Controversy over Ken Burns' Jazz began months before the first installment of the 10-part megamentary aired January 8. Newspapers and magazines opened their pages to


It's alive!

But you'd never know it watching Ken Burns' music marathon.

Controversy over Ken Burns' Jazz began months before the first installment of the 10-part megamentary aired January 8. Newspapers and magazines opened their pages to jazz gurus disputing everything about the show, from its choice of music to its ranking of artists to its racial politics. One thing that's pretty much escaped consideration so far: What's Jazz like as television?


by Ken Burns PBS, January 8-31; rebroadcast TBA

As one who can claim not to have missed one second of Jazz 's 1,067 minutes (I cheated: watching preview tapes, I could take a guilt-free pee break whenever necessary) I am here to tell you that as television, Jazz is 100 percent, 24-carat Burnsiana, in every respect a meticulous stylistic clone of his earlier PBS blockbusters The Civil War and Baseball.

And that's exactly what's wrong with it. Never have subject matter and style been so ill-matched in a nonfiction film: Imagine Roger and Me's Michael Moore documenting daily life in a nunnery—that far off key. Jazz, the music, is exuberant, anarchic, mercurial; Jazz the film is solemn, plodding, relentless. Jazz is, among many other things, whorehouse music and light flirtation music, austere-vision music and drug-abuse music, happy-feet music and brain-food music. In Burns' Jazz all those musics are scrubbed, depilated, duded up in their Sunday best, and hauled rebelliously off to church for the edification of the congregation (us).

Even in The Civil War, Burns' unremitting solemnity and death-march pacing troubled some viewers (well, me, anyway), but at least the approach suited the seriousness of the subject. Apparently due to the enormous commercial and critical success of that film, Burns has approached every subject since in the same spirit and with the same set of technical tools until both have hardened into invariable formula. Once again we have the slow pans across grainy historic photos intercut with interpretive color by contemporary experts, both bathed in the reverential musings of an omniscient narrator (actor Keith David) and evocative, ever-changing background music.

There's the friggin' rub. Jazz is about jazz, which is music, an art taken in through the ears, not the eyes. There's something paradoxical in the very notion of documenting the history of an aural medium in an overwhelmingly visual one. In a rational world, Jazz would have been a 20-part NPR series, not a 10-part PBS series, but that, alas, is not where the big sponsorship bucks are.

Still, a skillful artist can make the visible reinforce the audible, or at least avoid distracting from it. Burns and his collaborators don't seem even to have realized they had a problem. For the better part of 18 hours we look at striking pictures and listen to a dozen or so recurrent talking heads (critics Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddens, musicians Arvell Shaw and Jackie McLean) opining, while the ostensible subject matter of the whole enterprise dribbles away suggestively in the background.

The sheer perversity of this approach is highlighted in the heartbreakingly rare instances when the filmmakers lead up to a crucial moment in jazz history and then get the fuck out of the way to let us listen to the history being made. There's footage of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "Dinah" (when? where? Burns doesn't tell us) almost worth sitting through the whole show for. There's a broke-down Billie Holiday's face as she listens to a broke-down Lester Young's husky tenor sax caress her. There's a rare track of "Cherokee" (recorded when? where?) in which we hear Charlie Parker cutting the cord of chord changes to soar free above them—arguably the single most fateful artistic choice in the whole history of jazz.

But these brief passages, and some blessed excerpts from live TV broadcasts in the 1950s and '60s, are all but lost in the wash of formula. Ken Burns is too busy developing and promoting projects these days to spend much hands-on time on them. The 10 episodes of Jazz are credited to as many different "segment editors." Neither Burns nor his frequent writer- collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward make the least claim to expertise in jazz history or even profess any affection for the music. For them jazz is not so much beautiful or exciting or inspiring as it is IMPORTANT—important and thereby eminently fund-worthy.

Since neither Ward nor Burns had roots in the field themselves, they turned for guidance to one who has plowed the field to his own great advantage: trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (sardonically but accurately identified by New Yorker jazz sage Whitney Balliett as "the CEO of Jazz at Lincoln Center").

Marsalis, ax in hand, contributes some of the most entertaining and insightful passages in the early installments of Jazz, but long before the series ends, his ideological dominance becomes oppressive and, ultimately, absurd. In the Gospel According to Burns, Armstrong is Moses, the founder of the faith, and Duke Ellington the Prophets all rolled into one. But at the end of the story, the Promised One arrives, and his name shall be called . . . well, Marsalis isn't explicitly dubbed the Messiah, but the final program in the series portrays him, surrounded by a dozen of disciples who are explicitly identified as the future of jazz in a new millennium.

I'm not qualified to take part in the furious debate going on these days about who, if anyone, is the future of jazz. But I do know that the way Burns & Co. cram the last 40 years of the music's 100-year history into the last tenth of the series' running time, and the way Marsalis and his Lincoln Center cronies dominate much of that, is as comic as it is arrogant.

Rounding off a hundred years of ever-expanding musical diversity with draping Satchmo's mantle round Wynton's Armani-clad shoulders implies that jazz has reached its foregone culmination: i.e., is over. Worse yet, the implication could help make itself come true. Sales of jazz records have skyrocketed since Jazz premiered, which is good news for the media conglomerates who hold the copyrights on past masterpieces. Most have shut down their jazz divisions; why spend money recording the living when you can do so nicely battening on the dead?

Additional information

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