Jamming the Reception: Ken Burns, Jazz, and the Problem of "America's Music"
Pond, Steven F., Notes
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.
Burns also demonstrated his ability to create demand, not only for the sights and sounds of jazz but also for mugs, T-shirts, cars, and other jazzy merchandise. Articles in the PBS 2001 Annual Report (9) and Advertising Age (10) report, among other efforts, the commitment of three thousand Starbucks stores to play selections from the compilation compact discs through the month of January. The articles also describe the distribution of press materials, study guides, and the Ward book to six million middle-school students, paid for by General Motors, a major contributor to the project. (11) The strategy paid dividends in media buzz: virtually every major newspaper, family magazine, magazine, and radio and television network in America displayed feature articles on the series in the days and weeks leading up to its broadcast. Overtly in the form of paid print and broadcast advertising and free in the form of interviews and reportage generated with the aid of publicists' skills, a huge investment in publicity assured the Burns project's success. Thanks largely to these efforts, Jazz and jazz music were on everyone's radar screen, at least in the winter of 2001.
Of course, reception as viewership, sales, or media buzz does not necessarily imply deep or lasting impact on our understanding of jazz. But the impact of Jazz in that pivotal year intensified, by way of an interesting one-two punch. First, the promoters of the Burns project also focused on building a strong Jazz presence in college survey classes; second, at virtually the same moment as the series broadcast, the Smithsonian Institution pulled from its catalog the multi-compact disc anthology, Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. (12)
Consider the effect of decades of agitating for jazz in college curricula by, among others, Down Beat magazine and the International Association of Jazz Educators. (13) Not only are over a hundred postsecondary schools now offering courses on jazz, but the courses are heavily enrolled, often more so than other, more traditional music classes. (14) These jazz courses generally are situated in schools of music, which have a primary mandate to develop "chops" rather than ground the student in cultural or historical knowledge. (15) The College Music Society's Weekly Electronic Music Vacancy List for 5 October 2001, for example, includes thirteen academic job openings that mention jazz. (16) All but five are strictly applied or conductor positions, and of those, four specify jazz theory or jazz as merely a secondary interest. This means that a film series like Burns's might be attractive as a shorthand historical introduction for those schools that do not yet provide a jazz history course.
Even for those teachers who do offer history surveys and whose primary interest is jazz history, the time to change texts, and therefore course content, is likely close at hand. Nearly every college text on jazz written in the past quarter century has centered its listening examples on the Smithsonian Collection. (17)
On a related educational front, Alfred A. Knopf, publisher of the Ward book, donated one thousand copies to the United Negro College Fund and its member schools. (18) The availability of these materials in college classrooms, as well as the complementary offerings from the Burns collection, could not have been timed more fortuitously. With the Smithsonian Collection's disappearance, the Burns collection is in a position to become the heir-apparent in the jazz canonizing business, possibly, as with the Smithsonian Collection, for as long as a generation. Further, if listening trends continue, these college students will likely take their place as part of the core jazz audience, a position they tend to retain as they grow older. (19)
What I have described so fat; of course, is reception mediated by marketing, and therefore it is an engineered reception. The idea is to take a product and create a need, or expand an existing need. In this case, the product is both jazz (the music) and Jazz (the film and its many subsidiary offerings). Sales have been brisk. The book and compact discs, released in time for Christmas, quickly became the sales focus of Tower Records, Barnes & Noble, and other sales outposts. The full accounting has not been released, but has been described as "staggering." This kind of reception brings tears to a marketing executive's eyes.
But this "reception" can also be dismissed as spin-doctoring. The proof of Jazz's impact lies in how the project has been received and evaluated during and after the film's broadcast, and how deeply this impression has penetrated.
RECEPTION STUDIES GENERALLY
Because dialogue about the project has been pervasive, the potential impact of Jazz to become the dominant narrative of jazz history is long-term and profound. I say "potential" because, despite sales figures, response to the project has been anything but uniform. The hotly contested reception of Jazz reflects the latest skirmish in the long battle over the identity of jazz. In past years, this conflict has played out in reviews, op-ed articles in news and industry journals, and in scholarly writing. In addition to the traditional print and broadcast media for these discourses--newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, radio, and television--the Internet is becoming an increasingly important site for opinion-mongering. This represents a change, not only in where opinions are traded, but also in the impact of the exchanges themselves. The change has occurred because the Web's structure promotes access that is inexpensive, relatively egalitarian, and immediate. The Internet provides new sites for reception, sites significant for their proliferation and their resistance to master narratives. Opinions promulgated in the official media, whether they have attached themselves to the Web or not, are less likely to be swinging the heavy bats they have in the past. With the Internet, the official voices are becoming only part of a democratized, cacophonous crowd of claimants to the truth.
