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Ken Burns' Jazz
A PBS special, also on video

When it is good, ...

Glenn Brooks, 1 February 2001

Well, Ken Burns' ten-show PBS tribute to jazz came to an end last night, and it seemed to me to be something like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead. We got fabulous coverage of the birth of jazz, the best I have seen. An estimable case was made for Louis Armstrong as the fountainhead of both instrumental and vocal jazz (not that jazz fans didn't know already). And the commentary by folks who were there will be a treasure worth re-visiting. Artie Shaw was as intelligent and acerbic as you would expect from his music (other than "Begin the Beguine," that is). The wonderful Jimmie Rowles was witty and gentle (no surprise). And the recently departed Milt Hinton was a treasure.

The early shows, up through the Kansas City story (the territory blues bands, Basie, Bird) were for the most part excellent, and should be required viewing by any jazz fan. But even there, I was surprised by the artists who were slighted. Coleman Hawkins went by in a flash. In a series about jazz, you'd think two more minutes about the inventor of jazz saxophone might be more important than telling us about Louis' third wife. The focus on the big band in the '30s ignored contributions by the small groups from the likes of John Kirby, Artie Shaw, and Lionel Hampton, which were very influential among musicians, if not popular with the dance crowd. (The only small group mentioned was Benny Goodman's, primarily because of its integrated makeup.)

All the loving coverage of jazz's early years came at a even more severe cost to living, creating, forward-moving musicians. Of course, there was one currently creating musician on board, Wynton Marsalis, and we did get to hear from him. And hear, and hear. Bright man, wonderful musician, but I would have been grateful to listen more from folks who were there - like Sonny Rollins, Lionel Hampton, Lee Konitz, Benny Carter, Abbey Lincoln - and less from someone who wasn't even born when Miles recorded "Kind of Blue."

By my count, we got 45 years of jazz in the last two segments, after covering 55 years in first eight. In the sprint that was the final show, my jaw dropped at the message, bluntly delivered, that jazz died in the '70s but then Wynton saved it. I became a serious jazz fan in the '70s, so I felt a little dissed. But then, I was listening to Arthur Blythe, Air, Lee Konitz, Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and many others that the show never mentioned. And where was Bill Evans?! With Coltrane and Miles, he was arguably the most influential jazz musician of the last thirty years.

The way the argument for the death of jazz was made was emblematic. As the case was made, sales of jazz records (if you consider big band dance music jazz) dropped from 60 per cent of the record companies revenue in the '30s to two per cent in the '70s. Therefore, jazz died. A few minutes later, we heard about young musicians who are coming to the music - as musicians always have - for the love of it, not to get rich. I found this two-sided sword of an argument cynical and self-serving, used to sweep aside the musicians who held made great music in the '70s and '80s, as well as a hoard of current adventurous creators who continue to move the music forward.

But if the series brings people to jazz, it's a good thing, right? As Jeff Jones, senior vice president of Columbia/Legacy Recordings, says, "We're hoping that people are able to appreciate artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and then make the leap to Branford and Wynton Marsalis." Funny, I thought leaps went up. Must be a lover's leap.

So, watch the first half of the series and hope that someone comes along and makes a film even half as good about the rest of jazz's story, for now and tomorrow.

of related interest

There is also a CD or five featuring music from the series. But if you have absolutely no jazz at all, here are a half dozen albums to get a feel for the range of the music.

Louis Armstrong
The 25 Greatest Hot Fives & Hot Sevens, ASV Living Era CD
A fine selection of the source of it all, from the late '20s.

Duke Ellington
1940-1941, Chronological Classics CD
A good sample of Duke's best band at its peak.

Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach
Jazz at Massey Hall, Fantasy CD
Often billed as "the greatest jazz concert ever," this 1953 date may well deserve the title.

Miles Davis
Kind of Blue, Sony CD, 1958
Everybody's favorite jazz album; a masterpiece.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago
Nice Guys, ECM CD, 1978
Completely in the tradition (all the way back) and completely new, even twenty years later.

Pierre Dorge and the New Jungle Orchestra
Giraf, dacapo CD, 1999
One album from way out in left field - or Denmark in this case. It both reflects the tradtion and moves it forward, and shows that jazz is still vibrantly alive if you know where to listen.

Copyright © 2001 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.