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'Jazz' by Ken Burns

Episode-by-episode commentary on the new PBS documentary.


by Mark D. Johnson
February 1, 2001

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'Jazz' by Ken Burns_Mark D. Johnson-Episode-by-episode commentary on the new PBS documentary. The highly-esteemed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns rounds out his American Trilogy with a 19-hour presentation on jazz. Burns, who brought "The Civil War" and "Baseball" to PBS to much acclaim, has been receiving some advance flack from jazz purists who have problems with Burns' take on the subject.

As the series is broadcast beginning Monday, January 8 on PBS (check local listings), I will be posting commentary on each episode sometime during the day after it airs.

Episode One
Episode Two
Episode Three
Episode Four
Episode Five
Episode Six
Episode Seven
Episode Eight
Episode Nine
Episode Ten
Final Thoughts

The official website is located at www.pbs.org/jazz. PBS websites are always top-notch.

Episode One: Gumbo
Air date: January 8, 2001

First off, I want to address the criticism of this film coming from the jazz purists who take serious issue with Burns’ errors, exaggerations, and omissions in telling the story of jazz. Like Burns’ “Civil War” documentary, this film is not for the aficionados who know far more about the subject matter than most people would ever like to know. It would be impossible to please them in such a sweeping project as this. Though I’m an avid jazz enthusiast, I’m willing to cut Mr. Burns a little slack for the sake of making the story entertaining as well as informative. But then, I’ve only seen the first episode so far…

“Jazz” starts with an introduction, giving an eloquent overview of this uniquely American form of music and adequately describing its cultural significance. Hearing Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” had me looking forward to the big band era and beyond, but of course, the story begins in New Orleans in the 1890’s.

There is little material to work with when reconstructing the origins of jazz. There are no jazz recordings prior to 1917, and film footage of New Orleans circa 1900 is scarce. As with “Civil War,” Burns must make do by making old photographs come alive, zooming in and out, panning left and right, and no one does this better than he. The photos are intriguing and otherworldly, providing a glimpse into the birth of an art form, while various jazz authorities give an account as to how this music came to be. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is the chief spokesman (and senior consultant for the film), who, with his wide breadth of jazz history knowledge, has become the most prominent statesman for jazz in the industry today. He occasional demonstrations of early jazz styles by scatting and playing snippets shows his vast experience in educating novices about jazz.

Today, the earliest form of jazz is a rarely heard novelty, which, for most people, wears thin after a few numbers. While it is clearly joyous music, its improvisational complexity, with various instruments soloing simultaneously, makes it demanding on the ear. Yet when we see how the many influences came together to form jazz, and hear the stories of its earliest pioneers, we are led to a new appreciation of it.

Episode One’s heroes are Billy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morten, and Sidney Bichet. The series, for me, is off to a good start. Episode Two belongs to Louis Armstrong. It airs Tuesday, January 9.


Episode Two: The Gift
Air date: January 9, 2001

Louis Armstrong, says Wynton Marsalis, is the "embodiment of jazz music," and thus becomes the first of a select few jazz musicians to be deified in this film. Once bebop came along in the late forties, Armstrong's style garnered less and less respect, but Burns shows how enormously influential he was in jazz as the music took the country by storm in the 'teens and twenties.

There is a wonderful image early on in this episode where Louis is working the Mississippi river boats, his immense sound travelling across the water, having a profound effect on the likes of future jazz stars Jack Teagarden and Bix Biederbecke.

This is an exciting and explosive time in the evolution of jazz in which Chicago and New York become the epicenters of a new art form. Armstrong joins King Oliver's band on Chicago's south side, while Duke Ellington begins to explore new musical territory in Harlem.

It is impossible to present a true history of jazz without addressing the role of racism, and Burns, who gave much time to the issue in both "Civil War" and "Baseball," weaves in and out of this theme effectively and with subtle profundity.