What Normally Counts as Reception?
Reception studies in music typically pay close attention to periodical reviews and monographs and (less often) publicity, feature articles, and advertising. (20) Academic journal reviews and monographs, as well as reviews and articles in "name" newspapers, periodicals, and industry magazines, operate as what I call official reception, that is, they are for the most part adjudicated, or at least edited, and are published in scholarly journals or periodicals that traffic in "objective," informed reportage and evaluation. Examples of academic reception show up in American Music, Popular Music and Society, and Jazz Research. Examples of the journalistic kind can be found in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Review of Books, and--targeted specifically to a jazz readership--Jazz Times, Jazzis, and Down Beat.
In comparison to the sphere of jazz writing, other areas of critical inquiry operate within a comfortable hierarchy: a review article by a renowned scholar of nineteenth-century music tends to carry more weight than a review by a critical journalist, even a respected one. In jazz, such a hierarchy cannot be assumed. Often journalistic writers will cite academic writers to buttress their arguments, but citations are just as likely to flow the other way. Distinctions between town and gown are blurred in more ways than one: journalistic writers also contribute to the wealth of books on jazz published every year: Although their books are rarely published by university presses, they are regularly cited in university-published academic writing.
Further, the academic and journalistic spheres of official criticism are somewhat permeable, a fact that is illustrated in the authorship of anthology and reissue album liner notes. Retrospective reissues, whether collected as anthologies or reissued as historically important albums, routinely contain liner notes recalling the creation of the music and assessing its historical importance. Producers or other industry figures write many of these notes (Columbia Records' Michael Cuscuna and Fantasy's Orrin Keepnews come to mind), but so also do journalists (Chris Albertson, Bill Milkowski) and academics (Lewis Porter, Scott DeVeaux, Gunther Schuller). Further, journalists can themselves be academics. Dan Morgenstern, formerly editor of Down Beat and current director of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, exemplifies this. (21)
What is missing from this hierarchy, and what calls its plausibility into question, is the jazz musician. Musicians complain, often publicly, (22) that jazz criticism is made up of a caste of Brahmins whose credentials do not include making music of their own--a charge rarely leveled at the scholar or journalist of nineteenth-century music. The result is that neither journalists nor academics carry an automatically high "believability quotient." Who, then, can speak for jazz? A reception study must uncover" other opinionated voices; there are plenty.
Less Common Inclusions in Reception Studies
Besides "official" reception, there is a slightly less respected kind, which might be called quasi-official. Letters to the editor, especially to those same or equivalent journals, constitute an example of this. Quasi-official commentators are not bound to the same standard of objectivity as in official reception, but they do carry the weight of considered opinion. This is especially true when the journal is a prestigious one.
Still other receptions abound, though ignored by most reception studies. The Internet is home to two of these: "submerged-official" and "indie" reception.
Submerged-official reception is shadowy but long on impact: communiques and short exchanges circulate among experts whose published work is often the essence of official reception. These communications, typically taking place on Internet electronic marling lists, may never find their way to print. The exchanges do, nonetheless, exert influence on the thinking and writing of the scholars and journalists who participate in this high-level loop of opinion and fact. Electronic mailing lists constitute the latest format of casual research- and opinion-sharing that crops up from time to time. (23) That which begins as submerged-official reception often becomes official.
Indie reception is significant, if only for its sheer volume, and holds a prominent place in this study. My use of the term indie recalls another use of the term, deriving from a recurring pattern of inattention by recording industry giants to emerging music trends, to their eventual dismay. Two examples of this pattern: the major record labels ignored rhythm and blues, as they fostered rock and roll in the 1950s; and, later, they failed to recognize the democratization and increasing availability of sampling software, which allowed the rise of a subversive hip-hop industry. The independent producers' proclivity for sampling and recontextualizing previously released material has loosed a sampling (and soon after, an MP3) culture that now threatens to dismantle the majors' control of their own products. Similarly, independent-minded fans and non-sheepskinned scholars have long contested canonized historical narratives on jazz. Excluded from, and perhaps dismissive of, the official reception apparatus, these indies' comments are unheeded by critical "majors."
RECEPTION OF JAZZ: OFFICIAL, INDIE, QUASI-OFFICIAL, AND SUBMERGED-OFFICIAL
Official Reception and Jazz
Several reviewers have written about Jazz, and I mention a few here: Francis Davis's review for the Atlantic Monthly, (24) David Hajdu's piece in the New York Review of Books, (25) and Ben Ratliff's New York Times article. (26) Each of these reviews addresses issues surrounding the Burns project, and I will refer to them throughout.
