Ken Burns's new documentary series follows the history of the American genre

By Noah Robischon
Updated December 08, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
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The ”Jazz” messenger

After spending more than six years working on a 17 1/2-hour film, you might expect Ken Burns to be, well, burnt out. Instead, he’s bopping with the energy of a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo. On the final day of mixing the sound on his latest epic-length documentary, Burns listens to a rare radio sound check of Irving Mills introducing Duke Ellington and says, ”I want to be called the Harmony Hound, or the Dipsy Daddy of the Downbeat.”

Come Jan. 8, when PBS starts airing Burns’ 10-part series Jazz, his wish might come true. The staggering film attempts to portray jazz and its history as a pure expression of democracy, a musical form that transcended racism and transformed America — themes familiar to anyone who has watched Burns’ previous two epics, 1990’s The Civil War and 1994’s Baseball. Jazz travels from the cotton fields of Louisiana in the early 1800s to the bars of Greenwich Village in the 1970s, and canonizes Louis Armstrong as an unparalleled genius. ”He is to music in the 20th century what Einstein is to physics and the Wright brothers are to travel,” says Burns. The film also underscores the belief that jazz is America’s most original yet least appreciated music. ”Go to Italy and they’ll show you opera; in Russia they’ll take you to the ballet,” says legendary scat singer and songwriter Jon Hendricks, of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. ”But in America they’ll show you to the ballet and the opera house, and they’ll skip the jazz club. That’s what this film is going to do a lot to correct.”

But musicians and critics on the fractured jazz scene are already passionately sparring over the series. The old guard think it’s the best thing to happen since Louis Armstrong’s ”Hello, Dolly!” knocked the Beatles off the top of the Billboard chart in 1964. Hard-liners say just the opposite, that Burns is hiding in the safety of the big-band era while leaving the genre’s post-’50s evolution and relevance largely unaccounted for. One thing is certain: Jazz won’t go unnoticed. With more than a month to go until the premiere, tie-in products are already coming down the track faster than Duke’s ”A” train.

Even if your knowledge of the music starts with the Gap’s swing ads and ends in the doctor’s waiting room, a month from now Gillespie’s ”Salt Peanuts” and Gene Krupa’s ”Drum Boogie” will seem unavoidable. In a rare alliance between competing record companies, Verve and Sony pooled their rich archives to release a Ken Burns-branded five-disc companion boxed set last month that debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard jazz chart. And a 20-track best-of CD, which currently sits at No. 6, is being piped into and sold at every Starbucks in the nation. The NBA will play Jazz tunes before and after games, and run teasers for the PBS series on arena JumboTrons. has devoted a section to the Jazz cottage industry, which includes the Jan. 2 release of a $200 DVD boxed set, and 22 ”definitive” artist collections encompassing the essential works of jazz greats ranging from Sidney Bechet to Herbie Hancock. And, just in time for Christmas, Knopf has published a $65 book, aimed at the same coffee-table crowd who put Burns’s two earlier companion tomes on the Times best-seller list. PBS has dubbed the entire month ”Jazzuary.” And, taking a cue from cable, two public TV stations in Boston will rebroadcast each episode 10 times per week. ”Ken’s stuff in our schedule is like the tent pole,” says John Wilson, PBS’ senior vice president of programming services. ”It becomes sort of a peak experience.”

Since Burns has ancillary rights to this merchandising crescendo, he’s likely to make more money from Jazz than the pioneering bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker did in his entire career. The Knopf book alone will earn Burns’ company a few dollars for every copy sold — and Baseball moved half a million. He says that’s peanuts (as it were) next to the killing he made with The Civil War, his first epic-length film. ”In those days nobody expected a documentary to make any money,” says Burns, 47, who lives and works in Walpole, N.H. Stunningly, that 11-hour history lesson became PBS’ highest-rated miniseries ever. In 1994, the 18 1/2-hour follow-up, Baseball, cemented Burns’ reputation as the country’s preeminent long-winded documentarian and doubled PBS’ ratings that season. Jazz is the finale of this American trilogy, Burns’ most challenging work to date, and the culmination of his skills as a filmmaker and businessman.

At $13 million, its budget was nearly twice that of Baseball‘s. While that’s puny next to a typical Hollywood feature’s bottom line, Jazz‘s music budget alone could cover the cost of most documentaries. A celebrated doc like 1994’s Hoop Dreams took slightly longer to produce but cost a mere $425,000. Of course, Hoop Dreams didn’t collage 2,400 still photos and 2,000 archival film clips.

What truly distinguishes Jazz from the previous two histories, though, is the magnificent jam session created by the merging of Burns’ signature imagery and dramatic narration with the film’s 497 songs. Sure, the heartbreaking stories about racism and uplifting messages about human perseverance are still there — as are the famous voice-overs by celebs like Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew Broderick. And if you aren’t moved to tears by the letters cornetist Bix Beiderbecke writes to his parents in episode 3, then the musical reunion of the bittersweet singer Billie Holiday and tenor sax titan Lester Young in episode 9 will probably do you in. But what you’ll notice throughout the film is that the songs are active participants, characters that tell stories all their own.