How bitterly ironic, that Paul Whiteman (a white man), would be dubbed the "King of Jazz" after his experiments with George Gershwin and the famous Aeolian Hall concert create an unprecented interest in a music with its roots in black America.


Episode Three: The Language
Air date: January 10, 2001

In “The Language” we see more of Louis Armstrong’s astonishing feats as he is the first to record and popularize scat singing and turns the music world on end with his Hot Five and Hot Seven records. We see Duke Ellington become the bandleader at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, a whites-only establishment with black entertainment. His unique band arrangements quickly become a craze called “Jungle Music.”

We also witness the start of other jazz notables: Bessie Smith, who so poignantly sung the blues of her people; Bix Biederbecke, perhaps the first truly great white jazzman, who became the star cornet player with Paul Whiteman and others, then drank himself to death; Ethel Waters, whose clear voice gained mass appeal and set the standard for female jazz vocalists to come; and Benny Goodman, the great clarinetist who would surge to superstardom.

I love the fact that jazz history is filled with such colorful characters; that it has its origins in black culture and grew as an extension of their emotions to become so infectious that white bands struggled in their effort to imitate the superior black bands. Here we have a largely improvised music, with only minimal written arrangements that has such complexity as to confound the properly trained elite white musicians. And where else, but in the jazz world, would a musician be willing to kill a man in an argument over chord changes, as Sidney Bechet was while in Paris. (He merely wounded a few bystanders with his gunshot.)

Comparisons have been made elsewhere between jazz and today’s dominant black music, rap. Both have tremendous creative and rhythmic elements, both have an innate rebelliousness, and both have some rather seedy and sexual overtones. I personally don’t care for rap, and I have no authority when it comes to black culture, but I’d much rather see black youth embrace jazz. It seems to me that what is missing in rap is the exuberant joy you hear in the recordings of Armstrong. Even by the time bebop comes around, people tap their feet to the beat and say “yes!” The life-affirming attitude behind jazz stands in stark contrast to the defiant and often violence-laden lyrics of hip hop. The jazz rebellion is about freedom, whereas the hip hop rebellion is about control. But what do I know about hip hop? I can’t stand to listen to it. I’d better stick with the program here…

Episode Three ends with the full-length, three minute Louis Armstrong recording of the sublime “West End Blues,” a true masterpiece which starts out with Armstrong’s amazing and wholly original solo fanfare. He certainly had something special.

“Jazz” continues next Monday night, January 15. I would prefer a broadcast schedule that is not so demanding on the audience. With the episodes two and three each exceeding one and a half hours, this is marathon viewing that eats up too many hours in consecutive days. But that’s not to say it’s not worth watching.

Episode Four: The True Welcome
Air date: January 15, 2001

"The True Welcome" continues the story of Louis Armstrong's development, paying particular attention to his unique singing style - not just his scat improvisations, but his phrasing and the liberties he took with the melody. As the nation heads into the Great Depression, Louis' solos are still far superior to those of anyone else.

Duke Ellington's compositions and arrangements become increasingly sophisticated, and with the mass popularization of radio broadcasting, his orchestra gains a large following among both black and white audiences, leading to film cameos and national tours.

As the Swing Era begins, the great ballrooms of New York, particularly The Savoy and Roseland, start hopping with the swing dancing craze that helped people forget the woes of the Depression. Benny Goodman, the extremely competitive clarinetist, begins broadcasting his "Let's Dance" radio show, hires Fletcher Henderson to do arrangements, and is set to become the King of Swing in Episode Five.

The art of the improvised jazz solo takes another leap forward with the innovative stylings of pianist Art Tatum. Great story: When Art was growing up in Toledo, his mother bought a player piano roll which was performed by two men, though Art, who was completely blind in one eye and almost blind in the other, assumed it was by one man and continued to learn and play both parts with two hands. His virtuosity at the jazz piano has never been equaled before or since, in my opinion (though Oscar Peterson came close before his stroke). His astonishing embellishments to the melody of a song, as well as his chorus solos, quickly had a profound influence on soloists of all instruments.