Critical reception is assumed to be independent of the work being criticized. Jazz artists and their critics portray themselves as independent, even antagonistic. Writers, both academics and journalists, are careful to preserve their autonomy and, therefore, their integrity as critics. Both parties, however, live in an ecosystem: reviewers and artists depend on each other to maintain their own viability. Two intersections illustrate the point.
The first is the permeable border between the academic and journalistic spheres of writing on jazz. Journalists and academics often wear each other's hats, exchanging ideas and data, as in the case of liner-note authorship, and refer to each other frequently, exchanging ideas and data, both in print (official reception) and in private communication (submerged-official).
The second is that jazz journalists are routinely called upon to both criticize and publicize jazz performers and performances. The entertainment section of the typical metropolitan newspaper is as likely a venue for feature articles and interviews as it is for criticism. To support these entwined efforts, musicians, whether themselves or through their publicists, routinely provide to journalists and their editors biographical details, anecdotes, interviews, and even prewritten feature articles, as press kits. (27) Sometimes the feature writers and reviewers are one and the same. These materials aid deadline-harried journalists who, even in the act of criticism, make considerable use of them. This is not, of course, to suggest that reviewers are not striving for objectivity; the reviews by Ratliff, Hajdu, and Davis are particularly insightful. But while for decades jazz writers have acted as arbiters of taste, many critics' attention, and so that of their readers, has been drawn to certain features of the music or musicians, in disseminated information under at least partial control of the publicist. When the journal or newspaper review appears in the most-read medium, the impact is strong.
Role of the Internet
The Internet complicates the reception ecosystem. The insignificant cost of creating and maintaining Web sites and their easy accessibility via powerful search engines allow any number of opinions to gain wide circulation, bypassing the official publicity mill. In addition to official sites, with the directed information they provide, there are other sites, unrelated to Burns and company; the contributors to these sites are not very likely to toe the party line. The number of these sites is impressive: a Web search on 20 March 2001 using the combined keywords "Ken Burns Jazz" yielded 26,400 matches (see fig. 1), and a second search on 17 April yielded "only" 11,600 matches. (28) Although a few of these were commercial sites purveying Jazz-related merchandise, the rest were all over the map, from adjudicated sites related to scholarly journals, to which I will return below, to homemade chat sites. While it may be possible to discern the scholarly or other credentials of each of these Web sites, what interests me here is the sheer proliferation of opinion. If we estimate a range from two to several tens of thousands of visitors to a site--actually, for some Web sites, for example Billboard.com, the hits can easily be in the millions--the reception of Jazz is lively indeed, far livelier than a "normal" reception study might describe.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Indie Reception and Jazz
The battle over Jazz is being waged by a broad spectrum of folks. A large number of sites are either oppositional to official sites or are sites for specialized readership: information clearinghouses, critical forums, and fan chat sites. They include (official) industry webzines, such as AllAboutJazz.com and Billboard.com, as well as (indie) musicians' personal Web pages, fan Web pages, such as Epinions.com, and personal Web pages of individuals seeking contact with like-minded Web surfers. The types of contact between individuals range from sharing jazz trivia, whether or not with reference to the Burns series, to lauding their favorite musicians (many of whom are unnoticed by the Burns film), and boosterism of jazz generally. There is often a cultishness about these sites: a protectiveness, a guarded stance toward the critical and academic world, not exactly anti-intellectual, but skeptical of the "merely" academic. Often they are the well-informed voices of aficionados. Together they comprise a significant part of the web of reception, with considerable influence.
By way of example, Epinions.com invites the visitor to get "personalized recommendations and brutally honest, unbiased advice--or get paid to write a review!" Such reviews are clearly deemed more trustworthy, useful, and accessible than those found in academic or journalistic reviews. Pointedly avoiding official reception, Epinions.com offers a simple, standardized review format (see fig. 2): a title, a pro-and-con statement, and an overall evaluation out of a possible five stars. Further, visitors to the site who read these reviews vote on how helpful they are, from "excellent" to "very helpful" to "somewhat helpful," and so on.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Two themes emerge in these Epinion.com critiques of Jazz, one laudatory e.g., jazz as America's music) and the other pejorative (e.g., omissions of key players). Nearly all of the reviewers assign high marks to the series. "MsHooterville's" approving entry, "Jazz 101 and Beyond," arises from the "excellent editing, narration, interviews, historical photos and music." The lone sour note comes from "Jazzlover46," whose "con" over-shadows the "pro": "Too many greats left out, and an overemphasis on Louis Armstrong." Overall, the series rates four out of five stars.
