The following review of Ken Burns’ Jazz, a much-discussed series that aired on public television early last year, recently appeared in New Labor Forum, part of a special issue that explores labor’s relationship to the world of culture. New Labor Forum is published by the Labor Resource Center at Queens College, CUNY; subscriptions are $20 a year. For more information, visit www.qc.edu/newlaborforum.
In this, the final third of a trilogy on the central part that race has played in American life, Ken Burns continues to trace the ironies and contradictions inherent in the continuing saga of American racism. In the first part of the trilogy, The Civil War, Burns showed the nearly suicidal breach this country experienced in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the second part, Baseball, he explored the tensions, as reflected in the popular sports arena, arising as a result of our attempts to live in the aftermath of that breach.
If one accepts the premise that a nation’s essence is expressed in its art, then the primary contribution made by the African American community to U.S. culture forms the supreme irony. That a people subjected to indescribable brutality and then to consistently disparaging treatment by the politically dominant majority for three hundred years could, at the same time, create the art by which that society is, and probably will be, known and remembered, is difficult to explain – and, indeed, has never been explained.
In Jazz, Burns does not attempt to explain this phenomenon but to document it and, in doing so, to illustrate its importance and set its place in our history. The problem to be examined here is, Has the process necessary to condense a century or more of experiences into fewer than 20 hours been done so that well-defined, revealing truths are woven together to create one overarching truth? Or, has the process been flawed by inaccuracies and, if so, is the result unacceptable? The answer is that, while inaccuracies abound and while many of the most rewarding components of the art form were ignored, the music created by jazz’ defining artists is so powerful as to overcome even this imperfectly realized presentation. The music succeeded in a way Burns was unable to match.
The arc that Burns draws has, as its focal points, two seminal figures, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. This approach is accomplished by emphasizing not only the creations of each in his period of greatest originality – Armstrong in the 1920s and1930s and Ellington in the 1930s and 1940s – but by demonstrating that, on a regular basis, their work beyond those decades was at a consistently high, original and influential level.
Others – Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Count Basie – are shown to be original, influential artists of great stature, but none of these are seen to be equal in longevity to Armstrong and Ellington. In fact, the admirable continuity created in the first nine episodes of the series is lost in the final program, when these two artists leave the scene.
Certainly, there are problems with the working out of this theory. First and foremost is the unreliability of the information. Jazz was, at least for its first six or seven decades, a “popular” music and, as such, was not examined or documented in greatly accurate detail. Very little solid information is available about anything up to the early 1920s. After that, for the next fifteen or so years, much of the knowledge extant is anecdotal or from partial, uncertain sources.
The social history of the music is also somewhat cloudy. What kind of interaction, if any, actually took place between Black and white musicians? How regular or irregular was it? Did recordings have the same impact in the twenties and early thirties that they came to have later? Or was this music primarily disseminated not by recordings but on the thousands of bandstands across the country? And, possibly most urgently, how did it come to be so pervasive a force?
Unfortunately, much of the critical comment in the program yields to the temptation to state speculation as fact, opinion as truth, and myth as reality. Vivid descriptions are given from an ostensibly first-person viewpoint. One example is the playing of the pre-1920s New Orleans cornetists Buddy Bolden and Freddie Keppard, whose live performances are vividly described by Wynton Marsalis despite the fact that neither he nor any other living person could have had any firsthand knowledge. Often, in the earlier episodes, ostensibly informed opinion is given without the necessary supporting documentation.
Over and over, film clips are combined with video clips from a different performance, and occasionally from a different composition, in a manner that creates an extremely disconcerting effect. This in particular erodes the credibility of all the information presented. It seems as if some kind of elaborate intellectual shell game is in progress: viewers are being told about things they are not actually hearing and seeing. And while many of the musicians whose commentary is included – pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Milt Hinton, trombonist Monsignor John Sanders, drummer Stan Levey, bassist Charlie Haden, saxophonist Jackie McLean, and especially bassist Arvell Shaw and pianist Dave Brubeck – project compelling dignity, openness and passion, this fact does not prevent an overall impression that art of greater worth is being shoved aside by highly pretentious, somewhat shallow, editorializing.
