In defense of “Jazz”

Hipster critics say Ken Burns offered up only penny-ante sociology and sops to Wynton Marsalis. They're wrong.

Topics: Television,

Long before “Jazz” hit the air, you could hear the grumbling. And once Ken Burns’ 10-episode, 16-hour behemoth began its broadcast run, the dissing was all over the place — in letters to the New York Times, on jazz sites on the Internet, in the Atlantic, in the New York Review of Books.

“Jazz” was penny-ante sociology. It rolled over for Wynton Marsalis. It bought into the Albert Murray-Stanley Crouch party line. It deified Louis Armstrong. It presented legends as historical fact. It didn’t cover contemporary jazz. It misrepresented Duke Ellington’s compositional process. It shorted Latin jazz. It was anti-Semitic. It was racist. It didn’t give Charles Mingus (Sonny Stitt, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Sun Ra, etc., etc.) his due. And so on.

Some of this criticism was legitimate — Francis Davis’ tough but fair appraisal in the Atlantic stands out — and most of it was more or less understandable. A bit of irritation could be expected at the genuflecting proclamations that announced the latest white-horse arrival of St. Ken, the documentary apostle of Big Serious Subjects who, armed with a list of corporate sponsors as long as a Cecil Taylor solo, was going to do for jazz what he had done for the Civil War.

And in any case, the naysaying hardly represented the majority opinion on “Jazz” — most of the mainstream reviews were favorable, and many of them were glowing.

Still, much of the caviling left the distinct impression that people who really knew jazz hated the show, and only neophytes or casual fans could be expected to like it. Well, as a jazz fan for 30 years, I have to say that I loved “Jazz.” It isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s an exceptionally fine documentary about one of the great American subjects. It’s hugely informative, well crafted and often moving — and even if you don’t agree with all of its occasional grand pronouncements, they’re basically harmless.

And “Jazz” also manages to achieve a few moments of genuine artistic transcendence, moments in which its formal elements — music, photography and narrative — inform each other in a strikingly original way. Oddly, the form that ends up on top of the aesthetic mountain isn’t necessarily music — it’s photography. There were moments, watching “Jazz,” when I felt that I was seeing photographs deeper, with a clearer, more fatalistic eye, than I ever had before.

The actual experience of listening to the music in “Jazz” is odd. It’s framed: The photographs and the narration give it an aura, a whiff of something beyond itself. There’s something artificial, falsely elevated, about all grand narratives about art, just as there’s something faintly suspicious about the aura that paintings acquire when they’re hung in a gallery. Listening to it on “Jazz,” the music ceases to be merely what it is — a matter of fingers and timing and sweat and intuition, a very specific mastery of craft — and goes aloft, floating above the world like a sublime soundtrack of the American soul. Or something.

Paradoxically, this very sublimity is inseparable from the music’s secondary role. Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” becomes the illustration of a certain ineffable sophistication, Bird’s “Koko” a metaphor for artistic integrity in the face of personal dissolution, John Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane” a signifier of sheer, tortured intensity. This is not exactly what we heard when we heard the music in clubs, or on records. Then they were just tunes. Magnificent tunes maybe, major works of art perhaps — but not meaningful.

But if endowing 12 choruses of a tenor solo with the fatality of history is a lie, it’s a worthwhile lie — the same lie performed by all art. It’s a lie in the service, if not of truth, then of beauty.

The fact is, even art needs stories. Even art needs aura. Even art needs magic. And “Jazz” provides those things. It takes something great and treats it as if it were great. It grabs an ancient, scratchy Louis Armstrong solo and puts it under glass, treats it like it’s “Petruschka” or “Water Lilies” or “Ode to Autumn.” We are forced, at aesthetic gunpoint, to listen with a different ear. And it pays off.

For in the end the artifice just allows another perspective. You don’t have to stay there. The grand story Burns tells and illustrates with such relentless dignity — All these heroes! All those masterpieces! All those deaths! It’s as if life were played for keeps! — lets you have your musical cake and eat it too.

Listening to Paul Chambers’ bass introducing the theme to “So What,” we still ski over the same familiar drifts of sound we have so many times before — but now, looking at a photo of Miles’ etched, disturbingly noble face, we have a story to hang it on. Those tunes we’ve heard a thousand times suddenly become double: They seem to embody the distilled yearning shown on a young Negro boy’s face, the innocence of two exultant jitterbuggers, the weary grace of soldiers coming home, in photographs that break your heart because of everything they promised about America.

