Notes on Jazz: On Ken Burns's Jazz

Posted by Michael Borshuk On 2:09 PM

[Note: This is an excerpt from the conclusion of my book, Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature (Routledge, 2006).]

When Ken Burns's Jazz aired in ten parts on PBS throughout January 2001, at the start of the new century, the occasion seemed a palpable marker of jazz music’s ascendancy in the American popular imagination. It was a grand gesture of acclamation, maybe, that sought to reverse the rough–going to which the music had been first subjected in the century of its birth. After being denounced by Anne Shaw Faulkner as a primitive threat to national decency in the 1920s, celebrated by Norman Mailer as the “music of orgasm” in the late 1950s (4), and even pronounced prematurely dead in the 1970s, jazz was now being widely fêted. Burns himself said in a number of interviews that the jazz film completed an “American trilogy” for him, a three–part historical panorama that included his previously acclaimed documentaries on the Civil War and baseball.[i] After decades of being “outside” the mainstream, or worse, just plain forgotten, jazz had, through Burns’s work, attained an incontrovertible place in a virtual American hall of fame: it was now placed alongside the war that had helped define the country’s turbulent character and the pastime that had later tried to distract us from it.[ii]

And though few people I know actually sat through all nineteen hours of Ken Burns’s Jazz, the new century began, it seemed, with jazz music everywhere. Promotional tie–ins for the Burns film abounded. Record stores advertised the documentary with posters bearing the black-and-white likenesses of jazz giants ranging from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman. There was a series of compact discs associated with the film on sale everywhere, a pile of “greatest–hits” type collections for nearly every major artist in the pantheon. Booksellers offered the “companion volume” to the film, a weighty coffee table book, authored by Burns and his creative partner Geoffrey C. Ward, which featured hundreds of stunning archival photos to complement its narration of the music’s history. And this frenzy of Jazz cross–promotion was not limited to predictable goods. Never one to miss out on a marketing occasion, even Starbucks got into the game. In the winter of 2001, one could not order a latté without being pushed to buy the coffee–chain’s “Light Note” blend or hearing “West End Blues,” “Ornithology,” or “Maiden Voyage” over the café sound system.[iii]

Of course, jazz had been building in exposure. In the accumulation of interest since the 1980s, jazz experienced an unprecedented period of celebration that ran almost parallel to the career of its supposed savior, Wynton Marsalis. Indeed, as the career of the young trumpeter developed, straight–ahead acoustic jazz appeared to be in the midst of a mainstream reclamation that carried throughout the last two decades of the century. For instance, jazz was frequently showcased on television’s top–rated sitcom, The Cosby Show in the mid–1980s: there were allusions to classic bebop records by the show’s jazz–loving patriarch, Cliff; a poster of Marsalis that hung prominently in the bedroom of the family’s teenaged son, Theo; and guest appearances by famous jazz musicians like Lena Horne and Dizzy Gillespie.[iv] In 1987, Marsalis and his quintet, dressed in tailored suits and performing hard bop, appeared as musical guests on NBC’s Saturday Night Live—generally a high–profile platform for rock acts riding the top of the hit parade.[v] Moreover, in 1990, Marsalis appeared on the cover of Time magazine for an article advertising the emergence of a jazz renaissance, while in the summer of that same year, Spike Lee released Mo’ Better Blues, a glossy feature film about jazz musicians starring Denzel Washington and offering lush performance scenes with music dubbed by trumpeter Terence Blanchard and the Branford Marsalis Quartet.[vi] Then in 1991, Marsalis, Murray, and Crouch founded the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a high–budget repertory that presented concerts, film programs, and lectures, in the interest of celebrating and preserving “classical” jazz. The program eased jazz into one of the country’s prominent artistic institutions, and six years later, Marsalis was awarded the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields, a piece performed and recorded with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under the aegis of the JALC program. The Pulitzer honor marked an obvious highpoint in the trumpeter and composer’s career, but also constituted a telling sign of the mass acceptance and institutionalization of “traditional” jazz. The music had come a long way since its early denigration, or even since 1965, when the Pulitzer committee had rejected Duke Ellington’s nomination for a special award for composition.

However, in citing these various events I do not mean to suggest that they are merely fortuitous, an arbitrary and collective change of heart regarding jazz among the American public. Rather, I would argue that the move that jazz made in the last quarter of the twentieth century, away from the so–called margins and toward the center of institutionalized, “accepted” American cultural life, came in part as a result of the political–aesthetic strategies of the writers whose work I have charted throughout this project. That is, while jazz influenced the modernist literature of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Michael S. Harper, and Albert Murray, these writers, with their aggressive social involvement and appeals to the African American vernacular, established the music as an inviolable part of the hybrid cultural landscape to which they all attest. All four writers break down racialized borders in American culture and underscore how black expressivity is inextricable from the mainstream. And all four look to that expressivity with the historian’s eye in reclaiming the stories, myths, and songs imperiled by cultural hierarchies and the menace of racism. Unsurprisingly, three of the four figure into the text of Ken Burns’s Jazz, the cultural document I read here as the culmination of this jazz renaissance. Burns’s segment on Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club quotes from Langston Hughes, citing his criticism of the venue’s Jim Crow practices; the film’s reconstruction of bebop’s origins draws on Ralph Ellison’s reminiscences of Minton’s Playhouse from his essay, “The Golden Age, Time Past”; and Albert Murray appears on–camera at various times in the documentary, offering commentary on the music’s capacity for ritual and salvation.

