Politics & Policy

A Jazz Feast

Reviewing Ken Burns Jazz.

The word “comprehensive” does not begin to describe the width and depth of Ken Burns Jazz. Complete with its own logo, Ken Burns Jazz is not just a film, but a sweeping, multimedia offering. And what an offering it is. Through an imminent PBS documentary, DVD and video tapes of same, 28 different CDs, a glorious companion book, and a surprisingly informative website, the noted director of films on the Civil War and baseball presents the history of that most American invention, jazz music.

The core of Ken Burns Jazz is a 10-part, 19-hour PBS mini-series that premieres January 8. From Louis Armstrong’s days as a cornet-playing waif in New Orleans, through the earliest of Duke Ellington’s nearly 2,000 compositions, to Miles Davis’ astonished look as Sly and the Family Stone thrilled a record crowd at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, Burns examines the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves of this music that sprang from U.S. soil.

Burns spent six years nurturing nothing less than a giant redwood. Nearly 500 musical excerpts, 2,000 film clips, and 2,400 still photographs bring jazz’s biography to life. Burns’s most impressive technical achievement is his presentation of these rare and often previously-unseen materials with an almost complete absence of scratches, hiss, pops and other visual and audio flaws. Some archival footage literally looks as if it were shot last week on black-and-white film stock. This makes for incredibly easy viewing.

As much an historian as a music fan, Burns skillfully interweaves the biographies and discographies of jazz pioneers with the world outside the ballrooms and recording studios where the action mainly occurs. Viewers will learn plenty about World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and other pivotal events that shaped America and Earth.

America’s struggle with segregation appears throughout Burns’ film. The elegant Ellington could not stay in many of the hotels where he played. He and his all-black orchestra eventually rode around and slept in a luxury train car between gigs. Rather than complain, Ellington told an interviewer, “I took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”

Jazz groups slowly but surely became integrated, setting an example beyond the bandstand. Chicago’s Benny Goodman — the ninth of 12 children born to Russian Jewish immigrants — became the first to do so when he hired black pianist Teddy Wilson and, soon thereafter, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. “The Goodman thing was as solid as a family,” Wilson once said. “We were all there — just like brothers.”

Burns vividly illustrates the Nazi sense of humor about nothing at all by recalling Ellington’s spring 1939 European tour. When his band’s train stopped at Hamburg en route to Denmark, German troops patrolled the platform to keep Ellington and his men from even stretching their legs. The Nazis had banned black foreigners and denounced jazz as “Nigger-Jew” music.

Once war erupted, musicians traveled to combat zones to entertain American GIs. Artie Shaw’s Navy band played in South Pacific jungles so steamy that saxophone pads rotted and horns had to be repaired with rubber bands. They were bombed or strafed 17 times by Japanese aircraft. Shaw remembers being overwhelmed by the enormous roar of applause that greeted him and his troupe when they played aboard the USS Saratoga. “These men were starved for something to remind them of home and whatever is mom and apple pie,” Shaw says. “And the music had that effect, I suppose.”

Even something as tranquil as post-war suburbanization and the coincident rise of television profoundly influenced jazz. Many urban night clubs popular in the ’30s and ’40s saw their audiences move to the ’burbs in the ’50s, where they passed up Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon to watch Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, and the adventures of the Ricardos and the Mertzes from the comfort of their living rooms.  

Burns also illustrates how good luck and happenstance inspired key developments in jazz. Legend has it that scat singing — improvised nonsense syllables that mimic musical instruments — was first recorded in 1926 when Louis Armstrong was in the studio working on a song called “Heebie Jeebies.” When he dropped his lyric sheet, the producer instructed him to carry on. So, Satchmo invented a series of upbeat sounds to replace the words lying on the floor.

A teenager named Ella Fitzgerald became one of the greatest scat singers and, indeed, finest vocalists of the 20th century after catching her own lucky break. She entered a talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in November 1934. Hearing that two notable dancers already had competed, she instead took a shot at singing. The crowd loved her. She won first prize — $10 — and quickly joined the Chick Webb Orchestra. From there, Fitzgerald embarked on a top-drawer career that saw her swinging into the 1990s.

Count Basie might be an asterisk were it not for the restlessness of New York music promoter John Hammond. Lamenting what he considered the commercialization of Benny Goodman’s music, Hammond stormed out of a Goodman concert in Chicago and sat in his car, spinning the radio dial for something fresh. He happened upon W9XBY’s broadcast of Basie and his orchestra playing in Kansas City. “I couldn’t believe my ears,” Hammond later wrote. He brought Basie to New York and made him world famous.

