Ken Burns, Jazz, and Historiography

Historiography can be a difficult subject, but Ken Burns’ omissions from the last episode of Jazz are are hard to miss.

I recently finished watching Ken Burns’ Jazz for the first time. I had never been drawn to it, or to any of Burns’ other megadocumentaries. Partly this is because I just don’t care enough about the topics, baseball especially: I don’t like sports, have never been hailed by sports culture, and if I were to waver on that point, it wouldn’t be for baseball (it would be for American football, and then mostly because I am a huge Friday Night Lights fan). But my Burns-related apathy started with his most acclaimed work. Growing up in the South I tend to have an aversion to the Civil War to the exact extent to which the people around me care too much about it. Keep in mind, since we are talking about the South, and since I am white, the legacy of the Civil War to which I am exposed is unremittingly ugly; it’s about Confederate flags and The South Will Rise Again. Having skipped The Civil War the first time it aired, I never had a chance to get absorbed in it before I started to encounter first short clips from it, and then parodies of it, both of which put me off of what I perceived to be a certain overweening solemnity, a self-seriousness in voiceover and images that seemed eminently deserving of the gentle ridicule and mild backlash that followed the initial hype.

11 years after it first aired, though, Jazz pulled me in. I have dabbled in jazz collecting for the last 15-20 years or so, picking up a few essentials like the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens box set, a few of the Atlantic boxes (Mingus, Mose Allison, Coltrane), a little Django and a little Duke, some Ella and Billie, even a tiny smattering of Bird and Monk alongside the ubiquity of Brubeck’s Take Five and Miles’ Kind of Blue. I’ve never been all that serious about it, though. Most of what I’m interested in has rubbed off on me thanks to one roommate (’50s/early ’60s cool jazz) or another (fusion and free jazz). I figured it was time for a sustained look at jazz, and since I would be recovering from surgery, here was a perfect time to watch hours and hours of TV that could still feel like they were, you know, contributing to personal growth and stuff.

And I found Jazz brilliant, surprisingly entertaining: vivid, making amazing use of some really beautiful art photography alongside photojournalism, built in part around a range of cogent, often powerful and even moving interviews. Burns may have a single identifiable aesthetic that he brings to his many subjects, but he makes it sing. He takes all the voices he marshals- actors reading from contemporary sources, interviews of critics and scholars as well as participants, photographs and film clips, and the music, especially the music- and weaves them into a grand tapestry of sound, vision, and history. An American viewer can feel justifiably patriotic, not only for the glory of one of our great contributions not just to world music but indeed to world culture, but also for the oft-repeated suggestion that jazz’s greatness is America’s potential for greatness, that jazz is a vision of what America can and should be, democracy in excelsis. Not only is this idea- that jazz operates by a dynamic of improvisation (freedom) and communication within and among the group (democracy: compromise and cooperation)- put forward persuasively, but this description of the form of jazz is mirrored by the form of Jazz, the way Burns synthesizes all his source materials. Among the photos and songs and unearthed quotes (especially valuable here are Ralph Ellison’s writing on jazz) are theories put forth by a range of scholarly voices: Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddens, Gerald Early, and no less than any of the writers, Wynton Marsalis, who seems to have been Burns’ chief consultant. Between them and the participant interviews, Burns put forth the strongest case possible for the whole of jazz’s legacy. Almost. The fulsomeness of praise for the music and its “meaning,” be it swing or bop (each celebrated for very different reasons), is such a signature characteristic of the series that when Early launches into an attack on fusion-era Miles, it’s not just off-putting, it’s a shock.

The strong implication is that Miles abandoned “his art,” and indeed jazz itself, and proceeded to pander to a rock audience for strictly commercial and egotistic reasons (to be as big a star as Sly Stone, say). Miles’ fusion, from Bitches Brew on, was, says Early, like playing tennis without a net. All through the proceeding hour and a half, as he delved into the controversies around modern jazz, Burns had tried to maintain a certain kind of balance, for instance between Cecil Taylor admirers and skeptics; when it comes to fusion, he abandons it entirely. That Miles’ fusion experiments were as far from pop as rock-related music gets is never considered; nor does anyone even raise a contrast between Miles’ radicalism on the likes of Agharta and Pangaea on the one hand, Weather Report having a hit with “Birdland” on the other, or the really MOR dreck on the third, things like Spyro Gyra, George Benson, or Pat Metheny.

