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A Ken Burns' Jazz Post-mortem

By Stu Vandermark

Introduction Since the PBS broadcast of Jazz I have witnessed two quite different reactions to the series. Most musicians I've encountered (in person or via email) have expressed displeasure with the series in statements ranging from ridicule to rage. I have some friends with little interest in or knowledge of jazz and who have positive reactions to the series. In some sense, the series may have been successful. The uninformed now feel they know something about jazz and are experiencing a new or renewed interest in the music. As one friend wrote to me, "The series got me to pull out and actually play my limited selection of old jazz albums." When I passed along John Grabowski's parody (believing that even Ken Burns might find it funny), my friend seemed incensed. Sarcastically he wrote, "Guess with all the controversy, I will just have to put them [i.e., the recordings] away and fall back on my safely uncontroversial classical collection. So much for the revitalization of jazz in the USA." I'm not including these comments to initiate a series of pot shots at my friend. The point of mentioning the two broadly disparate views of the series (and no doubt there are other views) is to shine some light on the extraordinary contextual gap between practicing improvisors and the general public. There are many implications in the fact that what I know as essential and what my friend understands about the music are from such distinctly disparate planets. And it is not a minor point that my friend's reaction to all this indicates, perhaps better than anything else does, the greatest failures of the PBS series. A different but related opinion came from one of those invisible internet nicknames. That unidentified person responded to my comments about the wrongheadedness of designating New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz in the first show of the series with, "Given the quality of the rest of the series, isn't [it] a small price to pay?" Aside from the fact that "the quality of the rest of the series" is less than spectacular, fictionalizing portions of the history of jazz does matter. Facts matter because facts and truth are interdependent. Facts do not guarantee truth. But pursuit of truth without facts is futile. Facts matter because jazz matters. We are not surprised when PBS shows demonstrate the bias of the producers, but we expect them to get their facts right. PBS gets the facts right in the Nova and American history shows because science and American history matter. I propose that jazz also matters and that it is worthy of the facts. The character of the gap between the experience and understandings of a practicing improvisor and those of an average viewer of the series may best be understood through analogy. The sacrifice and heroism of the Allied forces during World War Two may be thought of as analogous to the art and sacrifice of jazz musicians. And because family members experienced the hell of Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Bulge, and other military nightmares, I emphasize the word "analogy." What would happen if there had been only one documentary production on World War Two? Further, assume that the production focussed exclusively on the activities of the Army Air Corps of the U.S. No mention of British forces, the U.S. Navy, U.S. ground forces, Midway, the Battle of the Bulge, the French Resistance, Bataan, Stalingrad. Further, let's assume the series focussed on the top Army 1 of 11

Air Corps officers exclusively, with only occasional shots of guys in the mess hall, plane formations, volleyball games, and some bombs exploding on unnamed enemy targets. There's Tojo smiling, Hitler doing his jig, Mussolini doing the Vogue, and Churchill puffing on his cigar--but out of context and with little suggestion of import. Maybe there is a shot of Himmler or Theresienstadt in passing, but without comment. There are plenty of stories about card games and pie eating contests and the officers really look great (perhaps cooler than movie stars), but there is no sense of the cost, of the sacrifice, of the valor in the face of indifference and death. And you know the story is wrong. Its "facts" often are wrong. But mostly the emphasis on what it all means is wrong. Is the analogy a bit over the top? Yes. Is the exaggeration necessary to indicate the type and degree of frustration and anger that people who love, respect, and practice this music feel? Yes. And so the angry improvisors are told to gather their unlimited funds (after all they are rich and famous jazz musicians) and produce their own "version" of the history and meaning of jazz. That may happen. But, until I am able to decide among the countless corporate sponsors just waiting to produce the non-corporate (i.e., non-PBS) documentary on the history and meaning of jazz, perhaps the following information may be of value.

