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All That Jazz

. . . But Is It Good History?

By Lee Gardner | Posted 1/3/2001


Ken Burns

Charlie Parker was the inventor and the finest practitioner of bebop, not to mention one of the most idolized and influential jazz musicians of all time. But even at the height of his cult in the late 1940s, when every hip young musician in the country worshiped him and his work, Bird knew that the music would, and should, eventually progress past even his startling modernism. "Jazz has got to go on from here," Parker once said to trumpeter Red Rodney. "We can't just stop with this."

Jazz did eventually move beyond Parker. From bop it branched out into dozens of different styles, schools, and sounds. It continues to branch and evolve today, and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. Director Ken Burns' 10-part, 18-plus-hour film, set to premiere Jan. 8 on Maryland Public Television, offers an accomplished, epic telling of one of America's greatest stories and an extended meditation on the overarching subtext of his previous maxi-docs The Civil War and Baseball--race in America. Jazz is a landmark television document but it also does something of a disservice to the music by treating it as living history rather than contemporary music with a fascinating past and a future that continues to unfold.

Director/co-producer Burns and series writer Geoffrey C. Ward begin their story with the earliest stirrings of jazz amid the fecund cultural jumble of late-19th- and early-20th-century New Orleans and follow the music's rise and spread. They also make clear throughout the series that the country's stark racial divisions often made sharing this ebullient African-American invention a tense, contradictory affair, even as it set Americans of all complexions to dancing.

It is the music's unifying power, in spite of all, that seems to most fascinate the filmmakers. Jazz lavishes most of four episodes on the '30s and '40s, when big bands led by Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and others provided the soundtrack for American nightlife and buoyed spirits during the Depression and World War II. These middle episodes swing just as much as the music; Burns jazzes up his now-rote mix of black title cards, archival photos, contemporary interviews, and voice-overs by cutting together verve-y montages to the furious pounding of Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing" and the like. But when Jazz moves onto the beboppers and their defiant emphasis on art over entertainment, jazz music's popular peak passes and the series' energy and diligence begins to slump.

The artistic breakthroughs for which bop proponents fought paved the way for some of the greatest jazz ever made: Miles Davis' spectacular streak of mold-breaking efforts throughout the '50s and '60s, the tough hard-bop sound that still echoes on the scene today, John Coltrane's musical and spiritual quest, and Ornette Coleman's formal break with all traditions. All are given respectable attention here. But the final episode purports to cover jazz from 1961 to the present in under two hours. With less than half an hour allotted to cover each of the last four decades, Jazz does a poor job of bringing the viewer up to date and leaves the impression that nothing much has happened in the music since the '60s.

Burns and Ward touch on Davis' move into electric instruments and the coming of jazz fusion but drop the subject at that, ignoring a strain of the music that remains a force to this day. They give perfunctory honor to the more extreme sonic explorations of Coltrane, Coleman, and Cecil Taylor but otherwise dismiss the free-jazz movement. They ignore the New York City loft scene of the '70s and its cousin, the Lower East Side avant garde of the '80s and '90s, which is still spinning off vital music. They don't even mention the advent of R&B-flavored "smooth jazz," even though it's no more slick and commercial than much of the big-band stuff and quite popular among people who might describe themselves as jazz fans. These are recent musical movements that could use some historical perspective, for good or for ill, but Jazz offers none. (Latin influences in post-Louis Armstrong jazz get perfunctory mentions at best, but that's another article.)

The only contemporary musician given any significant coverage in the final episode is neo-classicist Wynton Marsalis, who also happens to be the series' senior creative consultant and the most frequent speaker in its gallery of talking heads. Marsalis is entertaining and informative and equaniminous; he refrains from making the kinds of dismissive comments he has made in the past about electric Miles, the downtown scene, etc., for Burns' camera. But his presence sends a message: The future of jazz lies in revering its past. Some seconds-long video clips of contemporary players such as David Murray and James Carter and interviews with a high school ensemble are obviously meant to wave the flag for jazz in the 21st century, but it's a soft sell at best.

There's a lot to love about Jazz, and any fan or interested newcomer will find plenty to marvel over and treasure. One of the most gratifying things about it is the way Burns and Ward use Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as framing devices, checking in on the long careers of America's most important improviser and its greatest composer/bandleader in each episode, measuring their music and fortunes against the scene at hand. If nothing else, Jazz serves as a reminder of how amazing their lives and music truly were. The series' final episode includes poignant accounts of Armstrong's death in 1971 and Ellington's in 1974. The music they pioneered, however, remains very much alive, and Jazz would have been better off adding at least one more night to acknowledge that fact.

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