TWO BASIC PROBLEMS
The chief criticism, however, must be directed toward two aspects of this series, both attributable to Burns in his capacity as final arbiter: first the portentous manner of the narrator, Keith David, which drained the joy from the music, and second, the consistently intrusive, self-aggrandizing nature of much of the nonmusician commentary, especially that of the critics Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins. These two commentators, along with the social critic Albert Murray, express the intellectual core of the producer’s position. Unfortunately, their judgements and conclusions on strictly musical matters – matters essential to intelligent appreciation of the music – is, in almost all cases, suspect. To like jazz – even to listen to a great deal of it, as I believe Giddins and Crouch have done – does not qualify one to issue definitive opinions. A deeper, more specific musical knowledge is required.
In the editorial and directorial choices about narrator and commentators, as made throughout the series, Burns demonstrates an unfortunate impatience with, and a distrust of, the music’s ability to hold the viewer’s attention. In the entire nineteen hours – only one recording, Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues (1928) – is played without interruption. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Coleman Hawkins’s Body and Soul nearly make it, but in virtually all other cases, voices break in after, at most, thirty seconds to one minute of music. This problem becomes most ludicrous when, in episode 4, during the playing of one Armstrong recording, Crouch begins singing, ostensibly to demonstrate Armstrong’s style.
This mistrust results in the series’s most disappointing overall impression, the tendency toward solemn pseudo-intellectualism in the face of, and in contrast to, the gloriously joyous music. It is a singularly frustrating experience to hear the beginning of a classic performance, only to have it disappear behind someone’s questionable opinion. The use of recordings of historical and musical importance, reedited to provide the equivalent of a tape-loop background for superfluous explanations, also provides a jarring note to those familiar with the originals.
The visuals are handled with Burns’s usual skill, although occasionally images remain on the screen a couple of beats too long, as if in an attempt to drive home some esoteric point. When Burns is really on, though, the presentation is extremely satisfying. The opening of episode 1, “Gumbo,” is pure exuberance (unfortunately, interrupted by commentary), while episode 8, “Risk,” gives a fully focused, engaging picture of the 1940s. This history of the bebop era is given admirable coherence, and the story of many of its most important musicians’ personal problems is deeply moving. Episode 10, on the other hand, seems to reflect the opinion – whether Burns’s or Marsalis’s, Crouch’s, or someone else’s – that the music had lost its way in the 1970s and 1980s.
AN UNSATISFYING EPISODE
Much critical comment has been directed at this episode, which covers the past forty or so years, in contrast to the first nine segments, each of which covered a decade. The years following John Coltrane’s death (1967) are, by implication or omission, given little attention, for example, even though some of the most adventurous (and controversial) of Miles Davis’s works were created during this time. Also, the loft scene in New York City, which was bursting with activity during that time, receives no mention. Apparently the music was not to the liking of Burns, Giddins, Murray, Crouch and Marsalis, and therefore was deemed worthy only of passing notice, at best. It seems to me that the previously mentioned absence of Ellington and Armstrong for most of this period, together with the lack of another figure of similar stature (Davis, possibly), threw the filmmakers and advisors into a quandary. Their theme ran out and nothing replaced it. This was the least satisfying of the episodes.
Whether the buzz created by the documentary will have any long-term effect on the music or whether it will reinvigorate popular interest in this most American of musical forms is still in doubt. What is certain is that, for a time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis and the music they created held the interest and engaged the minds and emotions of many thoughtful people. In the admittedly provincial world of New York City entertainment, discussion took place in coffee shops, at board meetings, on recording dates, at chance encounters on street corners, and especially among the current members of the jazz community. Except among the latter group, the general response was positive, showing evidence of a rediscovery, a reawakening to the quality of this art and the deeply personal expressions of the musicians. The music won out here although, as might be expected, interests and enthusiasms usually divided along generational lines, with most responding best to the music of their youth.
