From: Walter Davis 
Subject: Ken Burns's _Jazz_: a sneak preview
Date: Sun, 09 Apr 2000 16:06:58 -0400
Organization: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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As part of the Doubletake Documentary Film Fest held in Durham this
weekend, Ken Burns gave us a sneak preview of one 2-hour segment of his
upcoming jazz documentary.  This episode was titled "Risk" and covers
the years 1945-55.

As some of you may remember, I'm conflicted about this whole project. 
While I liked his Civil War documentary, I felt his Baseball documentary
was awful.  I feared he'd go the "jazz is America" route, overly feature
Wynton, mostly ignore the avant-garde, further idolatrize our idols,
etc.  As you know, I worry that jazz is overly obsessed with its past,
to the detriment of its present and future.  [I should note that during
his brief intro, Burns did say this was the history of "jazz in America"
(and I think I noted a slight emphasis on "in America") so he's covered
himself for including nothing on European, Asian, Latin American, or
African jazz musicians, which I assume to be the case.]

And I'm sad to say that based on this episode, it's all true.  Heck, I
think it's worse than I feared.  It got off to a bad start for me. 
Before showing this episode, they showed us the first 8 minutes of the
first episode (to set the stage).  "Swing," "blues," and "democracy" all
appear in the opening monologue.  Wynton gets the first 2 talking head
slots and Albert Murray gets the fourth.  There were some hints here
that the early episodes may look a bit beyond the standard story -- a
pointed reference that jazz reflects "America's people -- all of its
people" and explicit references to the backgrounds of early musicians
which are far more varied than the stereotype of poor and neglected
(e.g. Ellington's & Miles's middle-class backgrounds).  Still, the
opening roll call of great jazz musicians included only the obvious --
Morton, Armstrong, Ellington, Miles, Parker, Holiday, Goodman and I
think that's it.  So far things were tolerable, but not good.

Burns spoke briefly after this segment while "Risk" was being loaded. 
He mentioned that this episode was centered around "that son of a
Pullman chef from Kansas City [a quote from the first part], Charlie
Parker."  I found it a little odd that he thought it necessary to name
Parker.  But given that the entire episode we saw was clearly aimed at
folks who know nothing of jazz, it's consistent.  He also made an odd
comment along the lines of how pleasantly surprised they were to
discover what an important role Armstrong plays throughout the music's
history, that he's the most important figure in 20th century music ("I
didn't say jazz, I said music" -- how bold of you Ken :-).  I'd have
thought that someone setting out to make a jazz documentary would
already know this, not discover it during the process.

So "Risk" gets underway.  Of the 2 hours, Parker is the centerpoint of
at least 1 hour of it.  Monk gets about 10 minutes (presumably he'll
show up a bit more in later episodes).  Billie Holiday gets 10 minutes. 
Heroin gets about 15.  Miles, including a segment on the Birth of the
Cool Sessions, gets about 10 minutes.  JATP gets a couple minutes,
focussing on Granz as a force for integration and without a mention of,
say, Illinois Jacquet.  Louis Jordan gets a nod.  "Cool" or "West Coast"
jazz gets about 5 minutes, all centered around Dave Brubeck who, just to
make sure we all understand what's really important, spends most of his
time talking about Ellington and how embarassed he was to make the cover
of Time before Duke did.  Bud Powell "who some called the Charlie Parker
of the piano" gets 30 seconds.  Gerry Mulligan is mentioned briefly 2 or
3 times (his quartet with Baker gets mentioned by Giddins at the
beginning of the cool jazz segment -- without noting it was kinda
radical to not have a piano).  Stan Getz is mentioned twice I think. 
Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron, Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, Chet Baker, Max
Roach(!!) and others are mentioned only during the roll call of those
who lost their lives or significant chunks of their prime careers to
drugs.  Kenny Clarke is mentioned only during the couple minutes on the
MJQ (John Lewis is mentioned a few other times).  Clifford Brown isn't
mentioned at all (but now I'm thinking maybe his year was 56).  Neither
is Lennie Tristano.  Nothing on the 4 Brothers, though they do point out
that half the Herman band did time for drugs at one time or another. 
There's nothing of importance on Ellington -- nothing about the later
Carnegie Hall concerts, leaving Bluebird, the early 50's recordings,
etc.  Except for Charlie Parker getting stranded in LA (Moose the Mooche
practically gets top billing) and the brief West Coast jazz section,
nothing happens outside NY.

Of course, if you have 2 hours to cover a decade dominated by Parker,
you're gonna make some tough choices.  But the thing is, the story they
tell is the standard jazz story, the "mythology" that every jazz fan
learns within the first couple of years they're a fan.  Parker is the
troubled self-destructive soul, whose appetites rage out of control, who
led the triple life of jazz genius, junkie, and family man (though we
get few details).  Bop was born whole at Minton's, Parker's favorite
composer was Stravinsky, Armstrong smoked lots of marijuana, etc.  You
can sum up 45-55 in two words: Bird and heroin.  I learned zilch --
there wasn't a story I hadn't heard before (though oddly enough the
second reference I'd seen in a week to Parker's appreciation for country
music), no insight into his personality that went past the surface.  As
one acquaintance of mine put it afterward: "It's like Time-Life would
have done it."

