Ken Burns is an effective filmakeer; if only he were an effective historian! Jazz is a deeply flawed project. The rise of recorded sound and the mass media compressed the history of Jazz. In less than a century, Jazz has seen as many movements/counter-movements and revolutionary outbursts as art or classical music saw over many centuries, but in Jazz, movements last years, not decades, and what was considered "radical" in 1945 was "traditional" or even "old hat" by 1960. Yet this rich tug of war between sub-genres is almost entirely absent in Burns' work.
Because Burns is not a trained musician, he relied on others to flesh out the idiom's history for him. In choosing Wynton Marsalis as his cultural beacon, he inadvertently chose by far one of the most conservative voices in Jazz. Mr. Marsalis is a formidable musician, but many in Jazz dispute his very narrow outlook on the art. In Mr. Marsalis' world, the only "real" jazz is blues infused. Blues is indeed a powerful component of jazz, but the 12 bar alternation of the three chords (I,IV and V) is just one of a panoply of styles. Styles that don't fall into Marsalis' limited stylistic orbit are either completely ignored in Burns' work, or dismissed as the peripheral musical ravings of a hack.
Burns' film only covers some aspects of Jazz from 1900 to 1961. It's like telling the story of Classical music but stopping short with Brahms, blithely ignoring anything that came after 1890, sweeping the huge burst of creativity that followed under the cultural carpet. Just as the history of classical music cannot ignore towering 20th figures such as Mahler, Stravinsky, Sehoenberg, Bartok, Hindemith, Copland, Shostokovich, Cage and others, a huge multi-part history of Jazz should not stop abruptly at 1961.
Just like a conservative telling of classical music (where Bach, Beethoven and Brahms rule over all) we are given cultural pantheons, most notably Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, while others, even remarkable revolutionaries, are ignored or denigrated.
Mr. Armstrong is indeed a powerful and influential figure in Jazz. He pretty much invented vocal "scat" and his early "Hot 5s and 7s" recordings are powerful statements of a folk tradition morphing beyond it's roots into a sophisticated art form. But Mr. Armstrong's influence waned, indeed one could argue died entirely, with the advent of "bebop" in the early 1940s. bebop is more complex harmonicially, replacing the simple chord progressions of the Blues with free-ranging progressions of dozens of chords, pushing the bounds of tonality with "substitution chords," rapid fire and complex improvisation, and chromatic flights of fancy.
Burns' romantic portrayal of Jazz masks what was often a very cantankerous battle among various factions. Mr. Armstrong passionately hated bebop. The practitioners of bebop, Charlie "Bird" Parker and othes, disdained in turn what they saw as the pedantic "moldy figs" of Armstrong's older generation. Ultimately, bebop tugged at tonality as aggressively as the late 19th century classical composers, and like in the classical traditional, it paved the way for a great tonal/atonal divide.
But in Mr. Burns' film its as if the tremendous atonal earthquake brought forth on the album "Free Jazz" never happened. The album was as influential as the huge controversy that greeted Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" in the classical genre. One can love or hate it, but one cannot ignore it. The battles music fans engaged in when John Coltrane embraced atonality with his album "Ascension" are lost on the Burns/Marselis collective imagination. Eric Dolphy's monumental "Out to Lunch" is...well...out to lunch in this miniseries. In Mr. Burns world of gentle jazz, there is little room for radicals.
But in the real world, the split between tonality and atonality shook Jazz to its core for decades. Musicians coming of age in the 1960s through the early 1990s, whether self-taught or emerging from colleges, universities and conservatories, would chose one of two pathways. On one side of the cultural fork, they could chose the tonal, blues and big band infused "inside" or "in" path, or they could opt for the more adventurous atonal, avant garde, "outside" or "out" path. For Jazz, this was *the* civil war. Mr. Burns film doesn't allow for civil wars; indeed, often the music comes off as gentle parlor music, approachable even to the most gentle ears.
Over time, the "out" path became linked to the cultural notion of Black Power. The American Academy of Creative Music (AACM) in Chicago issued manifestos reminiscent of those that radicals in the art movement put forth in early 20th Century Europe. The only true African American music, for the AACM, was "out" and aggressively so. They called for a rejection of classically influenced (and thus "white") tonality.
The inevitable influence of Rock and electronic music on Jazz doesn't exist in the Burns/Marsalis landscape. "Bitches Brew," which fused elements of "in", "out" and rock on a two album release that was, for a time, the darling of thousands of young teenagers who'd never listened to the blues, or to big band. The movement it spawned, Fusion, is not here either. Weather Report and other groups commited the cultural sin of mixing "pure" jazz with "polluted" rock. There is no place for them in Mr. Marsalis' world, and hence no place for them in Mr. Burns' documentary. Nor, it seems, is there room for important and emerging asian or latin american stylists, and fuggetabout "Acid Jazz," where hip hop, rap and jazz come together in exciting and suprising ways.
Perhaps the deepest iniquity we must endure with Burns' documentary is the "museum-ification" of Jazz. Jazz is a living art, indeed, many would argue that a new generation of young musicians are engaging today in an historic and lively dialog on both the tonal and atonal paths. But living musicians, such as Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Don Byron and Dave Holland do not appear. Jazz is presented by Burns as a dead art; we only hear from the dead musicians, even in the final episode. That does little to encourage increased exploration of LIVING musicians pracicing a LIVING art.