A Ken Burns' Jazz Post-mortem After witnessing the first show in the Jazz series by Ken Burns, it was obvious to me that there were some significant problems with the show's perspective on the history and significance of jazz. Because I am a writer, my immediate response was to write an initial impression of the show, which I did. After that I decided to come up with a larger plan to write about the whole series. My thought was to comb through the ten-part series on jazz and catalog each offense. Very soon it became obvious that I would wear out many combs. My alternative plan was something I could accomplish in a reasonable timeframe. Rather than list everything wrong with the show, I decided to catalog some of the more obvious and troublesome problems. Also, it struck me that most (if not all) of the major problems with the show had been raised by working musicians who had communicated with me from Boston and elsewhere via the internet and in person. Therefore, what follows is a list of historical and conceptual flaws perpetrated by Ken Burns' Jazz as specified by jazz musicians. Each flaw has been mentioned to me by at least two musicians. Although I concur with the conclusions of the musicians, I can take no credit for originality. However, I do make comments about each specified problem. And I offer a few additional observations at the conclusion of this commentary. Here then in no particular order is a brief, selected list of significant problems with the Jazz series by Ken Burns: The show was boring - This was the most common complaint from musicians I talked to. This fact is somewhat puzzling. Here is a PBS series focussing on what improvising musicians do as a life's work and includes a parade of their heroes. And yet, the musicians find the series boring. I

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suspect the boredom has something to do with expectations. You expect someone to shine a new or at least revealing light on Thelonious Monk, for example. Instead there is little insight, and what is new is frequently deception. A related cause of the boredom was repetition. As one musician put it, they beat "the subject into the goddam ground." Ideas and phrases were repeated frequently, and images were also. With the thousands of hours of movies/video and hundreds of thousands of still images available, it made no sense to repeat the same material over and over. Jazz was not born in New Orleans - This is one serious (and most often cited) problem within a larger set of problems with the "history" presented in the series. On January 9 I wrote a brief commentary about the first show and sent it to the Boss-Improv list. As I stated in that email it has been known for decades that jazz was not born in New Orleans. Maybe a better way of putting it is that no one really knows where jazz was born. To take it down to specifics, we can turn to the sometimes-shaky Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Fortunately Grove is fairly reliable in its coverage of Buddy Bolden. It claims the cornetist was "highly regarded by contemporary black musicians in [New Orleans]," that "his fame was at its peak [in 1905]," and that he "apparently did not improvise melodies freely in the manner of later jazz musicians." Such information raises the question: How was the state of jazz in New Orleans any different from that in Boston or many other cities in 1905? I suspect that the only significant difference was in specific style rather than in general improvisational development. It is likely that the music evolved spontaneously in different cities around the U.S. wherever there were a few thousand black people making lives for themselves. This idea has been around for a while. Rather than repeat what I said in my January 9 email, I include here a quote from Brian McGinty in an article called "Jazz: Red Hot and Cool" in American History Illustrated. His statement is fairly representative of the view of informed historians today: So much has been written of the roots of jazz in early New Orleans that, even now, years after the legend was finally buried, it is painful to relate the fact that jazz was not "invented" in the Crescent City.... Reminiscences were collected, old musicians interviewed, newspaper files scoured for names and dates, and the legend that jazz began in New Orleans was born. But musicians were experimenting, synthesizing, and innovating in Memphis and St. Louis and Baltimore at the same time that their counterparts were building a new style in New Orleans. If the New Orleanians differed markedly from other black musicians in the South it was in the fact that their beginnings were better documented and the names of their early bands and lead musicians were better preserved for the eyes and ears of a fond posterity. The article was published in December 1979. The only significant change I would make to that statement is to add to Memphis and St. Louis and Baltimore the names of other cities throughout the U.S. at that time with populations of ten thousand black Americans or larger, including Boston. Early forms of jazz--syncopated, improvised music--could be found in cities all over the country by 1910, as in the case of the musicians who played in James Reese Europe's Clef Club ensembles. In an article in the April 26, 1919 issue of Literary Digest, James Reese Europe claimed that one of the primary reasons he held daily rehearsals for his musicians was that he had to rein them in from improvising during the completely composed works the ensembles performed. Improvisation

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(although he did not use the term), he claimed, was a natural activity for his musicians. As absurd as it sounds today, there is even a hint on his part that improvisation is a genetic or racial trait of blacks. In the article, "A Negro Explains Jazz," Europe complains, "I have to be continually on the lookout to cut out the results of my musicians' originality."