That ‘70s fusion encompassed not just rock but also classical influences (Keith Jarrett, the ECM artists) would be worth mentioning, even if, more than with rock, that means moving away from African-American musics; that Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock were also exploring funk is never explored. No-one here makes much of an attempt to grasp the ideas behind fusion; the idea that the dynamics of experimental rock might, a) be valid in themselves, and b) help to explain both the looseness and thickness Miles strove for, is never seriously countenanced (in part that thickness is attributable to Teo Macero’s innovative use of the studio as instrument, a first for jazz; Macero is never mentioned at all). More basically still, the idea that it could actually be fruitful for jazz to try to engage with other musical traditions, blues-based or otherwise, is never proposed, let alone defended. When Burns gives us a kind of fade-out after Bitches Brew, it is as if jazz came to a dead stop between Miles’ betrayal and what is portrayed as a rebirth with Dexter Gordon’s Homecoming and the rise of Wynton Marsalis. The continuing health of jazz, in this account, is predicated on a rediscovery of its heritage, a limited popular resurgence of its traditional forms. The efforts of artists to combine jazz and hip-hop are acknowledged, true, but it’s Ron Carter playing with MC Solaar, not Matthew Shipp; traditional jazz playing in a populist context, not the avant-garde. If anything, the avant-garde is seen as leading to a dead end, and when Marsalis comes along to save jazz single-handedly, the continuation of avant-garde jazz- much of it, like fusion, incorporating other sounds and styles- is entirely elided.

Given the catholicity of the project up to this point, the complete lapse of any spirit of inclusiveness in the last of Jazz’s 19 hours is bitterly disappointing. I was even prepared for it; I remembered this criticism of Jazz from its initial broadcast, and there was a lot of it. I knew from the outset that Wynton Marsalis was the guiding intelligence behind Burns’ take on the music’s history, and that this would entail a degree of conservatism (Marsalis dismisses the likes of Anthony Braxton entirely; to Marsalis, Braxton’s experimentation is such a departure from the blues-based tradition that it doesn’t count as jazz at all). If anything, given that the real heroes of Burns’ show are Armstrong and Ellington, I was suckered by how much attention Burns pays to postwar styles; so that the dismissal of fusion and experimentation from the 70s on pulled the rug out from under me even though I knew better. In retrospect, of course, it makes perfect sense. That Marsalis is the major voice here, that Murray and Crouch were major influences on Marsalis, and Early is very much on Marsalis’ page, it is no surprise that the story Burns tells is in large part the story Marsalis, Murray, Crouch and Early tell. This is a question of the history of jazz, but more particularly of the historiography of Jazz.

I teach in a department surrounded by media and film theorists heavily influenced by, variously, feminist psychoanalytic film theory, phenomenology, Italian Marxism, post-colonialism, postmodernism, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, etc., etc. Our students are asked to grapple with some fairly high-level theoretical material as a consequence; I’m not saying they always get it, but they certainly get whapped upside the head with it. Historiography, though, is always a bit hard for them to get a handle on. In part, this is because they never really face it in a direct way; they read little or no actual historiography, be it E.H. Carr or Hayden White. Instead, they are simply encouraged to think critically about the history they read: to ask what assumptions the authors make; what narratives they are mobilizing; what evidence they use, how and why; what questions they ask or don’t ask, and what answers they get as a result. Asking such questions is a bit counterintuitive for students: they come into university still in a secondary school mindset, used to thinking of history not histories; of history as a collection of facts, not an amalgam of a set of arguments allied to what is, at base, a theoretical framework, with its commitments to empirical research and some notion of causality. But watching the last episode of Jazz, having already been given sympathetic exposure to jazz fusion and the jazz avant-garde, the fact that Burns has a very specific story he wants to tell, based on a clear set of assumptions from which his sense of the history, meaning and value of the form follows, becomes strikingly clear. That story guides what is included and what isn’t, what is deemed to be Great Art and what gets dismissed as “playing tennis without a net” (Jazz is an evaluative history of the kind not seen in the study of film since Terry Ramsaye and Lewis Jacobs in the first half of the 20th century).

Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ exemplary historiographic essay “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” studied the sidelining of slavery as a root cause of the Civil War in all sorts of historical texts, including Burns’ The Civil War. In that documentary, Shelby Foote “presents the Civil War as a kind of big, tragic misunderstanding. ‘It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,’ said Foote….” Coates is quite right to point out a systematic exclusion of African-Americans and even slavery itself from white histories of the Civil War, with conflicts of economic and political philosophies and practices elevated to centrality instead. If, as Coates suggests, Burns is like so many others guilty of marginalizing the black experience at the roots of the war, then Jazz can be seen as an attempt to redress this by putting black culture and the black experience right at the heart of the narrative.