Episode Five:
Swing: Pure Pleasure

Air date: January 17, 2001

I found Episode Five to be very entertaining. Not only is the music becoming more modern and familiar, but there is a lot more film footage documenting the Swing Era.

At age 26, Benny Goodman was the King of Swing. Though his band had previously played clubs and ballrooms, his famous engagement at The Paramount Theater in New York showed that his music had mass appeal among teenagers. They were dancing the Jitterbug in the aisles, and their enthusiasm for their hero, Goodman, was not unlike the Beatlemania in the sixties.

Among the big bands to follow were those of Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Lunceford, Artie Shaw, and Glenn Miller. I really enjoy the interview clips with the present-day Artie Shaw. Who knew he was so well-spoken and insightful? He touches upon the commercialization of swing music, characterized by bland performance and corniness. While Shaw's arrangement of "Begin the Beguine" put him above Goodman in popularity for a time, he would disband his orchestra in 1939 out of frustration with the business side of the music industry.

Sadly, Louis Armstrong found himself without regular work, having to deal with lawsuits from ex-agents with mob connections, and settling for occasional small movie parts. Yet the swing music which dominated the radio waves owed much of its style to Armstrong. As one person put it, "swing is orchestrated Louis." Louis could be considered the father of swing, though the nation was largely ignorant of that fact.

There is an interview with Duke Ellington, who continued to do his own thing at time with great success, in which he says that "writing music" is "dreaming." He demonstrates at the piano with some soft chords in ballad mode, capturing the feeling beautifully. In a sense, all creation of art is "dreaming." Duke dreamed up some of the best songs ever written.

Enter Billie Holiday, who at the age of nineteen has lived an extremely harsh life, yet finds herself singing with Duke's band in a remarkably unique voice. Her vocal artistry combined Bessie Smith's soulfulness with Louis Armstrong's phrasing.

The episode returns to Benny Goodman, who has begun to integrate his band with black musicians in an effort to recruit only the best. It was a daring move made hesitantly, and few white bandleaders followed suit.

In an epic battle, Goodman's band shared Harlem's Savoy Ballroom one evening with the resident band lead by drummer Chick Webb. The consensus: Webb's band out-swung Benny's that night.

And as the swing craze became more commercialized, with many of the bands sounding the same, a new sound is heard coming from Kansas City from a band led by Count Basie.

Episode Six:
Swing: The Velocity of Celebration

Air date: January 22, 2001

When I first took an interest in jazz back in high school, I was drawn to the commercial swing music of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, but I soon began to prefer Count Basie’s band, and within a year I was into small group improvisational jazz. Episode Six shows a similar evolution in jazz history, though it only covers the years 1937-39.

Amazingly, as commercial big bands were reaching the height of their popularity, Kansas City became a mecca for jazz musicians from all over the country. Despite the ongoing Depression, there were countless clubs and lots of work for jazz musicians. The one thing they all had in common: the blues. Kansas City bands generally did not have formal written arrangements like the famous swing bands of the day. Instead, the worked with “head arrangements,” mostly centered around a 12-bar blues chord progression, where the melody is played, solos are taken for an undetermined number of choruses, background horn riffs are added behind the soloist, and then the melody is repeated to end the tune. The Kansas City style put the art of jazz into swing music, yet it was still accessible to mass audiences, as Basie would prove when he took the band to New York.

Commercial swing was still going strong, with Goodman’s band performing, nervously at first, at Carnegie Hall. When several of his band members left the group to start their own big bands, the Goodman band was never quite the same, though Benny did hire Charlie Christian, who would be the first to make the electric guitar a major jazz solo instrument. Back in Harlem, Chick Webb was anxious to reach a wider audience than his steady Savoy Ballroom gig supplied, and he would do so when he took a chance on the not-so-glamorous female vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. At age 19, she would become America’s first lady of song. Shortly thereafter, Chick died from his spinal condition at the age of 30.