Why didn't they ask a jazz historian to check the facts? - Although the claim that jazz began in New Orleans and spread North is the one that caused the most howling among practicing musicians, the series was riddled with historical errors and distortions. A Connecticut-based friend has informed me that, when Ken Burns spoke at Yale University during the week of February 4, Burns claimed that he used "more than seventy jazz experts" during the development of the series. If that is true, what did he use them for? Certainly there are many open questions about the development of jazz. For example, it is not clear what set of elements came together to cause the birth of jazz virtually simultaneously throughout the U.S. during the first decade of the twentieth century. Also, it is not clear just how important the contributions of Allen Tinney and his friends were to the development of bebop as we know it today. And there are many other such issues. But some historical "facts" are well known among jazz historians (and perhaps among a few "jazz experts"). The greatest number of significant misstatements and distortions occurred during the coverage of the first quarter of the century, the bebop era, and the major developments in jazz since the late 1950s. It is difficult to choose a "best" example from each of these periods and any attempt at a complete list of factual problems would take up too much space here. I will settle for a few of my "favorites." Louis Armstrong undoubtedly is the greatest improvisor who ever lived. But to suggest as the series does that he was the first to break away from the established pattern of group improvisation in favor of the featured individual soloist is at best deceptive. Johnny Dunn preceded Armstrong in this endeavor and Jabbo Smith was a contemporary improvising soloist who competed with Armstrong for acclaim. They are not well known today by the general public because Armstrong's extraordinary improvising skills overshadowed what they accomplished. But they were soloing before and during Armstrong's national breakthrough. Perhaps their biggest sin as far as the PBS series is concerned is that neither one of them was born in New Orleans. It is too bad that they were not discussed because their accomplishments emphasize more clearly than much of the series' rhetoric just how extraordinary Armstrong's were. For purposes of the New Orleans party line it may have been convenient to celebrate the successes of the Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington bands in New York and their links to New Orleans. But Sam Wooding was breaking into the Harlem clubs in 1924. And although Wooding would have to go to Europe to find success, a year later Charlie Johnson would do just fine. Johnson, whose outfit opened Small's Paradise in 1925, led the first important black big band in a Harlem club. Johnson had led a big band in Atlantic City and other Eastern spots since approximately 1918. Before that he was a sideman in New York and other cities from about 1914. But before that he grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and cut his teeth in Boston. His links were close enough to

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Boston that in his Small's Paradise band one of his first important arrangers (and a saxophonist with the band) and the band's musical director were Boston-bred musicians. It is true that Fletcher Henderson formed a new band in 1924 from a handful of bandmates from the Shrimp Jones orchestra (including Boston-bred musicians who played the banjo and drums and, shortly after, reeds), but the band did not break ground in the Harlem clubs as Johnson and later Ellington would do at the Cotton Club. The wonderful Henderson band primarily worked the dance halls, usually at the Roseland Ballroom, which was located on Broadway south of Central Park. At that same time the struggling Duke Ellington outfit was being kept alive by Boston-based booking agents who set up a series of annual New England tours for the band. If memory serves, the eventually successful Ellington band featured the work of a few Boston-bred musicians over the years. History tells us that Johnson was not the most responsible of bandleaders and a terrible promoter. In spite of those deficiencies, his band held down the spot at Small's for about a dozen years. The careful reader can see where I'm going with all of this, of course. It is obvious that jazz really was born in Boston. I'm just kidding. That's as absurd as saying that jazz was born in New Orleans. The Ken Burns series emphasizes that people wouldn't or couldn't dance to bebop. Why would I bring up the issue of dancing during the bebop era? It may seem strange to focus on something so apparently irrelevant to the development of jazz. Ken Burns and Company would have us believe that people danced to jazz because it swung; and bebop swung but people didn't dance to it; and, finally, people do not dance to post-Ayler jazz because post-Ayler jazz is not really jazz. The truth makes a bit more sense. The fact that some people did dance to bebop is significant because it raises serious questions about the relationship between jazz and popular music. Yes, according to people such as Dizzy Gillespie and contemporaries, the beboppers played for dancers. One of the complaints Barry Harris has made about the movie Bird is that it did not show people dancing to the music. So what went wrong with the relationship between jazz and dance? Or maybe, when and why did things change? These questions open the door to answers that are too long to include here. But it should be noted that--in spite of what the "experts" tell you in the Ken Burns series--real jazz as a distinct music form never was a popular music. It is true that jazz and various forms of protojazz gave impetus to a major change in the direction of popular music, and the impact of jazz remains even in such superficially non-jazz groups as Sean Na Na and The Neighborhoods. But over time jazz and popular music diverged to a greater and greater degree. For about a quarter century there were significant superficial similarities between real jazz and the jazz-influenced popular music. In fact, many musicians--such as Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald--quite consciously performed music that they defined as jazz and music that they defined as popular. Over time people who write about jazz have allowed the distinction between the two forms to become blurred. And so we have critics referring to jazz-influenced singers such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett as jazz singers. This statement is not intended as a putdown of Sinatra and Bennett. I love their work. I'm sure their work is more important to me than to most people reading this critique, but they are not true jazz singers. Just ask Tony Bennett. Of relevance to the Ken Burns series is the narrator's suggestion that up to seventy percent of record sales during the swing era were jazz recordings. It is true that, because of the superficial links between jazz and popular music during the swing era, more jazz recordings (i.e., a higher percentage of total sales)

