Radical Rhythms: On Ken Burns’ “Jazz”

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

Kim D. Hunter


The late Astor Piazzolla, the great Argentinean composer, bandoneon player and creator of Nuevo Tango, used to tell stories of how some traditional lovers of the tango, Argentina’s national music, became upset with how he changed the form.

In his hands, tango moved from being a somewhat traditional, regional dance and ballad form to a very protean art music that would be played by orchestras and chamber ensembles.  It now belonged to the world at large.

Some Argentineans expressed their displeasure with Piazzolla’s innovations in no uncertain terms, following him on tour, threatening physical harm and challenging him to fist fights—such was their passion for the music.

I don’t know if the general public in the United States has ever felt such passion about art. But there are those of us who feel almost as passionate about jazz. As a Black jazz fan in particular, I feel a lot of love and even ownership for jazz because it is an African American art and because it grew directly out of the blues, the musical expression of our tribulation on this soil.

So, Mr. Burns, you definitely got my attention when I heard you had created a “history of jazz.” The size of it was encouraging, seventeen hours over ten episodes, as were the facts that it was to be on PBS and had been done by a filmmaker of your stature.

Then the reviews hit. It was, quite honestly, difficult to find one that was wholly positive written by a professed jazz fan. They cited among, other things, the failure to interview living legends like Ornette Coleman and Max Roach, detonator of the avant-garde and the last living link to bebop respectively.  But the real problem was all the time spent on the early years and how that necessarily left too little time and energy (one episode!) for the last forty years.

You took care to state in interviews that this film was not for the jazz fan but for the casual listener and the “little old lady in Dubuque,” which at least implies that jazz fans might not be pleased with it. I was hoping that meant your film would just be a review for me and the other jazzophiles, that we would know all of the punch lines; anecdotes and tragedies and thus the narrative would have far less kick.

Of course, the film revealed things that I didn’t know, and some stories (such as the audience’s stunned silence following Billie Holiday’s first performance of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”) become all the more powerful with retelling.

The Best of “Jazz”

I have to say that for the most part I enjoyed the first few episodes, despite a few aesthetic/technical flaws.  There was too much reliance on talking heads and still shots.  I kept thinking this is not the Civil War: A fair amount of jazz history took place after the advent of sound in motion pictures.  There should be more footage interviews to be found.

But you did a great job of placing the music in a social, political and even geographic context, citing for instance the unique milieu of antebellum and post-reconstruction New Orleans as crucial to the birth of jazz. This is important to understanding the music, an art created by folks who were but a generation or two from the auction block.

Louis Armstrong also got his due on a national stage as the towering figure of American music.  For recognizing him and for generally raising consciousness about the music I commend you heartily.

Unfortunately the film’s problems, especially the omissions, were glaring.  Just as most of the reviews warned, far too much of the last forty years of the music was ignored or given short shrift.

Even knowing that, I was not prepared for the complete omission of Latin jazz. It seems incredible that neither Mongo Santamaria nor Tito Puente warranted a mention.

While you did present the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo as a footnote to Dizzy Gillespie’s interest in Latin jazz, you failed to acknowledge the Cuban band leader Mario Bauza, the cat who introduced Dizzy to Chano and who was Dizzy’s guide to and through much of the world of Afro Latin music.

The huge swath of the film on swing dancing was both too long and made the omission of Latin jazz even more glaring, in that Latin jazz is the only jazz that has always had a dancing audience.

Neocon Voices Dominate

Those of us who also love the avant-garde, which developed in the late fifties, were somewhat fearful that Wynton Marsalis and the critic Stanley Crouch were so heavy in the commentary mix.

Certainly any “official” jazz history (and yours is the de facto official history, for better or worse) would have to include them. Marsalis is the most prominent jazz musician and proponent and Crouch, the erudite jazz and social curmudgeon, is never far behind him.

While Marsalis and Crouch are quite knowledgeable and articulate, their views of jazz innovations after 1945 are often less than kind. They are classicists.  Like your film, they have been responsible for raising the profile of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and other early giants while casting aspersions on many of the more forward looking musicians and composers.  (See Kim Hunter’s Radical Rhythms column, “Jazz Currents in Conflict,” ATC 55, March-April 1995—ed.)

The irony of those jazz fans and musicians who take such a conservative aesthetic view is that jazz is a major innovation in and of itself, a radical departure from the European art music forms which dictate a much stricter adherence to the music on the page and utter conformity within an ensemble.

In addition, the musicians and critics once known as “moldy figs,” who deplored the innovations of (the now-classic forms of) bebop and swing, said the same things about that music that Marsalis et al have said about the avant-garde: It’s not jazz, it’s not music, it could destroy jazz, etc.

Another irony is that fact that jazz in general gets such short shrift that many of us are pleased that any project the caliber of your film can be done. Thus you will get much praise, and those of us who have serious misgivings will be told we should be quiet and happy.  I am neither.

Fans of opera or other European based art music would never put up with such a lopsided representation of the music they love even as they would relish the additional attention a work such as yours would bring.

