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Ken Burns' ''Jazz'' represents the Starbucks-ing of the genre

But that’s not a bad thing, in most ways, says Ty Burr

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Wynton Marsalis
Marsalis: Neal Preston/Corbis

Ken Burns’ ”Jazz” represents the Starbucks-ing of the genre

Ken Burns’ latest magnum opus, ”Jazz,” which began airing this week on PBS, represents the final Starbucks-ing of jazz. This is, in most ways, not a bad thing at all. Think about how much people have learned about coffee since the Seattle based chain has metastasized across the country: where the beans come from, how they’re roasted, the many different shadings of flavor. Even how coffee may be strongest if you drink it black.

But Starbucks also stands for the smoothing over and mass marketing of ”cultured” taste, and, in a real sense, so does Burns’ documentary. Jazz purists, in particular, are cheesed at the way the 10 part, 19 hour series downplays certain key figures at the expense of others — you’ll learns loads about Miles Davis, for instance, but precious little about Bill Evans, Miles’ piano player on ”Kind of Blue” and one of the great classicists of the jazz keyboard. Worse, the last 40 years of the music are jammed into the show’s final two hours, ignoring such developments as fusion and free jazz. And having Wynton Marsalis as the series’ de facto host is like waving a red flag to these folks, since the trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center maestro is the living embodiment of the way mainstream culture tends to fetishize the past at the expense of the present.

The critics have a point. Any night in Manhattan you can hear brilliant, heart stopping music being made, both in the traditional jazz modes and out on the fringes. Just flip open this week’s New Yorker and you’ll find, oh, pianist Tommy Flanagan, composer/ bandleader Joel Forrester, klezmer/ jazz hybridist Matt Darriau, bassist Dave Holland, and plenty more all playing around town. They’re the direct musical descendants of Miles and Louis, Evans and Ellington, but Ken Burns isn’t really interested in them.

What he’s interested in (and, since he’s primarily a historian, he really can’t be faulted for this) is creating a living, breathing museum. As with his much less involving 1999 documentary ”Baseball,” Burns wants viewers to take the long view and understand how all sorts of strands — primarily race — play into his subject. He wants to honor the giants and let loose a lot of great music. No arguments from me, especially since the show, heavily hyped as it is, will stand as many people’s first real introduction to Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane and Art Blakey and Billie Holiday and all the rest.

For anyone who knows even a little about the subject, though, these are the usual suspects. For a reason: They were musical geniuses. But, due to that unavoidable emphasis, ”Jazz” plays into the canard that the music’s greatness is behind it. The show’s respective backers, sniffing a major cash flow source, are making sure that the home video, DVD, CD, and hardcover book tie ins are ready (via PBS’ website ). The biggest sellers may be the line of CDs, those ”essential recordings” with the implicit Ken Burns imprimatur of good taste. This all just serves to further the packaging of jazz as a ”lifestyle choice,” just like that latte you bought on the way to work.

Another way to look at it: ”Kind of Blue” is a brilliant, seminal recording. It’s also often the one jazz album a person owns. It’s so popular that not one but two quickie books about its creation were published last year. And to look at it outside the context of Miles Davis’ career — i.e., without listening to anything else he did — is to consign it to the ranks of mere make out music. It’s that, sure, but it’s a hell of a lot more besides.

Still, the record industry knows that marketing jazz like it was a designer shirt (the brand name says so much about YOU), rather than as fiercely individualistic art, simply works. And in so doing, they’re on to something that the jazz purists hate to admit: The music’s greatness may not be behind it, but its moment as a major cultural force pretty much ended when the Beatles landed at Kennedy Airport in 1964.

If it sounds like I’m ambivalent, I am. Go ahead and praise Ken Burns for getting viewers interested in the long sweep of America’s first great pop export. But know that this music can’t be contained by nostalgia — that it can still bite hard if you have the courage to listen deeply — and know that it lives on past the rolling list of corporate sponsors. And order up a Grande cup of Errol Garner while you’re at it.

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