When director Ken Burns premiered his 11 hour documentary ”The Civil War” in 1990, it quickly became a national event, drawing the biggest audience to date for PBS and establishing a new style: cameras panning languorously across still photographs, gentle period music wafting beneath the images, and famous actors intoning the words of various historical participants. Millions of viewers who didn’t realize they cared about the details of the Union versus the Confederacy were drawn in, hypnotized as much by Burns’ pace and archival spadework as by the material. When Burns presented 18 1/2 hours of ”Baseball” in 1994, sports fans were engrossed, while nonfans, still fascinated by Burns’ method, tuned in for some easily absorbed history and great film of athletes in action.
With the 18 hours of Burns’ new 10 part project, JAZZ, the auteur becomes a victim of both his subject matter and his own success. Nowadays, every cable franchise from A&E’s ”Biography” to MSNBC’s ”Headliners & Legends” has appropriated Burns’ visual and aural style, to the point where a new work by the creator himself seems like self parody. And as for jazz — well, yes, this is a unique American art form, but there are only so many times one can hear Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington proclaimed geniuses before saying, ”Okay, okay — I get it already!”
I’ve listened to enough jazz to know that the claims made for Armstrong (as trumpet soloist, as entertainer) and Ellington (as composer, as bandleader) are unassailable, and Burns’ ”JAZZ” is chockful of galvanizing footage of both men performing with staggering wit, energy, and invention. Even a complete jazz novice would be impressed by the way these men, both born near the start of the 20th century, created the vocabulary of the most popular forms of jazz.
Burns deems Armstrong so crucial to his enterprise that he finds a way to include the trumpeter in every one of ”JAZZ”’s 10 episodes, which span the entire last century. For anyone who thinks Armstrong was just that guy who made ”Hello, Dolly!” a hit in the ’60s and whose perpetual wide grin at his white audiences verged on Uncle Tomming, ”JAZZ” will set you straight. Burns makes clear that Armstrong was a steely nerved proponent of African American achievement who knew his own worth and took the job of spreading joy seriously. And, oh, yeah — another reason to like him: Armstrong hated ”Hello, Dolly!” says his long time bassist Arvell Shaw, and knew that it was a corny show tune, to be redeemed only by his own midsong trumpet solo.
”JAZZ,” for all the lilt and might of its music, plods in the editing room. Decade after decade trudges past, Post It noted with historical perspective (look: World War II! see: civil rights demonstrators!), and we begin to notice a pattern: If you’re not a titan — in addition to Louis and Duke, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane make Burns’ pantheon — you get a brisk 5 or 10 minute segment encapsulating your life and work, with a quick critical judgment from a worthy critic such as Gary Giddins or Stanley Crouch. Thus are Sidney Bechet, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, and (most grievously, to my taste) Thelonious Monk dispatched by Burns to make way for more examples of the greatness of Armstrong and Ellington.
If that’s the way Burns wanted to play the game, fine, but then why don’t we get more of Bud Powell, who, we hear in the voice over narration written by Geoffrey C. Ward, was ”one of the most influential musicians of the era”? We’re also told that ”no one in ‘JAZZ’ risks more than the bebop tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon.” Really? More risks than the other giants of ”JAZZ” did? Where ”The Civil War” spoke the language of history and ”Baseball” explored the metaphor of physicality, ”JAZZ” must deploy the language of criticism, which in this case frequently means a cascade of superlatives.
While the eloquent comments by interviewees Giddins and Crouch are enlightening, Wynton Marsalis — ID’d only as a trumpet player on screen but actually ”JAZZ”’s ”senior creative consultant” — emits an endless staccato of sincere but empty hype (on Armstrong alone: ”his sound had a light in it,” ”it’s a spiritual presence,” ”you can’t practice and get that [sound]”).
There’s been some advance criticism that Burns suddenly crams the last 40 years of ”JAZZ” into the final installment. I found it a relief: Given Burns’ essentially conservative interpretation of ”JAZZ,” once Armstrong and Ellington die (in 1971 and ’74, respectively), the filmmaker’s vigor dissipates. Clearly, his heart’s not in locating the precise value in figures as various as the Art Ensemble of Chicago or bassist Charles Mingus. Don’t miss ”JAZZ,” with its great swaths of Armstrong and Ellington, but don’t expect to experience ”JAZZ,” as the critic Otis Ferguson once wrote, as ”an emotional thing, capable of taking a man clear out of himself.”