Misleading Messianism

It is one thing to make a jazz documentary that is not for jazz fans. It is quite another to make a film that so sadly disrespects a whole generation of folks who have sacrificed mightily to expand the language of the music.

I don’t know which was worse, the dumping on the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Cecil Taylor or the way you completely ignored folks like Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake who created great work during the `70s—the period your Episode Ten puts forward as the time jazz had died and awaited resurrection by Wynton Messiah.

In the case of the Art Ensemble, critiquing them for having a mostly white audience of French students is at best disingenuous.  A majority of the jazz audience and since World War II has been white, and Europeans for that matter have been far more supportive of the music than folks in the United States.  That applies to every jazz musician and type (except that utterly commercialized and monotone “smooth jazz”).

The languorous pace spent on the early years (six episodes before we got out of the `30s) left little time or energy to give the post bebop era its due. So while we learned all about Armstrong’s marriages, there was no mention of Herman Blount or what drove him to one day change his name to Sun Ra, declare he was from Venus and go on to create some of the wildest and most touching music of the last century.

There was no time to explore the seeming chasm between the utterly gentle if restless spirit of pianist Cecil Taylor and the percussive aggression of his music.  But there was time for Branford Marsalis (brother of Wynton) to declare it “self-indulgent bullshit” for Taylor to ask the audience to “prepare” for his concerts.

We hear nothing about Ornette Coleman’s seminal theory of harmolodics, but there is time for Albert Murray to put down “free jazz” because it is like trying to “embrace the ocean,” manifesting an odd lack of imagination for a serious writer.

Your hypothetical “little old lady from Dubuque” wouldn’t know that bebop inspired the beat poets of the fifties, that it was the music of choice for many abstract expressionist artists, that Ornette Coleman was still alive or that Miles Davis had died if all she had was your film. All of that is at least as important as the influence of heroin, which was virtually given its own episode.

The Choice of Omission

All of this undermines your attribution of the film’s acknowledged shortcomings as being due to finite time and resources.  The film’s flaws are due in no small part to your admittedly limited knowledge of the music, and consequently your reliance on folks who have relatively narrow views of it.

As I said earlier, “Ken Burns’ Jazz” is the de facto official history of the music—the hype about the film let me know this going in. To say the least, I am disappointed that you chose to leave out so much that was crucial.  Much of this stuff doesn’t even appear on the PBS website for the show.

Now that the official story has been told there won’t be much funding, public or private, for another film that could correct the errors in yours.  Folks with money, few of whom are as passionate about the music as I am, will point to your work and say there’s no need to duplicate it.

Moreover, have we not had enough omissions in this country’s official histories, cultural and otherwise?  Your statements in interviews and the talking heads in your film drilled home the point again and again: Jazz is a reflection of the United States as a nation.  It shows us what is possible.

If that is true, why did so much of the film ignore and disrespect so many that made jazz what it is today?  If jazz is indeed a reflection of this country and/or its aspirations to democracy and inclusion, how strange was it then for your jazz documentary to exclude so much and so many?

How strange is it then that such a work would have a relatively parochial and conservative viewpoint, that after all the pronouncements about jazz being a welcoming, open and freedom loving American music, it excludes Latin Americans, Europeans and even some crucial North Americans that have made the music what it is today?

Albert Murray implied that the ocean was too large for free players to embrace.  Perhaps, it is actually the spirit of this music that is too large for certain people to fully embrace.

In the end, we jazz fans, like those Argentine classicists, have to realize the music is even larger than our love for it. Unlike those who threatened Piazzolla, we are generally glad that the music we love continues to evolve and has long been on the world stage.

I am equally glad that your film has finally created an American public consciousness of jazz as the American art music.  (I wish, though, that white Americans would take as much responsibility for and interest in the tragedies and struggles of African Americans as they do our triumphs.  But that’s another column.)

I also understand how folks might want to fight over a high profile misrepresentation of a loved one, even if that representation brings some long overdue attention.  That’s how I feel about “Ken Burns’ Jazz:” While there might not be any such thing as bad publicity, there can certainly be flawed history.

Kim D. Hunter is a Detroit poet and cultural activist.  His column appears periodically in these pages.

ATC 92, May-June 2001

1 comment

  1. I am a 46 yr. old white jazz musician. I’ve played with the greatest names in Jazz… Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, Barry Harris, Philly Joe Jones, etc… I am anti-hatred based on race, sexual preference, etc… Why am I THE ENEMY for these following beliefs?

    * Taking my money (labor) by force and giving it to someone who doesn’t study nor improve one’s life, but rather waits for someone else to improve their life for them is marxist and just plain theft. When I attended Rutgers Univ. I was starving, so I worked at an animal test lab for $6 per hr. cleaning 2 1/2 ft by 3 1/2 ft trays of poop and piss that go under rabbit and guinea pig cages. That was my job… clean animal waste. I also cleaned out asphalt truck drums… cleaned tar. If I can work through a speech impediment and do this kind of work, can’t others do this without punishing me by taking part of the fruits of my labor? Doesn’t that make me a part-time indentured servant? I welcome your thoughts.

    Enjoy the remnants of Liberty,


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