By this time, the saxophone had become the major instrument of jazz, and the tenor sax the primary solo instrument. The most influential tenor soloists of this time were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Lester Young’s light, airy sound was the showcase for Count Basie’s band. Interestingly, Lester’s main influence for his sound on the tenor was Frank Trumbauer, the white Chicago tenor player. Coleman Hawkins had a more muscular sound. He spent ten years with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, but his fame really took off upon his landmark recording of “Body and Soul,” in which he barely hints at the song’s melody while displaying remarkable improvisational talent. It was a huge hit, and would be heavily influential on the great soloists of the 1940’s.

This episode only briefly mentions Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in passing, but their careers were hardly over.

Episode Seven: Dedicated to Chaos (1940-1945)
Air date: January 23, 2001

Charlie Parker was what I call a stupid genius. His talent and creativity contributed as much to jazz music as anyone. No one had a bigger impact on modern improvisational jazz than Parker, yet he was self-destructive, having become addicted to heroin at the age of 17. Unfortunately, when he and Dizzy Gillespie collaborated to create a new branch of jazz, bebop, there was a ban on recording music stemming from a disagreement between record producers and musicians that lasted two years.

Even now, fifteen years after I bought my first Parker LPs and played them again and again, I’m still in awe of what he accomplished. His solo on "Koko" is one of the greatest things in all of music for me. I have to admit that I cringed upon noticing that they edited some of his solos to fit the length of the voice-over, leaving out a phrase here and there and repeating the first part of the solo after the end of the solo, but only because I know those solos so well that I want to hear them as they were played. The editing was so seamless that only us freaks would notice, so it really doesn’t lessen the film in my mind.

Of course, this is the time of World War II, when the big swing bands were still popular. Many of the bandleaders played an important role by touring for the troops, helping to rejuvenate them and bring to them a piece of home. Glenn Miller would perish in a plane while serving as a bandleader for the Air Force. Dave Brubeck is first mentioned here, as he was discovered as a remarkable talent just before he was to go to the front. While the troops were segregated, his band was not, and he tells some very moving stories about how his black bandmates were treated in the south.

Duke Ellington, at age 40, was too old to go to war. He found a musical soul mate in young Billy Strayhorn, a pianist who would become Duke’s right hand man. Though they were opposites in personality, they thought remarkably alike when it came to composing and arranging, and together they created masterpieces, written specifically for the unique group of soloists in the band. Ellington’s band had a sound like no other. Though they lacked discipline (many drank a lot and were tempermental), Duke managed to keep them together throughout the war and found creative solutions to fights amongst themselves.

The real revolution was taking place at Minton’s Play House in Harlem, where jazz musicians in search of a more expressive outlet than big bands offered would come to jam and experiment late into the night. Like the chaos of war, jazz was becoming more chaotic, with faster and faster tempos, more notes, and new, wild soloing ideas that took the music to a new level. And leading the pack was Charlie Parker, that wonderful idiot.

Episode Eight: Risk
Air date: January 24, 2001

The title of episode eight refers to not only the musical risks bebop musicians would take to advance their new art form, but the personal risk many of them took in their addiction to drugs. There are many ironies that lace the history of jazz, and one of them is the fact that this highly complex and intellectual concept of music called bebop was created by a small group of relatively uneducated drug addicts.

Actually, to my knowledge Dizzy Gillespie was not heavily into drugs. He seemed to look at life differently from his junkie bandmates, and his jovial nature, huge cheeks, and showmanship made him one of the most beloved musicians in jazz for decades. While I’ve never been a huge fan of Dizzy’s playing, I certainly respect his accomplishments and innovations at the dawn of the bebop era, and I wish his revolutionary big band had seen more success.