The tunes, says Burns, became the ”fourth dimension” in Jazz. ”In a lot of documentaries, the music just burbles underneath,” says sound editor Dominick Tavella. Instead, the drama here is tuned to the timbre and tempo of the song. In episode 4, for example, Matt Glaser, a violinist who played on Burns’ previous soundtracks, listens along with the viewer to Armstrong’s ”Chinatown, My Chinatown,” commenting on each unfolding note and translating every lyric phrase. A rapturous three-minute rendition of Armstrong’s ”West End Blues,” accompanied by footage from the late ’20s, plays uninterrupted in episode 3. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Wynton Marsalis comments on ”Dippermouth Blues,” then picks up his trumpet and blows along in time with the tune.

But no matter how painstakingly Burns researches and constructs his films, crucial events invariably get left out — as any fan of home-run heavyweight Harmon Killebrew or the battle of Wilson’s Creek will tell you. Critics of Jazz are already accusing Burns of bias toward the more entertaining music of yesteryear. It’s easy to see why: The last four decades of free jazz and fusion, the avant-garde movements that defined and redefined late-20th-century jazz, get mashed into the documentary’s final two hours — ignoring almost entirely a discussion of the music’s influence on everyone from Iggy Pop to electronica DJs. Perhaps the most damning evidence is Burns’ decision to make trumpeter and jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis the star commentator, while such living legends as sax colossus Sonny Rollins, avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor (both of whom are profiled in the series), and drummer Max Roach aren’t given voice at all. ”To have Wynton standing in for them is an insult,” says Scott DeVeaux, author of The Birth of Bebop.

Marsalis sounds primed for the battle ahead. ”We don’t have an intellectual community that surrounds our music,” he says dismissively. ”It’s kind of like a barbershop argument; you don’t have to know anything to argue about it.” Similarly, Burns deflects the criticism — in an almost annoyingly upbeat way. ”We see this beautiful orchard of jazz,” he says. ”We’ve got only one apron, we’re going to take back the choicest fruit.” So the section on pianist Erroll Garner is cut in favor of another few minutes of Miles Davis. ”You perform that kind of triage all the time,” Burns says. The decisions are based partly on historical merit, but also on which heroes offer the kind of dramatic stories that make his films so popular. In that regard, no one is arguing that Jazz isn’t a pleasure to watch.

Ultimately, the fracas won’t blemish Burns’ fame, and it certainly won’t affect his ability to continue making historical epics. In an unusual show of support for a single filmmaker, General Motors will underwrite 30 percent of all Burns’ films for a decade starting in 2002. And he’s already outlined five biographies and another mammoth series on national parks.

But the tranquillity of Yosemite will have to wait while he crosses the country drumming up an audience for Jazz. Then he’ll take a year off to decide which project comes next. He put forth one proposal to his staff last June, right after finishing the last remix on the film. When the lights came up and the champagne corks popped, Burns raised a toast and announced: ”No more series. I want to do an MTV video!” Better budget a few more hours for TRL next year.

Play It Forward

Ken Burns Jazz: The Story Of America’s Music, the five-CD companion boxed set to the filmmaker’s epic documentary, is a near-perfect musical introduction for greenhorns to the genre. But if you’d like to expand your ears beyond Burns’ listening, here’s a small sample of essential recordings from the trailblazers for whom Burns’ film burns most brightly.

Satchmo’s trumpet transformed popular music, and his voice has influenced every great singer since the 1920s.
Must CDs: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Sony/Columbia, 2000); Ella & Louis (Universal/Verve, 2000)

The epitome of swing.
Must CDs: Count Basie Swings Joe Williams Sings (Universal/Verve, 1993)

A drummer whose quintessential ensemble, the Jazz Messengers, launched careers.
Must CDs: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk (Wea/Atlantic/Rhino, 1999); A Night in Tunisia (Emd/Blue Note, 1989)

Trane’s heavenly abstract sax playing is an inspiration to everyone who has followed him.
Must CDs: A Love Supreme (Universal/Impulse, 1995); My Favorite Things (Wea/Atlantic, 1998)

Miles played fewer notes with more feeling than any other trumpeter.
Must CDs: Kind of Blue (Sony/Columbia, 1997); Birth of the Cool (Emd/Blue Note, 1990)

Duke is widely considered one of the greatest jazz composers in American history.
Must CDs: The Duke: The Essential Collection 1927-1962 (Sony/Columbia, 2000); Ellington at Newport 1956 (Sony/Columbia, 1999); Money Jungle (Emd/Blue Note, 1989)

This duo made bossa nova famous.
Must CDs: Getz/Gilberto (Universal/Verve, 1997)

Lady Day’s intensely personal style changed pop vocals forever.
Must CDs: The Complete Decca Recordings (Universal, 1991); Billie Holiday Greatest Hits (Sony/Columbia, 1998); Lady in Satin (Sony/Columbia, 1997)

The most brilliant and politically charged bass player of his time.
Must CDs: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Universal/Impulse, 1995)

Monk is the music’s quirkiest and most original pianist.
Must CDs: Monk’s Music (Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics, 1987); Brilliant Corners (Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics, 1987)

Bird helped invent bebop and is arguably the finest saxophone player.
Must CDs: The Legendary Dial Masters (Jazz Classics/City Hall, 1996); The Charlie Parker Story (Wea/Savoy, 1992)

His left hand moved jazz piano out of the swing era.
Must CDs: The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 (Emd/Blue Note, 1989)


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