Ken Burns, the Academy, and Jazz
LET'S CUT TO THE CHASE on Ken 'Burm's Jazz 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 19 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? Even before it aired, and before most of them saw a fraction of it, it didn't. Once it came out, there was plenty of noisy debate about it, sometimes with good reason, more often not.
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 popular American 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 10-episode, 19-hours'-long series was six years in the making, and it sprawls: 75 talking heads, tens of thousands of still photos, 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 ever been done about jazz.