Perhaps particularly troubling is the way in which Dizzy is largely
ignored.  He's not totally ignored of course.  But he plays not second
fiddle, but like 3rd or 4th fiddle to Bird.  They almost make it sound
like he abandoned Parker in LA out of spite.  The only non-Bird
performance clip he gets is one in which he's dancing in front of his
big band (he never even gets trumpet to lips).  They acknowledge him as
the one who "popularized" bop, and although they note his incorporation
of Afro-Cuban music, other than a photo of Chano Pozo and "Manteca"
playing in the background, they don't note how important it really was. 
There's not really anything demeaning to Dizzy, but there's a fair
amount that sounds like damning with faint praise to me.  Of course, if
your take on a decade is all about one man, you've got to downplay
everyone else.

There are also numerous mentions of how boppers didn't like dancing,
including repeated shots of "no dancing" signs in clubs.  It's presented
as if the musicians wanted it this way.  Of course, it was the clubs who
put up the signs, and that was probably because they were all tiny and
if people danced, they'd only fit about 10 people in there.  But this is
offered as the primary reason why jazz became unpopular (another
straight from Marsalis/Crouch).  It's not that the music was unpopular
because they played in small clubs that didn't allow dancing, it was
played in small clubs because it was unpopular.  Popularity determines
size of venue, not the other way around.  They also don't bother to
explain at all why the big bands broke up (maybe that's in the previous
section), nor is any mention made of the recording ban.

In addition to Marsalis, Murray, and Crouch, other talking heads include
Gary Giddins, Phil Schaap (much younger than I thought), Gerald Early,
Jon Hendricks, Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Quincy Troupe, Chan
Parker, Jackie McLean, and Stan Levey.  I'm sure I've forgotten some. 
The only inspired choice (and one of the few outside the Marsalis circle
to my knowledge) is drummer Stan Levey, who was on the scene and was
even Parker's roommate for a couple years.  McLean is also a very good,
though obvious, choice.  Nothing wrong with the others, but it's not a
very wide array of opinion.  Where was Max Roach?

And now another big problem.  This was episode 8 of 10.  8 episodes to
get up to 55.  The 9th episode covers 55-60 (or maybe it was 65) and the
10th covers everything after, including "things which grew out of
jazz".  So a serious disservice to current jazz and obviously something
close to completely ignoring the avant-garde.  Oh, don't get me wrong,
I'm sure we'll hear about Albert Ayler washing up and maybe Cecil Taylor
will get a nod as the "Coltrane of the piano".

But beyond all that, even if you agree with the decisions Burns has made
about what gets priority, this is disappointing, judging by this
episode.  It's the surface history of jazz, intended to hook newbies
with jazz's intriguing story and satisfy social conservatives by
dressing it up in democracy and America.  Marsalis's prints are all over
it.  He's third in the credits, as "senior creative consultant."  Heck,
in this thing we even get a brief nod to the discussion we had here
recently, that "after the war, the informal jam session became the model
for public performance" -- I was waiting for Marsalis to chime in with
"solos didn't exist before then." :-)  Just as I thought we were gonna
make it for the full 2 hours, "gutbucket" came swinging through the Monk
segment.  Whether you agree with the Marsalis/Crouch version of history
or not, I'd hope you'd agree that a multi-million dollar, 20-hour
documentary on jazz ought to find room for some additional opinions,
especially since it's not like the Marsalis/Crouch version doesn't get
plenty of exposure already.

And I now realize that this is a big part of the problem with this
documentary and some of Burns's other work.  In the Civil War, you have
2 sides, different viewpoints which were expressed at the time, and you
can both contrast those positions, and take note of the common humanity
which managed to show itself despite those contrary positions.  Quite
obviously, civil wars are reflective of society.  In Baseball, Burns
simply reached too far, equating a simple, beautiful game with a
complex, often ugly society, but with the further problem that once you
take as a premise that baseball reflects America, there's no
counter-point to be made.  Burns makes the same assumption here -- jazz
is what Wynton says it is: swing, blues, democracy, America.  If that's
taken as a given, then there's really only one story to tell here, only
certain individuals to be heard from.  

Of course, there's a huge flaw in Wynton's view which no one seems
willing to tackle.  On the one hand, jazz is the ultimate in musical
democracy; on the other hand, it's dominated by a handful of giants
which we must worship and the story of jazz is the story of those men. 
(It'll be interesting to see what role women play in this documentary. 
The only woman musician mentioned in "Risk" is a nod to Melba Liston as
trombonist and arranger for Dizzy ("he liked some of her arrangements as
much as his own."))  If jazz is democracy, equality, a "negotiation" (a
word used twice within the first 5 minutes), then where are the other
voices?  In the Civil War, we heard stories of low-level soldiers,
civilians, abolitionists, slaves, generals, and all the rest.  Here we
get the story of Charlie Parker and almost nothing else.  The notion of
the pantheon of greats is antithetical to the notion of jazz as a music
of open democracy.  The story is so much richer.