Charlie Parker was hugely influential in his solo technique, but unfortunately, his followers, in their desire to be like Bird, took up his drug habit as well. So many of the great players of the day were caught up in heroin, and it was not only tragic in their lives, but, to some extent, tragic for jazz as well, as they spent time finding money to support their habit instead of focusing on the music.

Jon Hendricks says in this episode that Bird was a highly intellectual person, that you could talk with him about any topic, including nuclear physics, for example. Now of course I never met Bird and I know he was a complex man, but I’m a little dubious about that statement. What I mean is that Hendrick’s gives us the impression that he was an intellectual on a par with, say, William F. Buckley, but I don’t think he was that kind of intellectual. It’s been well-documented elsewhere that Parker loved all kinds of music, and in this episode it mentions that he always chose country-western music at the jukebox (for the stories), that his favorite composer was Stravinsky, and that he once stopped by a farm to play his horn to the cows. It’s clear, especially with his obvious gifted musical ability, that he had a very unique and unusual mind, but I wonder just how “intellectual” he really was. Yesterday, I called him a stupid genius, and I really believe he was a musical genius. By the way, where are the musical geniuses of today? Anybody know of any?

There is considerable time spent on Bird’s decline, leading to his death at the age of 34 from complications due to his drug addiction. It’s such a sad tale. How strange and cryptic were those four telegrams he sent to his wife from the West Coast upon the death of their two year old daughter!

This episode also introduces Miles Davis, from his days as a young sideman with Parker to his ground-breaking “Birth of the Cool” album. He, too, got into drugs, but at the end of the episode, there is the story of him going home to East St. Louis, Illinios, locking himself in a room to quit taking drugs cold turkey. I don’t think he stayed off drugs forever, but the story, with his father’s love, is moving.

With the West Coast sound beginning to take off, pianist Dave Brubeck and his alto saxophonist Paul Desmond reach a wide audience with their “Time Out” album. It was comforting to see that even Desmond, in concert footage, had trouble finding a place to breathe in the bridge to his classic “Take Five” tune.

Episode Nine: The Adventure
Air date: January 29, 2001

The stars of Episode Nine were Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, with the ongoing updates of Duke, Louis, Billie, and Miles.

I’m familiar with the tunes associated with Sonny Rollins, but I don’t know his playing inside and out. I have two albums that feature Sonny, and he doesn’t blow me away on either of them. At the time he gained major attention, he seemed the heir apparent to the Bird legacy, but without that context he sounds to me like just another great hard-blowing tenor player who could ramble on in a solo for infinite choruses. I know I’ve just deeply offended some Sonny fans, and I’m sorry. I know if I studied his solos more, I’d have a greater appreciation, but this film didn’t really find a clear way to define his contribution to jazz either. The interviewees simply found several ways to say his playing was great. Perhaps he helped make the transition from bebop to “hard bop,” and I was interested in his perfectionism which led him to drop out of the clubs to concentrate on individual development by playing his horn under that bridge in New York for eight hours at a time. I’m open to anyone’s insights here.

It’s always sad to be reminded of Clifford Brown’s untimely death. He had some amazing chops, and he proved that you didn’t have to be on drugs or have a raging temper to play good jazz. Miles Davis, on the other hand, didn’t have that precision on the fast tempo tunes, but he found a new, more sparse groove with the Gil Evans arrangements, and then on to the seminal “Kind of Blue” album.

The John Coltrane story seemed rather brief, and he was another one who could solo on one tune for three hours. I respect his more experimental works, but Coltrane was best on “Giant Steps.” And then of course, there was alto player Ornette Coleman and the free form jazz movement. It was interesting to hear Charlie Haden’s description of being in that group when they first started out. Like its visual counterpart, abstract expressionist painting, I very much respect the theory - it is improvisation to the extreme, and even enjoy the listening experience to a certain extent, but ultimately I can’t bring myself to put it on equal footing with melody and harmony-based jazz. Artistically, it is just as valid as the preceding forms of jazz, but I guess I need more structure.