“Jazz” isn’t perfect. There’s some grandiosity, and some too-pat equations between musical evolution and social change, and some windy philosophizing. All of these are predictable deformations, resulting from Burns and writer Geoffrey Ward’s sociological-historical approach. Yes, not that many people would watch a 10-part documentary about harmonic developments in post-bop jazz, but sometimes a soprano sax is just a soprano sax, not an emblem of all the yearning and hope and pent-up racial ambiguity that has haunted this mighty, wounded land since its birth. But a big story needs a big theme, and in a way it almost doesn’t matter what that theme is, as long as it’s suitably austere and stays out of the way. When the narrative rhetoric gets too high-blown (which isn’t often: Ward is a very good writer) you can just tune it out, treat it like a temporarily square set of chords laid down by a good pianist. The melody keeps going.

The commentators are, in general, first-rate, from the reflective Gerald Early to the pungent Stanley Crouch to the encyclopedic and passionate Gary Giddins. Wynton Marsalis, the musician who does the lion’s share of the commentary, is mostly charming — actually, far more than I expected — with his boyish enthusiasm for the Old Masters. (Although I’m not convinced by his assertion that the musical negotiations between jazz players have anything at all to do with democracy.) The wet kiss Burns plants on him at the end, crediting him with virtually single-handedly “saving” jazz, is a little irritating, but only a little.

Speaking of “saving” jazz, the biggest gripe “Jazz’s” detractors have is that its story essentially ends after Miles’ “Bitches Brew” (1969), giving only the most cursory of nods to the last 30-plus years of the music. But Burns and Ward made a conscious and, I believe, legitimate choice not to deal with the contemporary scene: They didn’t want to be put in a position of making critical judgments that weren’t sanctioned by history.

In any case, once you’ve dealt in some depth, as Burns and Ward do, with the two masters of the avant-garde, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, there just aren’t that many purely formal, experimental avenues to pursue — those cats kind of burned up the territory ahead of the rest. (Not everyone agrees that Burns and Ward do justice to the classic avant-garde. In an oddly uncharitable review in the New York Review of Books — odd because his criticisms do not quite seem to justify his evident irritation, which prevents him from saying a single positive thing about the series — David Hajdu complains that neither Coleman nor Taylor get the “full profile treatment” accorded to Miles, Satchmo and other giants.)

Of course, one can quarrel with “Jazz’s” exclusion of the contemporary scene, and quibble with the figures omitted. I myself would like to have seen a lot more of Bill Evans and Sarah Vaughan, as well as acknowledgment of the impact of fusion masters like John McLaughlin or Pat Metheny. But most of this kind of complaining strikes me as nitpicking, an excuse for partisans to beat their breasts — or to bash Wynton Marsalis, whose icy, free-jazz-hating hand they see behind every false note in “Jazz.”

Besides, let’s get real. Any mainstream TV program beamed into millions of American homes that devotes even a few minutes to celebrating Miles’ second quintet, which made some of the greatest art of the 20th century and which until this show was broadcast hardly any Americans had ever heard of, deserves a lot better than sectarian whining.

In the end, what you take away from “Jazz” is not who is in and who is out, but the epic sweep of the music’s history. And the stories:

The inscrutable triumph and tragedy of Charlie Parker, terrifyingly summed up in an unforgettable scene in which his wife Chan recalls the four telegrams he sent her after learning their young child had died — each more incoherent than the last. (When the telegram reading simply “Chan/ Help” was shown on the screen, it hit like an electric shock.)

Dave Brubeck, whose black bandmate and fellow World War II vet was turned away from a whites-only restaurant in the South, recalling the first black man he ever met, who at the request of Brubeck’s father opened his shirt to reveal a brand on his chest. Brubeck recalls his father telling him, “These things can’t happen.” Then, fighting back sobs, the aging pianist says, “That’s what I fought for.”

Ellington’s trombone player John Sanders, now a Catholic priest, regretting not being able to tell the Duke how much happiness playing with him, just knowing him, had given him. His voice swelling with emotion, Sanders remembers how the Duke used to look at the band every night before their first number and smile, as if saying, “Here we are, all together again.”

“Jazz” doesn’t tell the whole story of jazz — what could? But it celebrates a difficult art, and eloquently chronicles one of the America’s lasting achievements. That’ll do.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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