Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ken Burns Jazz:The War of Episode 10

Narrator and potential ass-whupper Keith David
While I don't consider myself a jazz historian, I do teach Jazz History at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. (Hey, I tried to tell them!) And so, in my efforts to try to come up with interesting ways to teach the class, I have found that Jazz-A Film By Ken Burns is highly useful. When it was first released, it was highly controversial among my peers, for reasons I will discuss later. But I have found the first few chapters to be excellent in showing us the real root origins of jazz music in America. It says it better than I ever could. (I wish I had narrator Keith David's rich low baritone voice. Keith David is probably immortalized in most people's minds as the father-in-law of Mary from There's Something About Mary. His famous line? "Don't make me open up a can of whup-ass on you...")

If you see this 10 part documentary for what it is, and not for what it isn't, then it's a wonderful teaching tool. The demonstration of how this distinctly American music was created is very clear and compelling: the new world and it's extreme culture clashes slowly developed a completely unique musical language. Sure, you could read Gunther Schuller's scholarly tome Early Jazz and read what comes off like a doctoral thesis and bore your class to tears. (Sorry Gunther; with all due respect to your vast knowledge, the explanations of how African traditions infiltrated European sensibilities is completely thorough- it's just not sexy!)But in Chapter 1 of Burns' film, you have a real picture of the era; the brave new world and it's rugged lifestyles, the horror of slavery, the ironic controversy of minstrel shows, the intensity of New Orleans during Reconstruction. For young students who may have no idea what jazz is about beyond one Brad Mehldau CD and a copy of the Real Book, it should be inspiring. And it should hopefully inspire students to look for more information themselves. After all, no historical perspective should be viewed as the absolute truth.

I believe that is where the controversy lies in this film. Although other experts are given a chance to speak in the film, we definitely see way too much of Wynton Marsalis. Now I will gladly give Marsalis his props as a trumpet virtuoso. But is he the best authority on jazz history that Ken Burn's could find?
too much Wynton?
Clearly this was a political move. And while I still think that Marsalis gives some great commentary, at times he seems out of his element, and almost seems like he's pulling information out of thin air. Furthermore, Marsalis' agenda is well known to most jazz musicians; traditional blues and swing are the most important thing in jazz, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong are the most important influences in the jazz of any decade, and anything that goes beyond that is a travesty. Fusion, jazz-funk, certain avant-garde musicians are an aberration. Hence, the contention regarding Episode 10.

Admittedly, I had not watched this chapter until now. (I spent more time with the previous nine episodes because, despite the bias, they are great for the classroom, especially for today's youth, who tend to think of Duke Ellington as some vague royal European.) Episode 10 begins with Dexter Gordon, goes into the rise of the Beatles and some commentary by late vocalist Abbey Lincoln regarding the idea that "somebody" was trying to get rid of jazz by bring over British rock musicians. There is a short bit about how Louis Armstrong, although not enthusiastically, recorded "Hello Dolly" which became a hit; Armstrong had no idea about the success of the recording and had to send for the sheet music during a tour. Then, they play some of the Max Roach/ Abbey Lincoln piece We Insist! Freedom Now, which leads to talk of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. Charles Mingus' political music is discussed. Some of the music during this period is described by the narrator as "musical militancy." The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Cecil Taylor are presented well. Even Joao Gilberto, Stan Getz and Bossa Nova are given air time.This is all, so far, great, true, and relevant, and on the surface should not be controversial.

But then we jump back to Duke Ellington, who, great as he is, has already gotten a lot of space in this mini-series length film. And we also see Marsalis again, who is conspicuously absent from any commentary on all of the musicians in my previous chapter. We get to see some good footage of John Coltrane, although I find Gary Giddins' comments, as well as Marsalis', to be superfluous(although earlier in the documentary, Giddins comes off as knowledgeable.) More great footage appears regarding Miles Davis' 60's quintet. I have no real complaints so far, and can't see why anyone else would.

Then there is some incredible footage of the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival where Sly and the Family Stone rock the house; according to George Wein, this had a huge impact on Miles Davis, which led him into the jazz-rock and fusion which Marsalis' clearly has a disdain for. Again, for a classroom, it's still good viewing, because it does present the history, however, Marsalis can't hide his disgust.(They should have left his little snide comments out, in my opinion.) And then we cut back to Louis Armstrong and then back to Ellington. OK, there's isn't much time left in the show, you have three more decades to cover, why are we cutting back to them? Maybe Burns is trying to tie it all together, however, it does seem like, according to this documentary, that jazz died with Armstrong and Ellington. Here's where it starts to get preachy. Marsalis gets on his soapbox and starts talking about the music "will become itself..." or something. Burns and Marsalis, you kind of lost me here.