Episode Ten: A Masterpiece by Midnight
Air date: January 31, 2001

Dexter Gordon might be my favorite tenor sax player, though I’m not sure what was meant when the narrator said “No one took a bigger risk than Dexter Gordon.” I don’t think it was meant musically, since he wasn’t really a groundbreaker, but was perhaps in reference to the fifteen or so years he spent in France, where the audiences still appreciated bebop. He stayed the course while others ventured into the avant garde. While the musical experimentation that took place in the sixties was worth exploring, to me it just doesn’t provide the meat and aural satisfaction that more structured jazz offers. The pianist Cecil Taylor is described as an acquired taste, whose music you have to learn to appreciate. I’ve never enjoyed anything I’ve ever heard by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, though I havent’ heard a lot. Their art form was valid, but just not enjoyable music.

One of the coolest new branches of jazz to form in the sixties was created by the classic Miles Davis quintet consisting of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. They explored new chord relationships and harmonies with an unprecedented cohesiveness. Miles then went off into his fusion thing to reach a much larger audience.

It was interesting to see that just two months after The Beatles landed at JFK, Louis Armstrong had the number one tune on the pop charts with “Hello Dolly.” Jazz’s “last gasp,” as one put it. Louis’ death, followed by that of Duke Ellington, symbolically signaled the “death” of jazz. Essentially, there has been nothing new creatively to come along in jazz since their deaths.

When, at the end, we are presented with the current jazz masters, with Wynton Marsalis leading the pack, they come off as seeming insignificant compared to the legacy that we saw precede them. They’re great players - players I love to listen to, and while their solos are innovative, their not breaking new ground.

Critic Nat Hentoff, or somebody, near the end gives hope for the future of jazz as they show a good high school jazz band playing. He says that in the swing era, nobody saw bebop coming, and in the bebop era, nobody saw avant garde coming, so who’s to say that we’ve reached the end of the line? The problem with that is that it has been over three decades since the last major new jazz idiom was created.

Nevertheless, modern jazz is still great; it still allows for individuality among its players, and because of the infinite ways to play a tune within the established jazz styles, jazz is here to stay. It just might not evolve any further. By the way,I have no idea what the episode’s title refers to. I must have missed that.

Final Thoughts

Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich was extremely harsh on this film, saying it was ruined by “errors, distortions, and omissions.” He says he could fill a book on the problems with this documentary. Sure, some major figures in jazz history were short-changed, Reich is being far too picky. Burns left out too many semi-important musicians, he didn’t interview enough of the musicians still alive when the scene was hopping, he focused too much on a chosen few… If Reich had made this film, it would be about 30 hours long and about as lively as C-Span.

He complains that the last five decades of jazz were summed up in just the last two episodes, while the first five decades are explored in the first eight episodes. But again, nothing major has been accomplished in jazz for the last thirty years, and the jazz audience has dwindled. Why not spend more time on the years when it flourished?

For me, this series did a great job of telling the evolution of jazz. We could all wish for more here and there, but this was basically an effective project - a good introduction to jazz. The images were captivating, the soundtrack (of course) was great, the interviews were insightful, and the narration held my interest. Whether non-jazz fans would come away with a different view, it’s hard to say. The Tribune’s television critic didn’t care for it either, saying it fell flat by not being critical enough of its subject matter. It’s possible that if one already has an aversion for jazz music, he or she would not be moved by this film, but I think anyone truly interesting in American culture and race issues would find this to be a welcome diversion.

Jazz CD sales make up about 3% of all CD sales in the music business. With such a low percentage, we should be grateful that Burns chose to delve into this great American product, and that he did it so extensively.

One thing though: the next Burns mega-documentary should be shown one episode per week. Nineteen hours within four weeks is just asking for too much. How did we ever have all that time to watch those big miniseries of the seventies like Roots and Shogun?

Final rating: 3 1/2 stars

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