[i] For example, in a January 16, 2001 interview with Eleanor Wachtel for CBC Radio’s Arts Tonight, Burns says:

I realized that this was not just this epic story and its sequel, but a trilogy that had to approach the only art form that Americans have invented — one that's suffused with the American story and the American experience. So the film I would make would not be just about the music and the extraordinary musicians who made it, but, having larger fish to fry, about two World Wars and the devastating Depression, and the music that got people through the toughest of times.

In that same interview, Burns, by his own admission a less-than-knowledgeable jazz fan, reports that his decision to make Jazz the trilogy’s third part was influenced by African American cultural critic Gerald Early who, while being interviewed for the Baseball documentary, told Burns that “when they study our American civilization two thousand years from now, Americans will only be known for three things — the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. He said they're the three most beautiful things that Americans have ever designed.”

[ii] I discuss Burns’s film in mainly positive terms here because ultimately its celebratory attention seems preferable to me than the various types of denigration to which jazz was subjected historically. But I also wish to make note of the controversy the documentary stirred. Many viewers—including myself—were put off by the film’s lopsided chronology, with three of ten episodes focused on the Swing Era, but only one—the final episode—covering jazz from 1960 to the present. The fact that this rushed ending to Burns’s long narration of the music’s history summarily dismissed the importance of free jazz—by racing through its period of emergence—enraged many of the same critics of the JALC’s representation of the tradition. Also, given Burns’s relative inattention to jazz’s most politically radical period, with the black nationalism of the sixties and seventies, it seems the filmmaker appears least interested in the music when it is most “threatening” to the American mainstream.

[iii] These various cross–promotions were certainly lucrative. For instance, as Steven F. Pond notes, halfway through the initial airing of Jazz on PBS in January 2001, “sales of related merchandise had already topped fifteen million dollars,” at a time when “domestic jazz sales [ . . . ] were roughly twenty million dollars” annually (12).

[iv] I do not mean to seem overly anecdotal in arguing that the occasional presentation of jazz on a half–hour sitcom constitutes a widescale re-emergence of the music in the popular imagination. But indeed, I am perennially surprised when teaching undergraduates how few students know who Dizzy Gillespie is until I remark that he portrayed Vanessa’s balloon–cheeked music teacher on Cosby’s show. Invariably, at that point, the number of students in the class familiar with the famed trumpeter doubles or triples.

[v] Saturday Night Live had featured a number of jazz musicians in the past, before the Marsalis appearance, but these were generally very avant–garde features in the early days of the show or spots by artists working with electric or electronic groups, that offered some pop crossover appeal. (Of the former type I am thinking, in particular, of Sun Ra’s May 20, 1978 appearance and Ornette Coleman’s spot on April 14, 1979; and of the latter, the plugged–in appearances by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock that appeared on October 17, 1981 and December 8, 1984, respectively.) In the 1970s, the show had featured a few performances by acoustic jazz musicians like vocalist Betty Carter (March 13, 1976), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 24, 1976), and Keith Jarrett (April 15, 1978), but by the 1980s, its music segments were purely devoted to pop acts like Simple Minds, Bryan Adams, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The Marsalis appearance seems so significantly anomalous, then, because by the time of its airing on March 28, 1987, viewers of Saturday Night Live had not seen any kind of “traditional” jazz act since pianist Eubie Blake’s appearance with dancer Gregory Hines on March 10, 1979.

[vi] I single out Lee’s film here because its presentation of jazz musicians is remarkably different from the representations that dominate jazz films by white directors in the 1980s, namely Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight (1986) and Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988). While the latter films thrive on the mythology of the self–destructive jazz genius (emphasizing the alcoholism of the Lester Young–like protagonist in Tavernier’s film, or the heroin addiction of Charlie Parker in Eastwood’s project), Lee’s movie portrays jazz musicians as an industrious, straight–shooting faction, without a whiskey bottle or syringe in sight.

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MICHAEL BORSHUK is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of SWINGING THE VERNACULAR: JAZZ AND AFRICAN AMERICAN MODERNIST LITERATURE (Routledge, 2006), and numerous essays, reviews, and encyclopedia entries on African American literature, American modernism, and music. For ten years, from 1999 to 2009, he wrote on jazz regularly for CODA MAGAZINE. His fiction has appeared in ANTIGONISH REVIEW, DALHOUSIE REVIEW, ELYSIAN FIELDS QUARTERLY, SHORT STORY, and 34TH PARALLEL.

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