Leaving out Woody Shaw equals FAIL!
Moving into the homestretch,we cut back to Dexter Gordon, and his homecoming to New York from decades in Europe. And then, whaddya know! Wynton Marsalis, in his debut with Art Blakey in the early 80's is presented as the savior of jazz. Uhh, talk about a conflict of interest! Talk about PROPAGANDA(Good thing Ken Burns doesn't play an instrument, maybe he'd try to sell himself as the greatest xylophone player in jazz.). Much of the information on Marsalis is true; his rise in popularity did create a new generation of young jazz players. Some refer to this era as the Young Lions phase of the 80's and 90's; neo-traditionalists playing sort of a modern straight-ahead style(although Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts probably had as much to do with that inspiration as Marsalis.) However, wow, SO many things left out. No mention of anything about all the great music in the 70's, and the 80's up until 2000 are so rushed, it might as well have been left out. No mention of Woody Shaw, one of the last great innovators on the trumpet, so even that gives it an automatic ZERO!

Apparently, Burns admitted that he didn't know much about Jazz until he did this documentary. While the first nine episodes are great for their own sake, the last episode shows how ignorant and easily manipulated Burns is about the music. I think Burns should have made a shorter documentary and just called it Armstrong and Ellington:America's Originals. (But no one ever listens to me! Burns, why didn't you return my calls?)And I think the worst thing about it is that this glaring omission, by something that claims to be all encompassing, does it in a very sneaky way. You don't realize it until the last half-hour:"Hey, where's Return to Forever? Where's Sphere? Where is OTB? Where is George Duke? Where is John Zorn? No M-Base?"

Bowl Hair Cuts: A Film By Ken Burns
It's too bad, because it's a great idea to do such a documentary. Plus I really enjoyed Burns' documentary on World War II. And I will still use this series for my class. It only means that I have to be able to talk about all the musicians that Burns and Marsalis left out. (Hmm, maybe somebody should do a documentary on that, called Jazz: All The Cats That Burns and Marsalis Forgot. Come on people, these are brilliant ideas, where's my hand-held pretentious idea recorder?)


  1. Burns was given more funding and air time for this series than jazz is ever likely to get. Even so, he did his usual half-asssed job.

    Globally speaking, jazz may well be the most influential music ever, and it is certainly an extraordinary American trademark—the many people who created it and often braved adversity as they moved it through its various phases, are owed a great debt.

    Keenly aware of his own shortcomings when it came to knowledge of this subject, and armed with a fantasy-like budget, Burns should have sought out the most knowledgeable people available: the performers—artists who contributed to the music rather than exploited it. Instead, he gave us shallow hearsay by such agenda-driven people as Wynton—a corporate and mainstream media favorite trumpet technician—and his lackey, Crouch. This is no documentary, for it deliberately twists the facts to fit into Burns' own blurry picture of reality.

    Some great artists had their name mentioned on a roll-call of drug addicts, and often only in that context. I could go on, but suffice it to say that I think your criticism of episode 10, while spot on, should have been applied to the 9 chapters that preceded it. As for the Ken Burns merchandizing that followed...well?

  2. GREAT ARTICLE GEORGE!!! Very thorough and gets to the heart of the controversy. Wynton lost me early in the series when he started talking about how musicians sounded that he had no way of hearing, because they weren't recorded, and he obfuscates knowledge about people like Thelonious Monk (in his talking head piece about "Evidence" I think it is, he says things like "now Monk gives you some gumbo...").

    Still, though, documentary is worth seeing, as long as it is accompanied by other exploration of the music (especially the people left out).

  3. Yes, I do think the documentary is flawed-however, I'm just trying to get through a history class for 90 minutes two times a week. So for that, it can work.
    Wynton is not the only person who gives commentary, to be sure. So there is a lot of true information. Is it the gospel in terms of jazz history? I don't think so. How could it be? I wouldn't try to do a documentary on anything that I didn't have some kind of grasp on. But you have to consider how ignorant most people are about jazz: I did my student teaching in the early 90's at a high school with a renowned jazz band. They did Maynard Ferguson charts and that was about it. The director was into Maynard, Chuck Mangione, and Kenny G. With all due respect to this band director , a master educator in terms getting kids to play, he seemed to have a very narrow view of the origins of jazz.
    I think it would be great if somehow, somebody could do a documentary and pick up where Burns left off. Indeed, the more recent the history, the more actual video footage there is and there more people who are still alive. So many cats who played with Miles are worth talking to.....

  4. Agreed: Fantastic early history of the music, especially in the context of the social policies of the time (i.e without Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, who knows when the spark of jazz would have been created!), but c'mon, look at all the folks he could have interviewed while they were alive! I mean, Elvin Jones was alive at the time of the shooting, and he didn't interview him during the spot on 'Trane? WTF?!! Vernel Fournier on New Orleans?? etc. I can go on and on and on.

    It was egregious who he left out and we can only assume that he was taking direction from Wynton on who to track down to interview. It's a travesty.

    Great early history. Terrible missed opportunities getting important figures who were alive at the time on camera to talk about this music.

  5. You should watch the documentary "Icons Among Us" if you haven't already. It's not overtly a retort to Burns's documentary, but it can't really not be. Good footage in it of modern musicians that Burns left out--although, like Burns documentary, it has its weaknesses.

  6. ah, the blind attack of wynton continues.

  7. "ah, the blind attack of wynton continues."

