Ken Burns Jazz Documentary

After viewing the first week's worth of episodes, I am ready to make a provisional judgment. Taken on its own terms, Ken Burns' documentary is a stunning success. He has humanized the great masters of Jazz while providing a rich tapestry of social history based on period photographs.

The first week, which takes us to the beginning of the swing era, reveals that Louis Armstrong wore a 'mezuzah', or Jewish star, around his neck his entire life in homage to the Jewish family that employed him as a young boy in their junk-carting business in New Orleans (a way that many immigrant Jews made a living). The proprietor's wife made sure that he got a hot meal every night at their home. A photo of the family focuses in on her stern but compassionate face. It is the kind of face I have seen in my family's own photo album.

We learn that Benny Goodman's father David swept lard off the floors of a Chicago slaughter-house 12 hours a day to eke out a meager living. Resolving that his children would have a better life, he scrimped and saved to purchase instruments for his children, and to pay for music lessons. Benny ended up with a clarinet because as the youngest and smallest, this was all he could handle. Soon after he left home at 16 to begin making a living wage as a musician, he bought his father a news-stand. Even though he was making enough money so that his father would not have to work, David Goodman insisted that he needed to earn a living himself--he lived by his own work ethic. We see a photo of the news-stand.

Sidney Bechet, who was as highly esteemed as Louis Armstrong in the early days of Jazz, possesses a hot temper that knows no equal. When in Paris another musician questions his use of a certain chord change, Bechet goes after him with a pistol.

Bix Beiderbecke, son of a wealthy coal mine operator in Davenport, Iowa, reaches the pinnacle of fame but is always insecure, especially over whether his family regards him a success. He dies at the age of 29, having drunk himself to death. Back home in Davenport, all the records he sent home to his mother and father for their approval lies stacked in a closet, never having been played. We see photos of his palatial home and the coal mine.

These musicians built their reputation in the 1920s, a time of brutal racism and "Jazz age" effervescence. Photos of ragamuffin black children dancing in the street for spare change are interwoven with and contend with those of white people in fancy clothes doing the Charleston. We also see rare film footage of musicians, including a priceless excerpt of Duke Ellington performing "Black and Tan Fantasy" at a piano in a Harlem apartment in 1929. As black people only appeared as servants or Stepin Fetchit type clowns in Hollywood films, this showed that Ellington had earned the respect of the American people. His reputation was sealed by the weekly live radio performances from the Cotton Club, the first such live performances in broadcasting history.

While the steady procession of photos and film footage marches across the TV screen, we hear a non-stop sound-track of 1920's Jazz accompanying the visual narrative. That--alas--is the problem. Music is handmaiden to the image, when music itself should be the central focus. We never hear bands or soloists identified. It is just aural wallpaper. In a peculiar fashion, it reminds me of the musical accompaniment to early "Farmer Brown" cartoons from the 1920s in which foxes chased chickens around a barn in a non-stop loop--the soundtrack always sounded like King Oliver on benzedrene. Even more disconcertingly, the music is heard behind the non-stop narration. As informative as this narration is, it dominates the music when our interest should be in the music itself.

During the first week's episode, we only hear a single classic Jazz performance from beginning to end without any competition from narration or image. That is Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" which is not only one of the first instances of the soloist's art, it is one of the greatest performances in Jazz history--along with Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul" and Miles Davis' "All Blues". Except for this, the only other time the focus is exclusively on music is when Wynton Marsalis is peerlessly illustrating some point on his trumpet. Unfortunately, there is only so much that can be done with a single trumpet. It would have been far better if a Jazz ensemble had been available to demonstrate the style of one type of Jazz or another from the period.

In some cases, the lack of a focus on the music itself is quite glaring. For example, while there is an altogether sensitively drawn profile of Bix Beiderbecke, we never really learn what made his style different from Louis Armstrong's, even though Bix considered Louis his main inspiration. Marsalis even mentions that Louis and Bix jammed together once, even though there is no recording of the event. Anybody who has a knowledge of the Jazz idiom would be intrigued to think about this combination. It is a little bit like imagining a double piano concerto with Artur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz. Marsalis never even attempts to use his trumpet to demonstrate the unique contribution of Beiderbecke, whose languid, medium-tempo solos might be characterized as "white" on a superficial level. In reality, the kind of sound that Beiderbecke produced was to become one of the central poles of Jazz styles over the years. It might even be argued that Miles Davis alone synthesized the "hot" style of Armstrong and the "cool" style of Beiderbecke. Well, it would have been argued thusly if I had been a writer working for Burns...

So what is Jazz?

Jazz, first of all, as the documentary makes clear, is a musical genre that could not exist without the prior example of the blues. From the blues it derives a tendency to slightly augment or diminish a tone. Instead of hearing intervals such as those played on piano keys, we hear "dangling" intervals that exist between the keys. Needless to say, the guitar and the human voice--the sole instruments available to the impoverished black masses--alone are capable of creating this non-diatonic sound. Furthermore, despite the humble origins of the blues and Jazz, it paralleled experiments in 20th century classical music--first with chromaticism and then with atonality. It is no accident that composers like Ravel and Shostakovitch, who both stressed heavily chromatic harmonies, both wrote piano concertos that tried to approximate Jazz tonality.