If jazz, in Burns’ telling, is a manifestation of a democratic ideal, then one would think that Burns would try to be as inclusive as possible. After all, the series spends most time on the idea of jazz as a popular music from the ‘20s through the mid-‘40s, bringing together black and white audiences, even wowing the Europeans. But for Burns, the crux of it is this irony: that jazz is a black music, the blues not just a foundational but a necessary ingredient, and yet still the ultimate American democratic music. In other words, what gives depth and flavor to this story is that the “ultimate” art of American democracy, one that is built on freedom, communication and cooperation, one that in its heyday spoke to audiences across the barriers of race, one that was created by musicians of all races, was given to the world by the descendents of slaves. Variations on jazz styles that skew toward rock, a white adaptation of r&b (and country, lest we forget), or classical and experimental forms shared with or borrowed from Europe complicate that story. It’s not that such developments are irreconcilable to the story Burns is telling, but either Burns didn’t see that, or such a reconciliation would require more time and nuance than was possible. Some have argued that it is because the series is so committed to the idea of jazz as an African-American music that past the swing era, Brubeck is the only white player given much credit; Bill Evans, for one, is sidelined. Of course, there’s no question that jazz is centrally an African-American music; the question is, if this is to be at the heart of Burns’ story, then what does this require of him?

Certainly it is because jazz is portrayed as a black expression of American ideals that Armstrong and Ellington are the heroes, center-stage in each and every episode. Armstrong represents democracy through his commitment to the ideals of entertainment, playing a music that welcomes each and every listener. Ellington represents democracy not only because his music incorporates so many distinct strains of jazz and popular song, but also because he was a band leader and his was in all respects a band music; he was the composer (with and without Strayhorn) and the leader, but it was all built around what he knew his players could bring to the table. Once jazz stops being the dominant American popular music, one that brought black and white tastes together (even if both bands and audiences were- more irony!- typically segregated), from the 1950s or so, there’s only two reasons Burns keeps going. First, postwar jazz is so much a part of what people think of as jazz that he simply can’t avoid it from an historical perspective; creators like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are so canonical that time must be devoted to them. Second, if postwar jazz was more and more a subcultural phenomenon for niche audiences, it nonetheless strove to capture something of the upheavals in the culture as a whole. If it no longer spoke to all, it still tried to encompass all within it. Of course, it was in doing so that jazz artists perforce broke with the ‘grace under pressure/order brought to chaos’ line that Albert Murray uses to characterize pre-bop jazz. Even if Burns acknowledges the importance of bop and later styles, it doesn’t seem quite the same, as the final episode seemingly acknowledges.

Because jazz of the ‘20s to the ‘40s is such a perfect vehicle for Burns’ narrative of art and democratic expression emerging from the injustice of slavery and the impurity of the American melting pot, when the likes of Marsalis revive it, that’s not seen as “new traditionalism,” as Ted Gioia labels it in The History of Jazz; it is simply the heroic resurgence of The One True Jazz. There’s nothing wrong with Marsalis per se (he’s not just talented, he’s an endlessly articulate and engaging voice in Burns’ film), but there is a problem with making him the sole representative of jazz’s continued existence. With his rejection of electric jazz, his rejection of non-jazz influences and his disregard of the avant-garde, it’s hard to see the rigid traditionalism of Marsalis as anything other than the attitude of a curator, as opposed to an artist. To build a narrative of contemporary jazz around him and only him is to vitiate jazz, to make it a museum piece, not a form still in motion. To show jazz in the light of restless experimentation and progress would in fact be to show it as profoundly inclusive in the ways Burns suggests, but perhaps too radically open for his comfort.

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  • Bill Carbone  On December 19, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for this great piece. I’d like to add that in addition to Avant-Garde, serious facets of the straight-ahead are completely ignored. For instance, what organists or guitarists do Burns/Marsalis discuss? Why, if organ group jazz was filling rooms in Harlem and in African American clubs throughout the US well into the 1970s, is it completely dismissed? I’d argue that it muddies that vaunted distinction between art and entertainment; despite its total base in blues and swing, it was bar room music, and the artists played wholeheartedly to the people.
    The author Scott DeVeaux did an excellent job of breaking down these issues before Burns’ documentary was even in production, it’s a worthwhile read: Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography, Black American Literature Forum, 25/3, 1991


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