hard line, I don’t really think he meant to leave out the last thirty years of the music. (Only Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson and Regina Carter get any screen time after the death of the Duke.) I think he was simply rushed to finish.

With the interactive edition, we can fix that. There’s so much good music here, so many important stories to tell, so many insights into the great American art, that we can’t leave it unfinished.

Whaddya say, Ken? One more spinoff?

Note to Billy Taylor (the premier jazz educator of our time, who doesn’t appear in Ken Burns’s Jazz): will you help?

James Monaco


P.S.: Can’t resist it. Have to make my own list of missing persons:

1. Let Miles die. Let Monk die. Let Mingus die.
2. Carmen Macrae?!
3. Alberta Hunter
4. Billy Taylor
5. Ray Barretto
6. Machito
7. Mongo Santamaria
8. Susannah McCorkle
9. Dave Frishberg, Blossom Dearie, and Bob Dorough
10. Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross?!
11. More Mulligan, MJQ, Monk, and Mingus
12. Ray Charles!
13. Nat Cole!
14. Stéphane Grapelli
15. More Rhythm and Blues
16. Dinah Washington
17. Mel Tormé
18. Lionel Hampton
19. Chuck Mangione (he carried the torch during the darkest days)
20. El Rey