Jazz musicians as a group, intimately familiar with the recordings, were much more sensitive to the commentary, critical of the editorial decisions and, in fact, often quite angry about the programs. Overwhelmingly, they thought that too much was missed, that too many individuals were left out. Two areas mentioned repeatedly were the absence of the Latin jazz movement in its many facets and the previously mentioned shrinking of the period from 1960 to the present into one episode, with the resulting loss of focus. The final episode’s conclusion that Wynton Marsalis deserves credit as the art form’s late-twentieth-century savior seemed to provoke special indignation. This is, no doubt, in great part due to his holding the music’s only real bully pulpit (as the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center). We need more such pulpits.
Those musicians attempting to make a living in this field offer an instructive study of the problems faced by nontraditional workers and the unions that might wish to represent them. Much of the work is short-term and sporadic, the earnings are many times in cash (this field is still operating to an extent as part of an underground economy) and a musician’s ability to gain this work is often based on his or her success in maintaining a public profile. Given these aspects, employers have mistakenly argued that musicians are independent contractors, and many of the employment venues have remained marginal. All these factors make working – and organizing – very difficult.
The musicians, however, have a deep collective awareness of the great cultural legacy of which they are caretakers and a profound group resentment of those who, no matter how well intentioned, might distort the reality of this legacy for, in this instance, the sake of making it fit within the limiting boundaries of a historical narrative. For that is what they think Burns has done. And they’re probably right; it is after all, what historians usually do.
Life, as we know too well, is a kind of continuing chaos, an inexplicable succession of ongoing uncertainties. In order to cram reality into a manageable package, historians and documentarians develop, discover or create a common thread or theme by which order may be brought from disorder. As they do this, certain events or individuals are conferred a primacy not necessarily evident at the time, while others are de-emphasized or even dropped. Thus, the end product may be a history largely unrecognizable to many of the people involved in it. In this case, many jazz musicians who actually experienced their art form’s evolution and remember what it was like from their unique perspectives have questioned Burns’s approach. Over and over I heard certain types of comments from this community: “That’s not the way it was.” “What about – – – (fill in the blank, as with Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, or Thad Jones, to name three trumpeters)? “Who gave Burns, Crouch, Marsalis, the right?”
EXPLOITATION OF JAZZ MUSICIANS
Apart from concerns about the series itself, I need to mention my own difficulty regarding Burns’s relationship with unions. I find it offensive, particularly in this case, that Florentine Films, his company, is not a signatory to any musicians’ union agreement and that his projects have all been done on a nonunion basis. To the best of my knowledge, none of the commercially recorded musical performances used on Jazz has generated any payment to musicians. The side musicians, some of them highly visible and influential, were more often than not unidentified. From these points of view, Burns has continued the exploitation of these jazz musicians that has, regrettably, formed the historical norm.
Still, we have the music, so profoundly startling that, despite all this criticism, Burns may have ultimately – even if inadvertently – gotten it right. That the presentation did not match the high level of its subject matter may have been inevitable.
One must remember that the music of the baroque was more than Bach, of the classical more than Mozart and Haydn, and of the romantic more than Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin and Brahms. There were, of course, many other composers during each of these periods, some exceedingly worthy and a few of them great artists. Most are now relegated to the darkness of history, while the culture of each period is defined by the few.
In this case, the filmmakers have added up all their disparate, misshapen parts, and have somehow come up with the right answer. Given the subject matter, it might be difficult to ultimately get it wrong, for Armstrong and Ellington are powerful forces. If, as this film would seem to propose, they are what will define us at the end of the twenty-first or twenty-second century, our society will be remembered for its high culture.