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were sold at that time than at any other time in the twentieth century. But most of that seventypercent figure consists of recordings by Ted Weems, Glenn Miller, and other non-jazz musicians. So, when did the dancing stop? Small numbers of people stopped dancing in the ballrooms during the swing era. And people have danced less and less during jazz performance as jazz and popular music have veered farther and farther apart. Why did some people stop dancing during the swing era? Because they wanted to go down front to the bandstand and witness the magic of the jazz firsthand. But they were a minority. The dancers always have outnumbered the listeners. As it was true throughout the twentieth century, today the dancers go wherever the best dance music is. The number of listeners--for too many reasons to catalog here--continues to shrink. And then there is everything that has happened to the music since the late 1950s. It is impossible even to scratch the surface of all the instances of confusion and misdirection in the Jazz series beginning approximately in the late 1950s. Did everybody love the commentary about the groundbreaking, Elvin-driven Coltrane Quartet with shots of that group performing to a 1959 "Giant Steps" soundtrack? I guess percussionists Taylor and Jones are merely interchangeable parts. How about the liberty taken by Mr. Burns to show the woman who probably is the greatest living jazz vocalist only when she is in a bad mood (however justified or unjustified her complaints may have been)? Don't the featured cocktail lounge singers get pissed off, too? To add to the irony, is there a person in jazz today whose smile brightens a bandstand better than that of Abbey Lincoln? The list--whether of such detail or not--is endless. I guess my favorite from that part of the series is the issue of the definition of jazz. Or as the series promo people tell us, during the late 1950s "for the first time, even musicians are starting to ask, Is it still jazz?" Has anyone heard of such terms as "moldy figs," "stale jungle music," and "Chinese music"? Many fans and musicians of established music always have doubted the validity of whatever is new in jazz. Fans and musicians of new jazz forms sometimes have questioned the validity of older forms. And with it all, there never has been a consensus on the definition of the term jazz. Never. Even this series suffers from that problem. The show's narrator never offers a definition of jazz (perhaps a wise decision), but instead the show implies that jazz has certain essential components. Among those components are chord changes and what they refer to as swing. The term swing also is specified as an essential component of jazz in Grove. You may want to look up the Grove definition of swing for purposes of reference here. Take a moment to ponder those two essentials and then answer this big quiz question, "What is the most celebrated single improvisation in the history of jazz?" (I'll wait while you come up with an answer.) Yes, I know that there are several contenders. But it is very likely that you came up with Louis Armstrong's introduction to "West End Blues." There is a lot of music going on in that introduction, but two elements that are missing are chord changes and (using the Grove definition) swing. I realize that rationalizers will suggest that an improvisor can drop chord changes and swing, as long as he is playing an intro or coda. Of course, a cutting edge improvisor can come back with an equally nonsensical response, "I play nothing but intros. Whatever I play now is an introduction to whatever will follow." The truth is that, although I believe rhythmic tension is an essential component of jazz, Armstrong demonstrates that so-called swing is not. And although structure of some type is essential to any art, the chord cycle in no way is essential to the introduction to "West End Blues" or many other

