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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 188-198

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On Ken Burns's "Jazz"

On Representing Jazz:
An Art Form in Need of Understanding

Garry L. Hagberg

ALTHOUGH IT WENT ON in smaller numbers in earlier decades, the fact that there were legions of expatriate jazz musicians fleeing to a far more appreciative Europe in the 1960s and 1970s shows how important a cultural event Ken Burns's documentary on the first century of jazz really is. Those expatriate players were all but forced out by a rapidly diminishing audience and a corresponding lack of appreciation for their artistic achievements and abilities. It is in any social context an achievement to gain an audience for an undervalued artform of between three and four million viewers for nineteen hours; to have done so against the backdrop of the fact—one bitter to swallow for so many American players of those years—that the country of origin for this artform was so slow to significantly value it, makes this documentary almost a form of cultural emergency-relief. But it also raises the stakes in how jazz is represented, which of its features are focused upon, and what kind of story is told about its development. In my opinion the film makes deeply serious errors in each of these ways—almost to the point of turning this seemingly magnificent gift to jazz into a Trojan horse—but here I'd like to focus on five of the features of jazz as an art that I think make jazz particularly difficult to portray in a reduced or simplified form. To put the point a bit more strongly: without an awareness of (at the least) these five features of jazz, any attempted portrayal would run the very serious danger of engendering or further nurturing the very incomprehension of the artistic or aesthetic achievements of jazz that drove all those American players to Copenhagen, Paris, London, Munich, Vienna, and Amsterdam in the first place. It is, in short, necessary to provide at least a sense of what is [End Page 188] intrinsically problematic about the artform to illuminate both its distinctive nature and the aesthetic problems—taken by its practitioners as its internally generated artistic challenges—that give this artform its dynamic energy.

First, there is the fundamental question concerning the metaphysics of a jazz piece, i.e., what kind of thing it is. At a glance one can see that a familiar attempt to answer this question within the larger field of the aesthetics of music, i.e., the identification of the work with the score, will have precious little plausibility when applied to jazz. As any jazz musician or aficionado knows, jazz pieces that become "standards" are pieces that are performed countless times, in innumerably variegated ways, and what is usually of greatest interest about any given performance of a standard is not, indeed, how well or to what extent it instantiates a predetermined ideal of the piece as specified in the score, but rather how it departs from, or adds distinctive interpretive content, to the basic structure of the piece. This aesthetically significant fact is reflected in the correlated common practice of using, not scores, but rather schematic "lead sheets" that provide the very basic harmonic and melodic material of the piece. Even larger-ensemble pieces, e.g., the scores of Duke Ellington, are notated only in the sectional writing; the improvisational sections—the sections that many would say give the distinctive life to any given performance—are of course not notated. There are fully notated scores of many—to use a dangerously complicated word—classic jazz performances, but in jazz parlance these, here again with aesthetic significance, are not called scores, but rather transcriptions, and in this improvisational artform it would be cause for suspicion rather than congratulation if a player were to perform a given work exactly in accordance with the transcription repeatedly. The nature of the jazz piece, the jazz composition, is thus extraordinarily fluid and only minimally defined. And as one might expect, the degree or the extent...