Far less sanguine than these stories is the grim parade of jazz greats who drank or injected themselves into a stupor — or worse. As Artie Shaw once observed: “Jazz was born in a whiskey barrel, grew up on marijuana, and is about to expire on heroin.” Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Sonny Stitt are just a few of those whose work suffered under the opiate’s strain. Drummer Stan Levey recalls riding a train to Los Angeles with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. When it stopped in the middle of the Arizona desert, Parker wandered off among the sand and cactus, searching for a fix. A combination of alcohol and heroin abuse eventually consumed one of jazz’s greatest saxophonists and pioneers. A New York coroner estimated his age at age 55 to 60. Charlie Parker died at 34.

These triumphs and tribulations are discussed through Keith David’s narration and the voices of Matthew Broderick, Samuel L. Jackson, Amy Madigan, and other actors who read selections from newspaper articles, telegrams, letters, and other contemporaneous documents. Burns also offers comments from 75 interviewees who offer their recollections and perspectives. These include veteran musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Harry “Sweets” Edison, critics Stanley Crouch and Nat Hentoff, and Newport/JVC Jazz Festival founder George Wein.

Chief among these experts is Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. Currently artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis shares his vast knowledge and boundless enthusiasm about the idiom he has known since his childhood in a prominent New Orleans musical family. Wielding his warm, golden horn, Marsalis blows brief riffs to compare different artists’ styles or explain an innovation that once erupted on the jazz scene.

Burns’ film contains occasional references to “flattened fifths,” “arpeggios,” “9/8 time,” and other professional terms. This can perplex those of us who listen to plenty of music but have no technical understanding of the mechanics at play. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between.

A greater criticism is an inevitable one. Any 19-hour account of a century-old musical tradition is bound to miss something. (Imagine, no mention of vibraphonist Cal Tjader!) Like a professor rushing through the last five chapters of a history textbook at semester’s end, Burns races past the last 25 years of jazz. There is nearly no discussion of Latin jazz, one of this language’s more popular and influential dialects today. While many appropriately doubt that the “smooth jazz” of Kenny G, the Rippingtons and Special FX is really jazz, people do buy these albums and listen to this “Yuppie Muzak” on such stations as New York’s CD-101 FM and Los Angeles’ KTWV “The Wave.” Burns might have mentioned these acts if only to dismiss them as ersatz jazz.

That said, the TV documentary sometimes feels like Thanksgiving dinner. It’s rich, delightful, filling, altogether satisfying, and, here and there, hypnotic. While screening review copies of these 10 episodes over Christmas vacation, my parents and I sometimes had to stop, inhale, rub our eyes, rewind, and re-view certain scenes. Burns’s film is never dull. It’s fascinating and captivating. But so much of a great thing, superb in every detail, is plenty for the brain to absorb. Keep your VCR running as you watch, and have a second look at anything that makes your eyes cross.

But these are rare sour notes in an otherwise sweet symphony on who we Americans are, and the music that played all around us as we got here.

The Recordings

Ken Burns Jazz is as much about your CD player as your TV set. A five-CD compilation from Columbia/Legacy and Verve Records offers over six hours of music outlining the history of jazz. The 94 songs, appropriately enough, include plenty of material from Armstrong and Ellington and tunes stretching from James P. Johnson’s “Charleston,” (synonymous with the dance of the Roaring ’20s) to Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” a song whose puppet-filled video appeared on MTV in the mid-1980s. A 44-page booklet features numerous photos, commentary on the 94 featured songs and profiles of many of the artists who created them.

The Best of Ken Burns Jazz presents on one CD 20 of the most representative of the 497 songs played or excerpted in the film. Burns describes selecting these tunes as “devastatingly daunting.” Complete with a 24-page pamphlet of historical photos and descriptive text by Ken Burns, this gives listeners a concise appetizer of all he has gathered.

The buffet table itself is a series of 22-CDs for those who wish to dine even more heartily on the work of individual artists. Entire recordings focus exclusively on Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Sphere Monk, Sonny Rollins, and 14 others. Period photos and essays by disc jockeys, jazz scholars, and other experts add food for the eyes and mind to this feast for the ears. The CDs of Armstrong, Ellington, and Goodman are skewed significantly toward their earlier works. While I was left wondering what they did later in their careers, these surveys offer a satisfying glimpse of them at the peaks of their powers.

Still hungry? Pick up Alfred A. Knopf’s 490-page coffee-table book by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward. This beautifully-illustrated volume parallels the film and adds facts, figures, memories and color along the way. Jazz students will appreciate the extensive bibliographies, photo credits and a 17-page index.

In the late 1930s, jazz enjoyed some 70 percent of record sales. By the mid-1970s, that figure had slipped to just 3 percent. While recapturing seven of every 10 dollars spent at each Tower Records store seems unlikely, Ken Burns’s monumental achievement should restore some of the excitement that once surrounded America’s most original art form.

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Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a contributor to National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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