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jazz improvisations. One of the powerful aspects of the introduction to "West End Blues" is that, even though Armstrong probably would not like the music of Albert Ayler any more than he liked bebop, the solo opens the door to post-Ayler jazz. For example, there is a remarkable link between Armstrong's free development in the solo leading to a tonal center and the works of Sam Rivers that evolve out of a chord but do not run the changes. What happened to [fill in the name of a major improvisor]? - There are so many people of stature that were overlooked (e.g., Charlie Johnson) or given short shrift (no clarinetist during the first half of the century has a bigger influence on today's cutting edge reed players than Pee Wee Russell; ten and three quarters minutes coverage for Thelonious Monk, one of the three or four most important musicians in the history of jazz), that one does not even know where to begin to complain. Even a casual fan knows that the history of jazz also is a history of great drummers. Where was the celebration of Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Sunny Murray, and the other innovators? My personal favorite goof in the whole series is the absence of appropriate comment about Jack Teagarden. Did I sleep through one of the shows? Was I hallucinating when I believe I was told that Tommy Dorsey was the first trombonist to offer something other than a raucous sound on the instrument? Without any intended slight to Vic Dickenson, Tricky Sam, Benny Morton and some other wonderful trombonists I ask, did anyone on any instrument with the possible exception of Sidney Bechet overshadow all competitors and produce so many imitators (Dorsey and Glenn Miller among them) for so long as Teagarden did? It is true that during the early 1920s Jimmy Harrison had his fans and some musicians from that period always preferred Harrison. But we know that Teagarden and Harrison had a mutual admiration society going. We also know that illness took Harrison from the scene by 1930 and that the recorded legacy (probably) does not do him justice. That left the field to Teagarden whose dominance was not challenged until the mid1940s by Johnson and Harris. But you already knew that. What happened to the jazz groups? - For example, Louis Armstrong's Hot Five was not an ensemble with one genius and four stumblebums. These people could play. And because they could play solid ensemble work and improvise at a high level, Armstrong performed at peak. If one listens to Armstrong's weaker improvisations one or two decades later, almost invariably that weakness is coincident with weaker ensembles. One could pick almost any great improvisor. For example, we associate the best improvisations of Miles Davis with his best collaborations. And yet there is no acknowledgement of this fact in the series. The history of jazz to a great extent is the history of the creation of superb bands filled with superior musicians who provide wonderful settings for improvisation and who rise to the occasion when it is time to solo. What happened to the importance of the lesser lights (i.e., there is more to the mountain than just the peaks)? - Certainly it would have been impossible to cover in the series all the wonderful non-geniuses. But something could have been said about the brightness of even the lesser lights. The geniuses are the exceptions in any art form. Most of the music that jazz fans enjoy is made by improvisors operating at another step or two below the Armstrongs, Youngs, and Monks. It is a music in which the less than great can nevertheless articulate the profound through sound. It may be said that this fact is one of the characteristics that separate jazz from other music forms.

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Who are these experts? - It is bad enough that Grove did not do its homework regarding the early history of jazz (and at a time when it still was possible to interview improvisors who performed or witnessed jazz outside New Orleans before 1910), but Ken Burns & friends failed to clean up the mess. They failed to tell us that jazz exploded all across the US almost simultaneously. They had a list of advisors in the credits. Are any of them historians? Or were they just names who had no input and did no fact checking? And, although it is good to see the impact of the music on fans such as writers and dancers, why was so much time wasted on non-musicians? As someone who writes about jazz, if there is one thing I know it is that I'm going to learn a heck of a lot more listening to a working improvisor than I am by listening to myself (or any other writer). And if I want to know about the history of the music, I want to talk with the musicians who were there when the music happened. As far as I can tell, Wynton Marsalis was not present to witness any of the music he talked so authoritatively about. Did anybody involved in this production notice how much the screen lit up with validity every time a real improvisor talked about a musical event that he was involved in or witnessed first-hand? For example, they spent time telling us about the greatness of Sonny Rollins. The saxophonist is both alive and articulate. Where was the footage of this giant telling us about his own extraordinary reality? I noticed the name of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers zip by in the credits. Did anybody bother to tell Ken Burns that Rutgers (and at least a dozen other institutions in the US) has a huge collection of audio and video recordings of interviews with now-deceased improvisors. It is difficult not to imagine that at least some of the interviewees could recall improvised music taking place outside New Orleans at around 1900 and other relevant facts. And there still are living musicians who remember bebop being born in Minton's and Monroe's and other magic moments. It would have been wonderful to see and hear them talk. What happened to the music? - This question is rooted in two problems: images and words. A ten-part television series has a great opportunity to deal with a pretty wide span of jazz history through audio/video clips of actual performances. On the rare occasions when the clips were shown, they tended to be brief and smothered in voice-over commentary (which qualitatively never was up to the content of the clips). Although certainly it was not the intention of the script, the impact of the voice-over commentary generally was to trivialize the importance of the music the great improvisors created. Part of the problem was the narrative script, but most of the problem was in the narrative emphasis placed on relatively unimportant facts in comparison to the beauty of the music created. In other words, the voice-over commentary tended to give equal emphasis to the quality of a musician's solo and the fact that the musician could eat twenty-five hamburgers in single meal. Having worked with professional narrators, I know that the better ones have the ability to give a wide range of meanings to a single sentence or a single word merely by changing the way in which they present the copy/script. The trivializing of the contributions of the musicians really is the fault of supervisory people, probably Ken Burns. With a little bit of help from a producer, many of the problems of this type could have been turned into statements implying something a little bit closer to: "Because musicians are as various as any humans, they exhibit a wide variety of peculiarities. Fats Waller could sit down and eat two whole chickens. Lester Young was a prose poet. But one thing that connected both men is the extraordinary improvised music they created." And a lot of this shift in emphasis could have been achieved with a little bit of coaching of the narrator and a few changes in the script.

