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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 157-172

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On Ken Burns's "Jazz"

Jazz: America's Classical Music? 1

Lee B. Brown


VIEWERS OF KEN BURNS'S third cultural epic "Jazz" probably fell into one of three categories. 2 Some found it gripping. Some found it grating. Some found it both at once.

The series has unforgettable moments: spectacular jitterbug sequences; Jimmy Lunceford's horn men fanning their trumpet bells with hat mutes in sync; the close-up of the whirring cross-hand drumming of Art Blakey; the bitter-sweet glance Billie Holiday and Lester Young exchange in their last filmed appearance together; the occasional marriage of visuals to music. One riveting three minutes comes when the talking heads tune out, a 78-rpm disk of Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" is set spinning, and the thrilling notes pour out on a carousel of visual imagery—finally freeze-framing on the face of the young genius himself.

On the downside, the series is massively repetitious. As a result of Burns's decision to track two major figures—Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—from cradle to grave, the same cuts of Armstrong appear again and again, no matter what the time frame. Some of the series' commentators are particularly annoying—the fiddler of Burns's Civil War series, Matt Glaser, for instance, with his fatuous theories [End Page 157] about Louis Armstrong and Albert Einstein. And the documentary's heavy load of social freight—by Wynton Marsalis, and his mentors Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch 3 —threatens to flatten the music.

The series is designed as informative entertainment, not Jazz 101. But Burns pays a price here, as he did in his documentary about baseball, in which not even the basics of the game, let alone any of the subtleties, were explained. In "Jazz" we get no explanation of what Jelly Roll Morton did to transform ragtime into jazz. (The series could easily have pressed Morton himself into service. With no sacrifice of his considerable charm, Morton did explain it, beautifully, in his recorded Library of Congress interviews. 4) Although the swing era gets big billing, no attempt is made to explain how swing rhythm actually works, as contrasted with earlier practices. (I have watched swing drummer Panama Francis entertain a packed hall with a brief but riveting illustration of how it works.)

As jazz history, the film also has problems. Some legendary figures are resurrected unconvincingly. When Marsalis tells us what the legendary trumpet player Buddy Bolden sounded like, the illustrative off-camera trumpet is Marsalis's, not Bolden's, who embedded not one note in a record groove. Further, we face the tiresomely obvious problem of omissions. We hear nothing of Albert Ayler, Keith Jarrett, Sun Ra, Mildred Bailey, Benny Carter, Lennie Tristano, Erroll Garner, Eric Dolphy, Art Pepper, or Woody Herman. All we learn about Bill Evans—whose influence on jazz piano was huge—is that Miles Davis hired him even though he was white. Omissions are inevitable, of course. But there is a muted pattern to the exclusions. It was impossible for the series to avoid Benny Goodman, given his central role in the swing era. But white figures are too often either ignored or treated as alienated outsiders. We hear New York Times columnist Margo Jefferson opine that Bix Beiderbecke drank himself to death because he wasn't allowed to play with black musicians. In fact, many of the greatest players—white and black—never played with musicians of their own caliber.

Most figures covered in the film are treated either with respect or with reverence. But things get nasty when matters turn to avant-gardists. Thus, Branford Marsalis—Wynton's talented brother—singles out the volcanic pianist Cecil Taylor for a particularly hostile attack. 5 Instead of explaining what Ornette Coleman meant by "free jazz," Albert Murray tells us that jazz is, by definition, free music—and by implication, that Coleman's concept must be fatuous. And Wynton has complained [End Page 158] elsewhere about a jazz avant-garde retreat into what he calls "a...


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