    Blind, perhaps, but not deaf.

  8. Maybe I should not make a comment on this because I have not taken the time to view Ken Burns Documentary even though it has been sitting on a shelf in my home for years. Again I said, “Maybe.” Well here it goes anyway. The reason I have not viewed it is because of all the negative comments I have heard from other musicians about the content. All due respect to Wynton, who in my opinion has come a long way in his foray into Jazz, he would have been probably the best classical trumpet player ever if he had chosen to make that idiom his vehicle. Some how and some way a lot of responsibility was thrown on his shoulders at a young age to be the Messiah of Jazz (more than likely the media). I feel that any young person that was placed in his shoes would have gotten a swollen head too. I even heard that he had the audacity to walk out on stage trumpet in hand while Miles Davis was performing. You know that did not go over well with Miles. In short let’s not beat these guys up to bad. Jazz is unappreciated in America today. Very few musicians can eek out a living playing only Jazz. Let’s hope that the novice listener will see this documentary go out and seek and explore the world of Jazz for their selves. If something is not done soon and a new crop of listeners are not harvested Jazz will go the way of Classical Music and will need to be subsidized in order to exist. Look at what the economy has done to Classical Music today. Sometimes I use to almost gag when someone would walk up to me and say they like Jazz and when I ask them what Jazz Musician do they like and they would say Kenny-G. Then I realized that Kenny-G’s CD are categorically placed in the Jazz Section. Hopefully, when these so called Jazz listeners go to buy his CD they will see a Kenny Garett, Sonny Stitt, or John Coltrane CD and decide to explore there. We need to find away to market to the public the current crop of players that are on the scene today if this Art Form is to survive. Studying Jazz history is great and beneficial but Jazz needs to replace the former innovators with new ones. In short Ken Burns was able to get funding and create something about Jazz and no one else has been able to do it. He has been successful in doing documentaries in other areas and decided to do one on Jazz. He did not have to but he did and we all should be thank-ful.

  9. The documentary is great, granted Marsalis acts like the shiner he is, but don't let that turn you off watching it, he isnt a constant on screen factor and only really becomes the focus in episode 10, which is a tenth of the whole production, if anything watch the first 9 and stop there if you dont like Marsalis. Honestly i think Burns would have to do an entirely seperate doco on modern jazz and subcatagorys there of, in order to give credit to everyone who deserves it, too many to name them all but people like chick corea, jaco pastorius and herbie hancock come to mind, pioneers in their own right and also important elements in the creation of newer, modern genres of music. From memory there is slight mention of Hancock but as an underling of Miles rather than an artist who carved his own grooves into music history. All in all it is a very interesting and entertaining doco that is well worth the watch.

  10. Ah yes, back to the burning of Burns. Overall,"Jazz" is a great preface to the music and only that. Most critics decry what is missing, but it is only a very brief introduction to a vast, vast topic. I hope it generated interest among many viewers and led them to discover the music. It completely missed some of my favorites, but still left me smiling.

  11. Instead of showing a video in class that you're not crazy about, you could use youtube to find good clips, do your own research and draw your own conclusions. I think that would be a terrific class!

  12. In the late 1990s, the late filmmaker Henry Hampton did a six-hour documentary, “I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts.” If you can find a copy, show it to your class. Hampton did a better job on jazz (and numerous other arts) in six hours than Burns did in nineteen.

    Otherwise, as a jazz musician who has taught college-level jazz history for many years *and* produced “Jazz Profiles” documentaries for NPR, I second Phats Navarro’s suggestion (above). Whatever value that the Burns “Jazz” film initially had as a teaching tool has dissipated with the advent of YouTube, the superb “Jazz Icons” video series, and other resources. Leave the Burns infomercial at home and treat your students to primary sources.

  13. I really enjoyed the series, and learned a lot from it, yes, too much Wynton, but he did play the intro to "West end blues" really well.

    can I plug my favourite music doc?

    "Make it funky" directed by Michael Murphy the story of New Orleans music.

    there's quite a bit of history from the late forties, on, pictures of Aretha performing in a small hotel bar,

    some of it is about Louis Armstrong, but not that much, some amazing trumpet players in that tradition, Irwin Mayfield, Troy Andrews,

    (cutting contest between three hot trumpet players)

    really good on the drumming/percussion tradition of New Orleans, I had no idea there was such an outstanding group of drummers from there, wow.

    hosted by the Neville brothers

    Jazz players should check it out, might see how to get the people up on their feet.

  14. As a guy who doesn't know much about modern jazz, I wonder why Wynton Marsalis gets so much hate from critics on the internet. He's clearly a gifted player, one of the few modern jazz artists I've ever heard about, and his interview spots in this Ken Burns documentary are lively and usually seem on point to me. So the documentary doesn't cover jazz since the 70s very well. Of course it doesn't. That should have been obvious the moment you realized they were cramming about 4 decades into the last episode. That doesn't automatically negate the value of the previous 9 episodes.

    Personally, I enjoyed it. For me, a jazz neophyte, it helped build a context for jazz music and musicians, particularly through the 1950s.


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