All That Jazz

Article excerpt


Let's cut to the chase on Ken Burns's Jazz, which rolled out on PBS January 8, by invoking Wallace Stevens.

1) Is it entertaining TV? Mostly, in PBS fashion.

2) Does it leave out people and places and whole periods and genres normally considered vital parts of jazz history? Yes.

3) Does it need more editing? Yes.

4) Does Louis Armstrong claim 40 percent of its nineteen hours? Yes.

5) Does post-1960s jazz claim 10 percent? Yes.

6) Does it tell an informed and informative story? Usually.

7) Does it identify the 500-odd pieces of jazz that serve as its soundtrack? Rarely.

8) Does it have rare and evocative pictures and film footage? Absolutely.

9) Is it good history? It's made-for-PBS history.

10) Will it satisfy jazz fans and musicians and critics? Seems like it already hasn't, and it hasn't even aired yet.

11) Will it save the jazz industry? That depends: CDs labeled Ken Burns's Jazz are bullish.

12) Will it make jazz a part of mainstream American culture again? Not likely, but it may help make it an official part of American popular history.

13) Is it part of the transition jazz has been making for three decades into the academic world? You bet.

Now let's dolly back and try to tell the story.

The numbers have to come first. The ten-episode, nineteen-hour series was six years in the making, and it sprawls: seventy-five talking heads, thousands of still photos and pieces of film, some 500 pieces of music and so on. Costing some $13 million, about a third of it from General Motors, it's the biggest documentary that's been done about jazz.

And yet a lot of jazz musicians and critics and fans, in print and on the web, have been complaining that it's too constrictive. It's easy to see why. It's certainly not comprehensive. For Burns and collaborator Geoffrey Ward, history unfolds in the textures of individual lives. (Ward won the Francis Parkman prize for A First-Class Temperament, one volume of his biography of FDR.) Jazz for them is the story of a few great men (and the odd woman) who changed the way Americans, then the world, hear and think and act. Chief among them: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There are places of honor for the likes of James Reese Europe and Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. This sort of survey is easier to sustain until about 1929, because jazz musicians were few (though not as few or as limited to New Orleans, Chicago and New York as the series implies). But Burns & Co. can tell a credible story of jazz's first decades using a handful of pioneers.

One reason for the noise is that this overlaps the story of jazz according to the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a flashpoint in the jazz world. JALC teaches that jazz is a clear-cut genealogy of a few outstanding figures, and it excludes many important artists, especially after 1960, often for ideological reasons. The basic plot for both: Taking its building blocks from slave music, marching bands, blues, the church, European dance and classical music, jazz began life as a mongrel in New Orleans, came up the river to Chicago, met up (via Armstrong) with New York proto-swing bands and Harlem stride pianists and exploded, drawing young white players into a black-developed music. This is true enough, though it ultimately means ignoring uncomfortable parallel developments (Red Allen and Armstrong) or scenes (between-the-wars LA jazz) or entire genres (Latin jazz, European jazz). But schematic history can be good TV, and Burns, like earlier PBS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, makes long, long movies that depend on strong, heavily delineated characters and themes to keep them from dissipating.

His story's heart is Armstrong. Its head is Ellington. …