Epic Jazz

By Freund, Charles Paul | Reason, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Epic Jazz


Freund, Charles Paul, Reason


Ken Burns' latest film teaches an unintended lesson in musical ecstasy

The opening note of Jazz, Ken Burns' 10-part documentary for PBS (available on video), comes from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who's not playing but lecturing. "Jazz music objectifies America," he tells us, then offers a lesson about what jazz really is. The form's great power emerges from musicians who "negotiate their agendas with each other." According to Marsalis (he's Lincoln Center's official jazz master), that negotiation, that handing off and passing around of inspiration--that jam--is jazz's transcendence.

Most jazz musicians would agree. As the cliche goes, it's one thing to do a show for your paying customers, playing what they expect and have paid to hear. But after the squares go home, you can stop blowing shit and make another kind of music altogether. Yet many musicians would also agree that, more often than not, it's a lot more satisfying to play that personal kind of music than it is to sit and listen to it, Jazz musicians involved with each other in intimate creativity may well be negotiating their way to improvisational sublimity, but they've often left the audience out of the musical deal.

This is a central but rarely acknowledged tension in Burns' documentary treatment. Neither Burns nor PBS would present nearly 19 hours of archival footage and contemporary performances and interviews unless the series could claim, as it does repeatedly, that jazz is a fundamentally American art form that reveals much about the culture from which it has sprung. But it would reveal nothing if jazz had not been a commercial form to begin with, if--to put it in Marsalis' terms--its original makers had not hungrily included the customers in the negotiation. For all its knowing (and legitimate) commentary about expressive artistry, for all the context of romantic creation, Burns' film actually works best when it showcases jazz as an opportunity for its audience's ecstatic pleasure.

Albert Murray, one of American culture's best critics (because his work is broadly instructive, rather than narrowly judgmental), puts the matter directly in one of his appearances. Playing a contrapuntal riff to Marsalis' Professor of Negotiation Studies, Murray says simply, "Jazz is dance music." That doesn't mean jazz isn't also a lot of other things. But it does mean that jazz's artistry is deeply rooted in sensual pleasure. The farther jazz has strayed from those roots, away from breathless, sweat-beaded ecstasy, the more clubs have closed, the more radio stations have switched programming (often to jazz's rhythm-and-blues-based offspring), and the nearer it has approached its appointment with public broadcasting. PBS has fallen into the role of cultural memorializer, the celebrator of moribund genres.

Yet Burns' series, its self-conscious gestures toward epic notwithstanding, is filled with rewards, many of them proffered unintentionally. Jazz is indeed an American story, which means that art and commerce need not be separate and opposing forces. The former triumphed through the latter, rising from whorehouse scorn in such places as New Orleans and Kansas City to find an enthusiastic audience despite the original dismissal of gatekeeper critics (Gilbert Seldes notably excepted), editorialists, and even doctors, before eventually falling into the suffocating embrace of Lincoln Center itself.

Burns doesn't set out to tell that tale, but that's the story that emerges, over and over again. Burns' documentary gifts are not visionary, analytical, nor even properly, historical. Rather, he is a talented biographer, and his films are most effective when he is able to present an overarching narrative in terms of the biographical detail of that narrative's participants. The approach worked especially well in his Civil War series, because it unexpectedly humanized the war. It didn't work so well in his baseball series, because the mass of detail tended to obscure the game itself; few sports fans really want to know their heroes out of uniform. …

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