Listening but not hearing: the Ken Burns version

About the author
Chris Parker writes about jazz for several magazines, including BBC Music.
Like the aficionados of any minority interest, jazz lovers are a notoriously prickly, often downright cantankerous bunch. To the touchiness frequently found in advocates of unpopular causes is added a streak of self-righteousness. This is the (understandable) consequence of the way, they believe, their favoured artform is routinely ignored, disrespected, or dismissed by much of the mainstream media and the general public, despite its importance in terms of its influence on twentieth-century music.

Occasionally, the jazz world’s enthusiasm blinds its more single-minded adherents to the fact works of art that happen to touch on the music, particularly fictional ones, have legitimate artistic agendas. The Bertrand Tavernier film Round Midnight, for instance, was routinely dismissed in the jazz press for “inaccuracies” in portraying the life of its Bud Powell/Lester Young central character. However, Tavernier’s aim was not to make a scrupulously documented, reverential biopic, but to produce a fictional work of art dealing with altogether more relevant issues: the pressures associated with celebrity in an under-rewarded artform, exile and its consequences, and the problems associated with nurturing the art of the eccentric genius without the artist being stifled. To complain about the film’s divergence from strict factual accuracy was therefore as misguided as moaning (as I once heard two recorded-speech-machine experts do) about the apparently imprecise and misleading way dictaphones were used in the film Double Indemnity.

That said, it must be emphasised that much of the vituperative criticism heaped upon Ken Burns’ Jazz – a twelve-part history of the music from its birth in minstrelsy, spirituals, worksongs, ragtime and blues to the 1970s deaths of its two “towering figures”, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – is entirely legitimate. The project is non-fictional, claims to present a definitive, objective view of the music’s history, and attempts to place that history in its social context.

A starry-eyed neophyte?

The criticism can be divided into three broad areas: alleged racial bias, an over-emphasis of the part played in the music’s development by Armstrong and Ellington, and the programmes’ failure to convey the uplifting joyousness of much of jazz and its consequential vitality and importance in the present day.

The last of these criticisms was perhaps most trenchantly expressed in a letter to the New York Times by the pianist Keith Jarrett, who asked: “Now that we’ve been put through the socio-economic radical forensics of a jazz-illiterate historian and a self-imposed jazz expert prone to sophomoric generalizations and ultra-conservative politically correct (for now) utterances, not to mention a terribly heavy-handed narration... and weepy-eyed nostalgic reveries, can we have some films about jazz by people who actually know and understand the music itself and are willing to deal comprehensively with the last forty years of this richest of American treasures?”

Burns himself answers this criticism robustly: his work is a history, the jury is still out on jazz’s progress since the mid-1970s, so a balanced assessment of those years is not yet possible. But this is surely disingenuous. The vast majority of modern-jazz lovers attribute Burns’ failure to engage with post-1970s jazz solely to his admitted ignorance concerning the music prior to his agreeing to film its history. This naivety, they suggest, led him – rather in the manner of one of Konrad Lorenz’s goslings, which famously “fixed” on the first object they saw when hatched, taking it for their mother, even if that object happened to be Lorenz’s wellington boot – to “fix” on the first charismatic jazz expert he encountered: Wynton Marsalis.

The Wynton Marsalis problem

The arguments that have raged about the extravagantly talented and eloquent trumpeter and his great champion, Stanley Crouch, are vital and wearisome by turns. Some, it must be asserted, are based on their adherents’ stereotyped idea of what a “real” jazz musician should be (a spontaneously gifted, but unstable individual, cool, hip, over-fond of illegal substances and constantly on the lookout for the new and cutting-edge, in both music and life) – and thus quite unable to accommodate a thoughtful, serious-minded neo-classicist who constantly urges youngsters to practise and is outspoken in his criticism of both avant-garde jazz and rap.

Acknowledging this, though, should not blind us to the sheer wrong-headedness of Marsalis on this particular issue; he routinely dismisses whole swathes of the music: fusion, as typified by post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis; free jazz, as practised by the likes of Cecil Taylor; mixes of so-called “world music” and jazz, as played by, say, Charlie Mariano or the late Don Cherry.

To oversimplify somewhat, jazz to Wynton Marsalis is the classical music of the early to mid-twentieth century; it stopped evolving (meaningfully, at any rate) with the advent of Ornette Coleman in 1959, but by then had produced a plethora of viable styles: traditional, collectively improvised music epitomized by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens; ultra-sophisticated, composed big-band music as heard in the work of Duke Ellington; small-group mainstream music of the sort played by the likes of Johnny Hodges and Buck Clayton; bebop pioneered by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. In the absence of any legitimate forward direction, the music could become, like the classical music Marsalis also played on Grammy-winning albums, largely a “repertoire”-based artform, its practitioners honing, refining and concentrating on nuances of interpretation, but no longer innovating.

Many would say that this idea runs counter to the whole ethos of jazz, a music which (as Burns’ series admirably demonstrated in its earlier episodes) has always thrived courtesy of the sheer artistic restlessness of its practitioners. True, there has not been a mould-shattering figure in the music (an Armstrong, a Parker, a Coltrane or a Coleman) in the past forty years, but as the distinguished Paris-based jazz musician and music writer Mike Zwerin asserts, jazz is “growing out as well as up. It may not be getting better, but it is getting everywhere. It used to be that we had one great man after another, and each was “better”, developing from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane. That’s not happening any more, but on the other hand, you can now go to any city in the developed world and find a really good rhythm section”.