New York Times on the Web Forum
Over the past few years, major newspapers and journals have recognized the importance and visibility of the Web, and have launched Web-based editions. Prominent among these is the electronic edition, New York Times on the Web, which provides reader forums of its own. The current news format of the electronic edition is made to look like the Times print version, but now with hypertext links allowing the reader to go to related stories and features, as well as to see a chronological thread of stories, editorials, and forums that relate. (29)
Forums like the Times operate in the cracks between quasi-official letters to the editors and indie chat sites. Administered by a Times staffer, its forums are associated with, but not really "of" the Times. Yet, they are a mouse click away from the story: "official" and "indie" made proximal. They are interwoven, although not integrated: it is still possible to tell who is speaking with the authoritative voice. It is questionable, though, who has the last word.
The Times maintained a forum devoted to jazz, which amassed over three thousand entries from the fall of 2000 to February the following year. The presence of the discussion thread, if not, strictly speaking, its content, seems to have been tied to the Burns special. We know this because although the thread began the previous fall, the activity on it was most intense from December to February, when the Ward book and Jazz compact discs hit the market. (30) Since that time, the world has moved on to other topics of interest; the forum for jazz is no longer being maintained by the Times.
While the reviews in Epinions.com are pithy but generally favorable, the commentary in the Times forum quickly begins to focus on the film's shortcomings. A snapshot view of these postings, as of the third broadcast week (see fig. 3), is summarized and arranged by topic and date (see fig. 4). The Burns series discussion picks up steam just before the film's first broadcast and quickly becomes the main topic. Gradually, the discussion of Jazz falls off, until by 21 January, it is no longer mentioned. (31)
[FIGURES 3-4 OMITTED]
One feature of these discussions is their anonymity. It is rare for a contributor use a real name. And yet the breadth of knowledge and depth of involvement is remarkable. There are several tangential discussions that demonstrate this, for example a discussion on Burns's treatment of singers.
Responding to a comment a few days earlier, that Burns has slighted jazz singers generally and Ella Fitzgerald specifically, one commentator has likened Fitzgerald to Mozart. A discussion ensues about other omissions and undervaluations, now centering on male singers of the forties and fifties. "Okwag3" places Mel Torme in the group of underappreciated artists, "Paints0" complains,
I can understand Ella, Mozart also. But Mel Torme hard to swallow. Mel was in those college movies in the 40s. Picture the best friend role with the college sweater on, romancing Ann Miller. Breaking into song at the drop of a tear.
But I don't really care about Mel's acting. His version of "A Cottage For Sale" I'd put up against Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours" ANYTIME as THE broken heart song. I almost can't bear to listen to it when I'm in a GOOD mood!!
By the next afternoon, "Johnshade1" joins in:
Check out Jack Teagarden's take on "A Cottage for Sale" if you want melancholy.
And so it goes, a set of running conversations and debates about favorite performers and recordings, sharing opinions and arcane information. Against this backdrop of expertise, the Jazz series seems not so much a provider of information as Ken Burns's final exam, before any number of jaundiced schoolmasters, red pencils at the ready, challenging whether Burns gets it right. Indeed, "getting it right" is one of Burns's overriding goals, as he spells out in the short documentary, The Making of Jazz:
It's intensely satisfying, as opposed to having a daily deadline, where you have to turn something out quick, but you don't have time to get it completely right. Here we have an opportunity to get it completely right. We keep working with it, with our hands and with our minds, and most importantly with out hearts, until we get it right. (32)
These forums feature highly independent opinions, placed in opposition, not necessarily to the conclusions of the official reception, but to its assumption of authority, asserting an authority of their own.
Quasi-Official Reception: The Blue Ribbon Opinion Survey
In addition to review articles, newspapers often feature opinion surveys. As in the case of letters to the editor, opinion surveys require reaction, not objectivity. In the "man on the street" survey, the reader has few expectations; but surveys of experts hover between the realms of official and indie. For the opinion piece, "Watching Jazz for Its High Notes and Low," (33) the New York Times posed the question "Is the Burns series a fair representation of jazz?" to musicians and other prominent people involved in the jazz industry, or affected by the music and culture that Jazz portrays. I shall call this article the Blue Ribbon Survey.
The Blue Ribbon Survey includes comments by. Jon Faddis, a leading trumpeter who came to prominence as a protege of Dizzy Gillespie in the 1960s; Joe Lovano, a saxophonist who has recently become nationally prominent, although he has been on the New York jazz scene since the 1970s; and Joshua Redman, one of the most visible "young lions" to emerge in the early 1990s, a beneficiary of the Wynton Marsalis aura. Also included are avant-garde composer and jazz educator Ran Blake; musicologist Scott DeVeaux; historian Robin D. G. Kelley; Michael Dorf, owner of the jazz club, The Knitting Factory; and critics Martha Bayles and Terry Teachout. (34) Since