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What happened to jazz outside the United States? - The series was about the birth and development of jazz in the U.S. It was a celebration of a homegrown art form, undoubtedly the most important development in the arts in Western culture in the twentieth century. But, except for a few shots of Louis and some others on tour in various places around the globe, not much was said about the connection between jazz and Western culture in general. There would have been genuine value in pointing out how and why this American music captured the hearts of musicians and fans around the world. Is it problematic that perhaps a third (strictly an off-the-top-of-my-head guess) of the most important cutting edge jazz musicians today were born and grew up in places outside the United States? Wouldn't it have been so wonderful to have footage of Germany's Peter Brötzmann telling us what Louis Armstrong means to him or of Sweden's Kjell Nordeson raving about the work of Jo Jones? The show missed the opportunity to tell us--even briefly--that this magic American art form has become a worldwide voice for human experience that transcends conventional language. Additional Thoughts Musicians have suggested all of the boldface items listed and discussed above. No doubt there are other complaints that I am unaware of or have forgotten. I'm sure musicians can make those complaints known via the Internet or via other means. There are a couple items that I would like to add to the list myself. I have not heard or seen them mentioned. So I will state them now. All of us as fans have types of music that we like or dislike more than other types. It is obvious that Albert Murray does not like post-Ayler jazz, and it is just fine that he feels that way. However, he obviously is not knowledgeable about developments in the music since approximately 1960. His ill-informed complaints about the music are interjected as if he were an informed critic. The use of Albert Murray's complaints in an attempt on the part of the producers to convince the uninformed public that post-Ayler jazz is not real jazz was a terrible disservice to Albert Murray (as well as to the music). The producers could have had Wynton Marsalis or one of the magazine critics who are deaf to the music's developments since 1945 do the dirty work. Instead they allowed Albert Murray to step outside his area of expertise merely for the sake of a few cheap points. How could they in good conscience plug the absurd "formless and absolutely self-indulgent" into the commentary without knowing what they were doing to Murray? This is very unfortunate because it is likely that Murray's statements have ruined his credibility with some of the better-informed viewers. The truth is that, although Murray has obvious limitations when it comes to jazz, he is an insightful observer when the subject is the blues. If you do not know his work, please overlook his unfortunate remarks in the Ken Burns series. If you are a serious blues fan and are not familiar with Murray's writings, his Stomping the Blues (Vintage, 1976) is essential reading. This post-mortem has been a list of complaints. I believe the complaints are justified. On the other hand, I do not want to give the impression that the series was a complete failure. I certainly am unhappy with the series, but there were clips and comments that I enjoyed very much, particularly in those cases where the footage was new to me. Oddly, my two favorite clips are not really music

