Reconsidering Ken Burns “Jazz”

In a classic example of how time can inevitably alter one’s prior impressions, last month I was down in New Orleans working on a piece that will arrive in JazzTimes magazine’s forthcoming annual jazz education issue, on the annual Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp. On a couple of occasions during that week I noticed the students viewing an episode of Ken Burns’ controversial “Jazz” documentary series. Spurred by that viewing I knew I needed to see the series again, at my leisure and sans the court of public (jazz) opinion, remembering the firestorm of controversy that Y-2K series generated. In fact I had not seen the series since its original PBS airing, so 11 years later as Bird once said “Now’s the Time”.

Quickly finding a gently used DVD box set of the Burns series on, I found myself riveted to the screen and eager for each succeeding episode in the 10-disc set. And take note of how the series was just denoted in the last sentence – as “the Burns series.” That is precisely the shade of glasses one must view this series through, as Ken Burns and his assembled cohorts take on the jazz lineage – and NOT as a definitive survey of the history of jazz. I’m afraid that is the mistake a lot of the series’ critics tended to make, as though Ken Burns’ “Jazz” ever set out to be definitive in any way. There was a sense of dismay and outright betrayal in much of the earliest criticism, as though the series arrived far short of its considerable expectation; that’s true in some aspects, but seeing the series after this passage of time – sans expectations – is rewarding. On second blush, the series provides a beautiful portrayal of the jazz lineage, a profile of sorts to be sure… but by no means a straight history of the form. This is how Burns and co. saw the development of jazz, and not as some be-all-end-all jazz history compendium.

Admittedly after viewing all ten discs I still felt the latter half of the 20th century in jazz was severely short-changed, but again this was “Ken Burns Jazz” and not the History of Jazz in 20 Hours as some would have had it. And this revisionist viewpoint is not to say the series is without flaws, far from it. But taken as a whole for what it was, there has been no better pure television series on jazz music.

I found myself enthralled by the way Burns & co. (check the credits, a rather prodigious team actually assembled this thing (including quite auspiciously an old friend I’ve lost touch with, Natalie Bullock-Brown (proud of you ‘sis!) – not to mention the numerous talking heads called upon for their various expertise throughout the series) sketched the lives of those artists they selected as the most significant contributors, and how they did so in segments which dissolved into portraits of the times those gentlemen and ladies lived in, then later looped back in succeeding episodes for updates on where they were in the continuum. Particularly effective were the treatments in this regard of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman; though by turns I thought Count Basie was a bit shortchanged in this regard – not to mention Ornette Coleman, but we’ll get to that shortcoming. These threads between masters and episodes is masterfully woven.

It was remarkable watching the extensive swing era segments and thinking how so much of the depression as painted so vividly by the series, actually reflected some of the more depressing aspects of world life in what is euphemistically referred to today as a “recession,” as though we dare not label ourselves as living in a dreaded D word. I also found myself wondering how much dance enthusiasts must have been enraptured at the marvelous dance footage Burns & co. unearthed. (Certain episodes, particularly those dealing with the Savoy Ballroom and featuring commentary by the hoofers Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, should be required viewing for the Dancing With the Stars crowd.) The copious use of period still photos is even more striking in succeeding viewings. I wondered how many folks saw those episodes and recognized faces in the crowd (as in: ‘oh man look, that’s my grandmother/father as a young man/woman…’!!).

As for the talking heads, yes some critics were originally quite correct in citing the omnipresence of certain “experts,” but I must say I was warmed every time someone like my friend and ancestor Jackie McLean appears onscreen dropping science. I also found myself listening more intently to such graceful contributors as the understated writer Margo Jefferson, whose astute observations were always so spot-on and leavened with a twinkle in her eye. Hearing Gerald Early reflect back on how black folks of the boomer (my) generation as young people responded (deeply mistaken) to Pops as some sorta skinnin’ & grinnin’ minstrel (boy were we off-key there!) is once again very telling, and a classic example of how revisionist history is often very rewarding. I for one eventually straightened out and came to the realization that Louis Armstrong is one of the monumental figures in American history, let alone American music history! Burns’ inclusion of such key and telling anecdotes, initial weaknesses and admissions is one of the series’ great strengths. Also growing in value are such unforgettable chestnuts s as Jon Hendricks‘ recounting his initial wartime encounter with “Salt Peanuts”, that of someone who had been away fighting a war on foreign soil, clueless to advancements in the music until a chance encounter at sea with Dizzy’s recorded mastery on the way home from the fighting. On the revelation side, where on earth did Burns & co. unearth such rare footage as Pops’ playful, beret-wearing put-down of Dizzy at the Hollywood Bowl? Hadn’t seen that one before… or since!

Yes, Ken Burns “Jazz” was guilty of speed reading the advancements in the music represented by the latter half of the 20th century, and he whiffed on such a seminal modernist as Ornette Coleman, who surely deserved a broader portrait. So let’s hope someone or some crew adept on the contemporary side will more fully paint that picture. Until then, Ken Burns “Jazz” indeed stands as a monument of a jazz portrait.

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