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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 173-187

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On Ken Burns's "Jazz"

Jazz After Jazz:
Ken Burns and the Construction of Jazz History

Theodore Gracyk

As all action is by its nature to be figured as extended in breadth and in depth, as well as in length; and so spreads abroad on all hands. . . so all narrative is, by its nature, of only one dimension; only travels forward towards one, or towards successive points; narrative is linear, action is solid. Alas for our "chains" or chainlets, of "causes and effects."

—Thomas Carlyle, "On History," 1830

Jazz and freedom are synonyms.

—Mezz Mezzrow


JAZZ, A FILM BY KEN BURNS is a fascinating and monumental achievement. In this essay, I identify and critique some of the project's core assumptions. My principal target is the assumption that a specific essence of jazz underlies most (but not all) of the music that is regularly identified as jazz and that the historical unfolding of this essence is the true subject of a historical investigation of jazz. This assumption accounts for the project's otherwise puzzling suggestion that jazz history ended approximately thirty-five years ago.

The most visible element of the historical project is the ten-part, nineteen-hour documentary, Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. However, the historical project has three other public elements. The first is a book, Jazz: A History of America's Music. 1 Credited to both Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, the bulk of the book is the film's spoken text, which includes both a unifying narrative and numerous quotations. The book makes it clear that this text is primarily Ward's work. Second, there is a website that makes available extensive transcripts of many of the [End Page 173] seventy-five interviews conducted for use in the film. Third, there is a set of twenty-two compact discs, each giving an overview of an important jazz musician (e.g., one devoted to Count Basie, one devoted to Dizzy Gillespie). Highlights of these discs have, in turn, been assembled into a five-disc box set called Ken Burns Jazz. My aim is to reveal and examine the conceptual scaffolding that supports and organizes this vast, multifaceted project.

What is the principal assumption of this historical project? The project consistently emphasizes the music's capacity to give audible embodiment to the idea of American democracy. At the same time, the project is less than forthcoming about the aesthetic assumptions embraced by Ward and Burns. Familiar and predictable arguments are introduced to justify the appellation of "art" and to address the issue of the purported death of jazz in the 1970s. However, these two strands of the larger argument may be at cross-purposes with the principal assumption and the ideology that jointly justify the project's status as jazz history.

Let me begin by describing the principal assumption in some detail. While there is no reason to suppose that its source is Ken Burns or his chief collaborator, historian Geoffrey Ward, the following blurb was used to advertise the project:

Jazz has been called the purest expression of American democracy; a music built on individualism and compromise, independence and cooperation. Join us for an exploration of jazz, America's greatest cultural achievement.

In keeping with this theme, the narration and principal interviewees of the film are positioned to emphasize that jazz is an audible embodiment of the idea of American democracy. Let us call this idea the democracy thesis. It is placed as a frame around the whole film: Wynton Marsalis announces it in the opening minutes of the first episode, and then he reiterates it in fresh words at the end of the last episode. Although it is repeated with numerous variations, the democracy thesis proposes that jazz involves an ideal of democratic America, not the fact of life in America: jazz, Wynton Marsalis assures us, is "a glimpse of what America is going to be when it becomes itself. And this music tells you that it will become itself." 2 Jazz...


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