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Various: The Best Of Ken Burns Jazz

AAJ Staff By

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With the PBS series unseen, but with the one-CD compilation heard, it's fair to say that Ken Burns is ambitious, that's for sure. Few critics will assert that Burns doesn't have his heart in the right place.

Nevertheless, Ken Burns Jazz in all of its permutations—from coffee table book to multi-part video package to 5-CD set—has opened up such a schism among jazz enthusiasts that they're just now start to act like post-election Democrats and Republicans. When such a unifying event receives major endorsements from the likes of General Motors, and when this beloved art form is promoted to over 40 million viewers for instant accessibility and acceptance, why would the enthusiasts, who have loved the music all along, be upset?

Let's start with the title. It has two problems.

First, Ken Burns is a late bloomer when it comes to jazz. He got the idea to develop a jazz series after he viewed the entire Baseball series, realizing that jazz formed a large portion of the sound track. Burns developed the Civil War series by drawing on the knowledge of historians, and he developed Baseball by interviewing players, coaches, managers and writers. It made sense to consult with people knowledgeable about the history and essence of jazz, including the estimable Jon Hendricks and Arvell Shaw, who have lived the life. The retention of Hendricks in particular was a coup because of his skepticism about the jazz press and his positive impressions of the Baseball series.

Ironically, in spite of the series' length and complexity, particularly compared to the pabulum that television normally serves, the perspective of Ken Burns Jazz is narrow. If Burns intends to tell a story about the social issues facing America in the past century, or at least part of it, he necessarily has to narrow his focus.

Thus, Ken Burns Jazz is about America in the first half of the twentieth century. "Jazz" serves as a metaphor for internal conflicts related to race, injustice, integration and freedom.

Now there's nothing wrong with that premise. It's as valid as any other. But there's something wrong with the title. It should be Ken Burns America As Symbolized By Jazz. Baseball didn't delve into the technical intricacies of the sport. Similarly, it could just as easily have been called Ken Burns America As Symbolized By Baseball.

Taking the name of Ken Burns Jazz at face value, jazz devotees justifiably may be incensed.

The flash point is Burns' reliance on Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, whose in-your-face assertions about the rightness and wrongness of jazz naturally rub more open-minded listeners and innovative performers the wrong way. And The Best Of Ken Burns Jazz has Wyntonisms stamped all over it. After all, the single-CD compilation concludes with The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's performance of "Take the 'A' Train." Does that really signify the direction of jazz in the future? No, Ellington's tune serves as a conclusion of Burns' presentation of jazz as an artifact, when in fact, jazz is a living organism.

That leads into the second problem with the title of the series. Ken Burns Jazz is not about music. It's about injustice.

However, by spotlighting American social injustices, Burns creates another injustice.

Where are the Latin contributions to jazz? What about the Europeans' contributions? Where are the Africans' contributions? Where is Chano Pozo? Where is Tito Puente? Where is Joe Zawinul? Where is George Shearing? Where is Astor Piazzolla (whom Wynton admires, according to a "Take 5" in a recent issue of Down Beat)?

The notion that jazz is an American music defies the development of the music into a truly world music, not to mention the fact the music originated in Africa, not in America, and spread throughout the world as the slave trade flourished. That is, jazz started from a world music, it synthesized through the experiences of black Americans, and it blossomed into a more intricately developed music that still attracts practitioners and listeners around the world.

Beyond the ethnocentrism of Ken Burns Jazz, the series suffers from retrospection, probably its most common criticism. With a thud, jazz according to Burns/Marsalis ends with Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the 1960's (although the 5-CD set does include such advanced music as Grover Washington, Jr.'s "Mister Magic" and Cassandra Wilson's "Death Letter"). Where, for example, are Ken Vandermark, John Zorn, Don Byron, John Surman, Dave Liebman or even Chick Corea, to name only a few insufficient examples.

To balance the negatives, however, even the most skeptical jazz listener will have to admit that Ken Burns Jazz is a massive undertaking and that the subject of jazz benefits from the attention. No doubt, we will all talk to newly informed jazz dilettantes at the end of January, who will instantly repeat nuggets of information from the series. The blasts of press promoting the series will be unavoidable.

And that's good. That's the kind of attention jazz deserves, and the kind of attention it has deserved for well nigh a century.

So what about The Best Of Ken Burns Jazz CD?

For people who can't afford the $85 book, the DVD's, the screen savers or the 5-CD set, the single CD sweeps the listener from Jelly Roll Morton's and Louis Armstrong's seminal recordings, through the big band era, into bebop, into Brubeck's cooler jazz of the fifties, and finally to the conclusion of Miles Davis' modal approach and John Coltrane's incipient spiritual musical references.

The continuity is logical, and the scope is expansive...to a point. For instance, the CD gives due credit to Fletcher Henderson, leading his own orchestra's recordings and then arranging for Benny Goodman. Benny Goodman's "King Porter Stomp" logically leads into clarinetist Artie Shaw's "Begin The Beguine." Shaw leads into Count Basie, who leads into Billie Holiday, who leads into Dizzy Gillespie.

The Best Of Ken Burns Jazz comprises a shorthand souvenir of the 20-hour documentary series. And how much more could a novice or sometimes jazz listener absorb anyway?

Ken Burns Jazz will broaden the audience for jazz, no doubt about it. The residual effect may be cumulative, lasting many years, or even generations, into the future. Dramatizing an art form always is difficult, and Burns made crucial choices along the way to engage the viewer through pains-taking documentation, expensive licensing and illuminating recollection of events that newspapers downplayed when they happened.

Therefore, going back to the original point, Burns' subject isn't an art form. It's the social history of America.

The fact that jazz symbolizes the issues of Burns' concern can only enlarge the audience for this under-appreciated music.

Jazz CD sales should rise. Funding for jazz events and authorship should increase. Establishment of buildings for the performance of jazz should be more easily accomplished. And hits on the www.allaboutjazz.com web site should skyrocket.

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