Jamming the Reception: Ken Burns, Jazz, and the Problem of "America's Music"

By Pond, Steven F. | Notes, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Jamming the Reception: Ken Burns, Jazz, and the Problem of "America's Music"


Pond, Steven F., Notes


INTRODUCTION

In 2001 the nation paid more attention to jazz than it had for a long time. With its first aired episode on 8 January, Jazz, a film by Ken Burns, (1) continued the filmmaker's string of epic documentaries on American life. The project stands as Burns's most ambitious. (2) The film's ten episodes (nineteen hours of film) were broadcast on the PBS network over four weeks, with an estimated thirteen million viewers on the first day alone. (3) Since then, the film has been distributed in both VHS and DVD formats, along with a companion book coauthored with Geoffrey C. Ward (4) (henceforth, the Ward book), and several compact disc sets, including a five-disc set culled from the series, a "best of" compact disc, and twenty-two disc-length anthologies of featured performers.

A coordinated onslaught of Jazz images, sounds, and products, as well as the enormous marketing effort accompanying them, did more than just purvey a set of products that year: it fostered Jazz (and jazz) as a topic of national discussion--in print, on television, at the dinner table, and on the Internet. In this study I examine Burns's penetration into the national consciousness, and how his version of jazz history is received and critically evaluated.

Reception studies generally do not include the Internet as a site of criticism. Along with more traditional reception media, I pointedly include the World Wide Web's role in several types of reception that I call "official," "quasi-official," "submerged official," and "indie." The Internet has changed an important aspect of the critical apparatus. The exchange of information and opinion is dramatically speeded through this easily shared medium. The resulting ease of communication tends to momentarily blur critical hierarchies, increasing the exchange between expert and aficionado. Reception studies can benefit from this opportunity for an enriched perspective. The Jazz project is a case in point: this widely dispersed critical pool raises a cluster of objections to Burns's version of jazz history.

JAZZ AND ITS IMPORTANCE

Judging by the marketing effort that supported it, it is not surprising that Jazz was no ordinary miniseries, but rather a cultural event. A few provocative news items illustrate the effort and its rewards. First, the film trade publication Hollywood Reporter announced in November 2000 that Amazon.com had created a partnership with Burns to launch an online store with a catalog of thirty-five thousand items related to Jazz. (5) Second, a USA Today article in January 2001 announced that halfway through the showing of the ten-episode series, sales of related merchandise had already topped fifteen million dollars. (6) (Contextualizing this point, Carolyn Kleiner estimates total domestic jazz album sales in 1999 were roughly twenty million dollars. (7)) Third, nine months after the series aired, two of the anthology albums from the Burns collection were still on Barnes & Noble's Top Fifty Jazz List. (8) Fourth, elsewhere on the same Web site, interest showed up in the print version of Jazz, too. On that same date the Ward hardcover book was still the second-best-selling jazz book title for Barnes & Noble--the soft cover was fourth. While sales figures for the Burns-marketed albums are not public, the fact that nine months after the film's initial broadcast two of them remained on the Top Fifty list highlights the staying power of the Jazz package in the jazz market.

The popularity of the Burns project may have been predictable, given the large-scale marketing effort behind it as well as a core of related factors: (1) Burns's established reputation for well-produced, engaging historical documentaries; (2) the nationalistic portrayal of jazz as uniquely American, as America's Classical Music; and (3) Burns's portrayal of jazz as sophisticated African American music, a music conspicuously successful as art despite its race-torn surroundings.

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