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sequences so much as they are windows to the character of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There is a sequence in which Louis is sitting in a chair (in his home in Queens, I suspect) and he takes us through "Sleepy Time Down South." It is more than a theme song and it is more than a statement of the significance of the song to Armstrong's identity. It is Armstrong using the song to reveal to us--to explain to us--"This is who I am." When young people today wonder why some "old folks" refer to Louis Armstrong as an angel, this is as close as you can get to finding out why. The other clip is from one of those Edward R. Murrow type interview shows. It has the look of late Eisenhower or very early Kennedy. In any event, the civil rights movement had not really made the headway that we take for granted today. Duke Ellington had made miracles in a society that had no time or place for black miracles. At one point the interviewer mentions that Ellington has said that "the music of my people" is what inspires his music. The interviewer then asks Ellington what he means by "my people"? It's what they used to call "a loaded question." Anybody who knows anything about Duke Ellington knows that the great bandleader used a variety of survival techniques. He had to. Imagine coming up with new charts constantly, trying out the material with incredible musicians who are less than reliable businessmen. Then do a lifetime of one-nighters. Add to that the racism and the countless forms it can take. Add to that the great pride the bandleader had in the accomplishments of black Americans in an impossible world. Add to that the burden of being a champion of civil rights in a world in which lynching is not dead. Then consider that I'm scratching the surface of the burdens Duke Ellington carried. Then consider one of the techniques Ellington used to help him keep his sanity in a weighty, chaotic world: verbal (as opposed to musical) language. Everything from his signature "Love you madly" to his flowery accolades to women and other people of power were barriers built of language that he used to protect himself from the weight and fire of his world. The Pulitzer wigs kept the prize from him, and he countered with a turn of phrase about a protective God. But here is the great musician circa 1960 being asked what he means by "my people"? He must have been considering the fact that some black Americans were watching the show, but he also knew that most of the viewers were white people in a racist America--white people who comprised a vast majority of his ticket-buying audience. And so he resorts to his camouflage of language. It's a clever response. If nothing else, Duke Ellington was clever with language. He runs through a catalogue of pleasures that he shares with various permutations of "my people." But he catches himself. He knows that the question warrants more than a clever evasion. Black America is too important to him for a merely clever sidestep. But in catching himself Ellington has put himself in a corner. He must say something and it cannot be merely a dance of distraction. It's a powerful moment. He puts his fingers to his mouth as people sometimes do when they are reaching for words that are beyond their grasp. The hesitation is not very long, but it is an instant of great suspense. He reaches as far as his considerable experience with language can take him and brings forth the transformation: "The people." It's still an evasion, but it's an evasion that causes the mind's eye to see both black and white America sit back in their living room chairs and sigh with release and relief. And it speaks volumes about the Ellington burden.

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Such moments are wonderful, and at least somebody on the Ken Burns team can take a bow. Ironically, though, those moments suggest what could have been. One cannot help but think that if the ten shows were replaced with a couple full (or near complete) interviews with Ellington and about fifteen hours of the best available jazz films/videotapes, the music would have been better served. In fact, if PBS simply had presented The Sound of Jazz several times over a two-week period, the audience would have discovered more truth about jazz than all the soundbites and videobytes Ken Burns ever could amass. Nothing before or since that 1957 production comes close. Here you have host John Crosby obviously struggling with concepts and names unfamiliar to him. But also it is obvious that he knows he is in the midst of something special. Thanks to the luck or genius of producer Robert Herridge, the show brings together the extraordinary production talents of Jack Smight, Whitney Balliett, Nat Pierce, and Nat Hentoff. They really did bring to the screen "the sound of jazz" in the form of the broadest package of timeless musicians conceivable. The worst performance out of the 58-minute production is very good. By "very good" I mean: better than ninety-five percent of the video material you can find in the jazz department at your local Tower Records. Another significant aspect of The Sound of Jazz is the date of the production. Most of the musicians are at peak form. In less than two years both Billie Holiday and Lester Young would be dead. Perhaps of particular significance in light of the ossified and narrow perspective of the Ken Burns production is the inclusion of Monk and Giuffre on the bill. Remember that this was done in 1957. For Burns to do something equivalent, he would have to devote two separate complete segments to musicians who have the ear of the adventuresome improvising teenager of today, musicians such as Cecil Taylor and Mats Gustafsson. And there are moments of electricity in The Sound of Jazz that can happen only when the spectrum of jazz is brought together in a seat-of-thepants context. For example, there is a moment when Thelonious Monk and Count Basie cross paths. Monk is playing and Basie is sitting across from him. We know now that Monk was upset by Basie's presence (after all, who wants God looking over your shoulder while the cameras are running?), and Basie's thoughtful confusion over the new music is apparent. Then there is a magical instant--almost certainly unplanned--when a Monk tinkle at the upper end of the piano causes Basie to recall his own pianistic devices. In that context the broad smile of recognition on Basie's face tells us more about jazz than ten episodes of Burns Jazz© ever could.
Copyright 2001 Stu Vandermark

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