Another important element is syncopation, which also originated in the blues. In standard popular music, the four bar phrase serves an rhythmic underpinning for the melody. With syncopation, the melody is often a beat ahead or behind the start of the bar. This gives the music its characteristic drama and novelty, since it defies expectations. Undoubtedly the term "off-beat", which means fresh and unusual, stems from its use in Jazz, as would the term "square" indicate sticking to the beat.

Finally, there is improvisation which can relate either to the basic melody or the chord progressions of a song being played by the Jazz musician. In the early days of Jazz, improvisations were very simple and largely embellishments of the song's melody. Gradually with Louis Armstrong and others, improvisation started to focus on chord tones, until in the Bebop era improvisation tapped the deepest level of the song, the scale progression.

One can only suppose that any technical discussion of such matters as these were sacrificed in the interests of appealing to the lowest common denominator, a guiding principle of Public Broadcasting Television. It was not always like this. In the 1950s network television had regular programming which educated viewers about classical music without talking down to them. I speak here of Leonard Bernstein's programs for children, which was equally appealing to adults. I also speak of Jazz pianist Billy Taylor's weekly shows. While Bernstein and Taylor respectively explained the nuts and bolts of symphonies and bebop, nowadays one can only turn to Peter Schickele's Public Radio show (http// to be educated about music. Schickele, aka PDQ Bach, is not only witty and engaging, he is catholic in the examples to illustrate his points, ranging from the Beatles to Chopin.

Since Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch are omnipresent in the Burns documentary, one is forced to contend with the "Lincoln Center" controversy. To what extent is the television show reflective of the "neo-classical" aesthetics enshrined in the Jazz program there, which is largely the product of Marsalis and Crouch's thinking.

Since the scenario for Burns' documentary was written by somebody not connected to Marsalis and Crouch, we can assume that at least one part of their system of beliefs was mercifully eliminated, namely that Jazz was a particularly African-American expression. The ample space devoted to musicians such as Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman should be sufficient evidence. However, others have complained that the show gives short shrift to non-American Jazz musicians such as Django Reinhardt and all of the lesser known Europeans who made it possible for expatriates like Dexter Gordon to continue working. Although they are not celebrities, their work is essential.

This brings us to a more important question which does touch upon the attitude of Marsalis and Crouch toward the singular importance of Jazz. This can be boiled down to their oft-repeated statement that, for example, Duke Ellington is our Beethoven or that Louis Armstrong is our Bach. (The "our", in a chauvinistic sense, refers to the USA since--as I have stated--the show seems barely interested in what happens overseas.)

I would suggest that at one level, while this may be true, it is the source of Jazz's greatest malaise in its mature phase. The notion of Ellington, Armstrong, etc. as belonging to the constellation of Great Composers inevitably subjects Jazz to the same crisis that affects classical musician, namely the desperate search to create novelty, which in itself is a function of the commodification of all of the arts in bourgeois society.

Although I somehow doubt that Marsalis and Crouch can make the connection, it is no accident that nearly all of the graphics from the first week of the show depicted people dancing. Jazz was dance music. People went to the Cotton Club to dance to Ellington's music. They danced to Benny Goodman as well. Although records were made for listening, such as the Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions led by Louis Armstrong, Jazz was essentially music that you lindy-hopped to or did the Charleston to.

In the 1930s, as Jazz became championed by friends of the Communist Party such as John Hammond who organized the Carnegie Hall concerts with Goodman, Count Basie and other superstars, it was part of an effort to lend dignity to a pariah group. Performing written-out compositions in formal garb was supposed to be a blow against Jim Crow, just as getting Jackie Robinson into the major leagues.

While political and social changes such as these explained the transformation of Jazz into a music more for listening than dancing, on another level internal musical evolution accelerated this development. For example, Charlie Parker began his career as a member of Jay McShann's territory swing dance band, the Blue Devils. While strongly influenced by Lester Young, Parker already began to develop be-bop harmonies, which were merely a logical extension of Young's own innovations with the Count Basie orchestra.

Around the time that the be-bop movement became hegemonic, swing bands had already become commercially unviable (see David Stowe's "Swing Changes Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America"). This meant that one would by necessity go to clubs like Birdland to hear solo-dominated, rhythmically and harmonically complex performances by Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and others. Their music was impossible to dance to, even if there were a dance floor in such venues. By the 1960s, Jazz had become part of the avant-garde and even the conventions that tied be-bop to earlier forms had been dropped. This was a music that was intended to provoke and agitate, not dance to.

Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch emerged as a dialectical contradiction to the "free Jazz" experiments of the 1960s and 70s, seeking to return Jazz to its "classic" roots. This means performing Ellington at Carnegie Hall or recording standards for Columbia records (Marsalis Standard Time, vols. 1-3). Neo-classicism of this sort has also encouraged a kind of very safe and commercially ambitious careerism of the sort typified by musicians such as Harry Connick Jr. (a neoconservative like Stanley Crouch) and Canadian Diana Krall, who is as esteemed for her blond good looks as she is for her warmed-over re-interpretations of Nat King Cole. With the success of such people, one can only wonder if somebody as homely as the late singer Betty Carter could get started nowadays, even with all her talent.

I believe that once a music such as Jazz breaks its ties with its indigenous dance roots, it almost inevitably is forced to go down the trail of all "art forms", with their attendant woes in late capitalism. That is why I continue to regard African and Latin music, which never lost those connections, as the most vital music in the world today and one whose spirit alone can serve to re-invigorate Jazz today.