This dispersal of jazz’s seeds has resulted in cross-pollination of the most intriguing sorts: with African musics such as rai among the expatriate Maghrebi musicians in Paris, for instance, or the mixes of indigenous folk musics and jazz exploited by Jan Garbarek at one end of Europe and the Instabile Orchestra at the other. In such fertile soil, who knows what might suddenly spring up? The important thing is to keep pushing at the music’s boundaries, as its great innovators have always done, not to allow the music to ossify by dwelling on past glories, impressive though they undoubtedly are.

Blinded by giants?

On the issue of the series’ supposed over-concentration on Armstrong and Ellington, it is also difficult to side with Burns and Marsalis. No one for a moment could seriously suggest that either musician is overrated – particularly as far as the general public is concerned. But to be so reluctant to let them go, even when ostensibly dealing with subsequent developments such as bebop, seriously skewed the balance of the history.

Thus we had a programme on bop, which did not, apparently, have time to assess the contributions of Fats Navarro (mentioned solely as one of a depressing rollcall of drug addicts) and Tadd Dameron (not mentioned at all), but which did have time to include the whole of Armstrong’s famous (and later modified) put-down of the beboppers, “The Wiffenpoof Song”. We had a lengthy discussion of Ellington’s celebrated comeback concert at Newport in 1956, while the whole of hard bop/soul jazz, from Horace Silver and Art Blakey to Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and all the other figures immortalized by the Blue Note label in the 1950s and 1960s, was almost totally ignored. Similar elisions were enacted in the inexplicable jump straight from the end of bebop to Coltrane and Coleman via the 1950s and 1960s work of Miles Davis, while an odd detour brought us back to such figures as Sarah Vaughan, who unaccountably appeared during a programme ostensibly devoted to the avant-garde.

Hard bop: black east versus white west

Which brings us to the accusations of racial bias. The champions of Burns’s work emphasise that, as part of a trilogy about America beginning with the Civil War, continuing through baseball and culminating in jazz, the series was always going to be a social history first and a musical history second – and thus deal head-on with slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and the civil-rights struggle, as much as exclusively musical issues. But such an argument finds it hard to account for the neglect of hard bop.

For not only was this genre championed by its adherents at the time as an overdue reassertion of the music’s “black” roots in gospel, spirituals and blues, an attempt to reach audiences perhaps a little daunted by the fiercely cerebral, nervy bebop, but it was also consciously put forward by the mainly black musicians who played it as an East Coast antidote to what many saw as the somewhat opportunistic, anaemic version of the music being purveyed – with enviable commercial success – on the West Coast by white musicians such as Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers and the like. The programme dealt pretty comprehensively with a similar situation regarding Paul Whiteman in the 1920s and 1930s, but mysteriously ducked the opportunity to follow the controversy through to the 1950s and 1960s, and consequently missed the chance to study a fascinating social phenomenon.

One-way street

The series was, then, a great deal more confident when dealing with unequivocal African American achievements (and no serious, honest observer can deny that the music owes its existence and survival through to the 1960s almost entirely to black innovators, practitioners and composers) than it was in chronicling the occasional exceptions to this (klezmer as a tributary stream, the Austin High School gang, white bands such as that of Woody Herman or Charlie Barnet, the contribution to “cool” jazz made by Claude Thornhill, the part played in Miles Davis’s career by Gil and Bill Evans), all of which were either totally ignored or seriously underemphasized.

It is also difficult to justify the inclusion of what must be described as a paean of praise for Wynton Marsalis himself in the penultimate episode, which presented him, in the 1980s, as a knight on a white charger riding to rescue the sorely beleaguered maiden jazz, about to expire in the clutches of the avant-garde and the “fusion” lobby, determined to besmirch her reputation with too much cerebration or crass commercialisation. This interpretation of jazz history is probably accepted only in the Marsalis household, and possibly not by all of its members, brother Branford being a fan of hip-hop and avant-garde saxophonists such as David Ware.

Witches’ brew

The really disturbing moment, in this particular context, however, came in the final episode, which purported to list a representative sample of current practitioners carrying the music into the twenty-first century. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton was mentioned, but not the consistent poll-winner on that instrument over the past few years, Dave Douglas; bassist Christian McBride was listed, but not Dave Holland; pianist Marcus Roberts, but not Keith Jarrett (whose Köln Concert is one of the music’s highest-selling recordings); saxophonist Joshua Redman but neither Michael Brecker nor Chris Potter; it would be possible to go on, but the trend is clear: all the first-named are black, all those omitted white. This might be more easily dismissed as a coincidence resulting from crude, crass head-counting, if it were not sadly consistent with previous utterances from the Marsalis/Crouch camp. In liner notes to a recent album by vibes player Bobby Hutcherson, Crouch makes the astonishing statement: “[Hutcherson] is the only vibraphonist to enter the pantheon in the wake of Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson.” This statement, in a world containing Gary Burton, Mike Maineri, Joe Locke and many others, is accurate only if the word “black” is inserted before “vibraphonist”.

So, despite the indisputable seriousness of Burns himself, his almost painful earnestness, the touching zeal of the newly converted, the undoubtedly sincere and deeply-felt eloquence of Marsalis himself (not to mention the percipience of Gary Giddins and the wisdom and elegance of the frequent quotes from Ralph Ellison), and despite the extraordinary picture research and technical skills lavished upon the series, it must be seen as a missed opportunity.

Future ages relying solely on this history will inevitably regard it as the history of jazz in the twentieth century; it is, for all the reasons listed above, merely a history, and a somewhat partial one at that. Perhaps its makers should have listened more carefully to, and drawn lessons from, the series’ great central figure, Duke Ellington. Asked if he resented being unable to stay in some of the hotels at which he performed, he answered: “I thought about the energy required to pout, then wrote a blues.”