on 23 February 2003
Let's start with the criticisms and get them out of the way. For one, what you may have heard about Ken Burns skipping a great deal of the past four decades of the history of Jazz is true. He did that, ostensibly, in order to focus on the existential continental drift initiated by the invention of "Free Jazz" by saxophonist Ornette Coleman in 1961, and what that has meant for both the future of the music and its very definition. But yes, the overarching presence of Wynton Marsalis and "the bull in the African-American intellectual's China Shop" writer Stanley Crouch (the Wagner/Nietzsche duo of the jazz world) is evidence that the condensing of the past forty years onto one disk (or a little more than two of the nineteen plus hours of this documentary) is actually a function of their philosophy. Not, per se, any embryonic one of Ken's (who said repeatedly he knew little of the subject matter before taking this on) or the foundational perspective of every jazz musician. Crouch and Marsalis' perspective (as many know) to a large degree excludes much of what happened after 1961 via declaring it not legitimately being part of the art form that is Jazz.
My second complaint--as a professional singer/pianist, a more important one: the glory of doing a documentary on a living art form is that there are so many seminal artists of it still performing today, let alone still living and wanting to talk about it. It was amazing to hear such special communicators like Wynton, Stanley Crouch, Gerald Early, Giddins, Jon Hendricks, Branford, Charlie Parker's first drummer Stan Levy, Artie Shaw, or Bird's widow Chan Parker and the like share powerful insights and stories. Yet it could not replace--or even equal in retrospect--the value of hearing from even more living musicians than he interviewed throughout the documentary. For example (if not especially), Max Roach (who I have performed with in New York and Europe, still lives in midtown Manhattan, and is arguably modern jazz' most important percussionist. He is inexplicably absent from this collection, despite his 60 year Protean career and overarching influence being featured on more than two of the ten chapters of this documentary). Or, Jimmy Heath (who took over Coltrane's spot in one of Miles Davis' 50's combos and with whom I studied jazz composition in college: brilliant). Or the incomparable Oscar Peterson: the ultimate jazz pianist link to both the genius of Art Tatum and the early stride pianists of the teens and 20's, connecting us to the dawning of the art form in New York. Or pianist Ahmad Jamal: possibly the biggest influence on the artistry of Miles Davis. Or Dr. Billy Taylor, pianist protege of Ellington--to say the least about his career. Or Sonny Rollins, who is prominently featured on one chapter, and is still gigging around the country--probably as you read this. Or BOBBY MCFERRIN, the Coltrane of jazz singing today, who is unconscionably not mentioned at all in the entire series. Or ORNETTE COLEMAN HIMSELF--the subject of the schism of jazz in its entirety seen on the ninth disk....I could go on; and so could most jazz musicians.
The final critique is the history of heroin and drug use in jazz after the 30's Swing period, told brilliantly by Burns throughout the Be-bop and post Be-bop era discs. Told brilliantly, yes. However, the previous disks consistently and responsibly put all of the seminal figures of the art form's quixotic behavior and troubled lives into the profoundly definitive context of the racism and morally schizophrenic social fabric of the 20th century in America. When drugs came up, little to nothing was said about where exactly this heroin trade originated (nationally and internationally speaking), how it began inexorably coming into the Black communities, via what clandestine criminal organizations, etc. In other words, it wasn't for my taste responsibly linked to the same social dynamics he previously underscored.
All that said, you simply have to see this entire series to know, despite me giving you a bunch of paragraphs worth of b**ching, why this documentary is worth SIX stars.
Ken Burns will be the subject of a documentary himself in the not too distant future, to be sure. His genius in putting this entire series together--blending the drama, pathos and emotional panoramic of great film storytelling with the attention to the historical detail and objective character study of documentary--is, as far as I know, unparalleled.
The portrait of Louis Armstrong alone is worth the price of the entire set. Before this DVD series I thought I knew what his contribution to American culture was. Now I know Armstrong was among the greatest of us all, INCLUDING Mark Twain AND the Founding Fathers. Burns work on Ellington, also, will help you lay to rest any difficulty you may have with hearing Duke compared to Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein and all the rest of the American composers--and be found to tower above them. And Burns' work on the early days of jazz is almost overwhelming.
And then there is Wynton. Wynton's work on this set is nothing short of poetic. There are moments where his perspectives are so eloquently rendered on camera (even for him) that it nearly forces you to agree with them if you didn't already. There are other moments, while explaining the significance of singular people and the incomprehensible beauty of this music, where he bares his this-is-why-I-play-jazz soul...and you come off feeling as if you are a better person from just listening to it. In one of the later discs, Wynton explains that what keeps musicians playing, giving their entire lives to Jazz, is that it gives them "a taste of what America will be when it becomes ITSELF."
"...and it WILL become itself...that's a sweet taste man."
Ken Burns' JAZZ--like Jazz itself--is high art. A collector's item for anyone who just loves Music.