And of course the "great man" approach hinders the film as well.  When
they're reading off the list of the victims of heroin, the jazz fans in
the audience are indeed saddened -- but the neophytes to whom this is
pitched will have absolutely no idea who any of these people are because
they've been completely ignored.  Sure, they can tell from the context
that these are supposed to be good musicians, but they won't have
anything close to a real sense of what it means to have lost Tadd
Dameron.  Gerry Mulligan's name is mentioned a few times in a context
which conveys "this was an important musician" -- buy why?  It's ironic
-- they actually take a swipe at Dean Benedetti!  They mention that
"fans" would follow Parker from gig to gig, turning on their tape
machines as he started to solo and turning them off when he stopped,
ignoring the other musicians.  This is portrayed as bad, as a sign of
how the worship wore on Parker and wasn't fair to other musicians.  Of
course, this episode is the height of Parker worship and ignores other
musicians.  [and for god's sake, a documentarian above all else ought to
be grateful that someone bothered to preserve a huge chunk of Parker's
live work -- though I don't think we got to hear any of it.]

And I'm disappointed with the lack of new footage and unfamiliar
photos.  Heck, I believe I've seen every one of these photos and film
clips before and I'm hardly a jazz film/documentary/photography buff. 
It's like they've recycled Bravo's jazz documentaries.  Seriously, take
that cycle of documentaries, add Straight no Chaser, that American
Masters piece on Parker a couple years back, and you've got everything
these 20 hours are likely to have, without as much of the "jazz is
America" stuff.  Later this week, there'll be a presentation on the jazz
photos of W. Eugene Smith, a photographer for Life who quit that job to
live in a NY loft during the 50's, made it a popular hangout for jazz
musicians (reportedly Sonny Clark was "house pianist" and Miles and Monk
both hung out there for a time), including wiring the whole house for
sound.  We'll be seeing his photos and hearing some of the music he
recorded.  How come stuff like that didn't find its way into Burns's
documentary?  Maybe they're in the next episode, but I didn't even
notice any Miles Wolff photos. [note I probably won't be able to make
that presentation of Smith's work, because we've got a concert that
starts almost immediately after -- but folks in the Triangle can easily
make both the presentation and the concert: Matt Darriau's Paradox Trio
and Uri Caine's Zohar]

And the Benedetti swipe makes me realize how oddly they've treated
recordings (as distinct from music) in this documentary.  When Parker's
on the West Coast, he "managed to produce a few recordings for a small
label called Dial" and we get the story of the producer having to hold
him up to the mike and a Dr. giving him some (phenobarbitol?) to get him
through it.  There's no mention made that these are considered legendary
recordings by Parker.  They play "Loverman" through this.  Maybe they
were being uncharacteristically subtle (relying on the music to convey
its greatness), but there's no mention that this is one of his more
famous solos.  The strings recordings, on the other hand, are treated
with the utmost respect, bringing in Branford to defend Parker against
any charges of selling out.  As I mentioned, Monk's Blue Notes aren't
mentioned, while "Brilliant Corners" is showcased, noting it was
recorded after emerging from the isolation arising from his cabaret card
problems.  I'd think a newbie would come away from that thinking that
Monk was ignored until 55.  And there's no mention of the folks running
the labels.  Maybe they show up in the next episode, but y'know
Lion/Wolff, the Erteguns, that small Dial label, and those obsessed fans
running around with their tape recorders were responsible for giving us
anything to remember these great musicians by.  They deserve some props,
especially from an historical documentary filmmaker.

Which isn't to say they got nothing right.  Burns is a good documentary
filmmaker who can tell a story in a captivating way.  Neophytes should
find this very entertaining and of course those who think the last 40
years of jazz deserves no more than an hour or two won't mind its
absence.  And Burns has an uncanny knack for making still images come to
life (this was true in Civil War and Baseball too).  

Most importantly, they almost treat the music right.  Pieces are allowed
to play pretty much in full!!  Granted, you'll have talking heads
yammering over most of a piece, but they don't play 30 seconds of a song
then kill it when someone starts to talk, they just turn it down a bit. 
And the music sounds excellent.  I'm no audiophile to begin with and am
not particularly experienced with various releases of the material of
this time, but the music is crystal clear and sharp.  I gotta give 'em
props for that.

Still, when I think of how much this cost, of how many jazz concerts
could have been produced, filmed/recorded, and put on PBS with that
money, of how full a view of the jazz reality of today could have been
given, I am sorely disappointed.  Don't get me wrong, this will spark
interest in jazz, especially Armstrong, Ellington, and Parker, among
those unfamiliar with it.  But based on this episode, it will give those
new fans absolutely no reason to look beyond jazz's history.  They're
ignoring the last 40 years and telling only a small piece of the story
up till then.  This does not do justice to the artform.

walt davis
not officially speaking for the Alliance for Improvised Music
( When I am, hopefully I'll 
remember to use my AIM sig.