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Defending Ken Burns

Ken Burns focused his savvy documentary talent onto jazz some time ago. He collected 2400 photos (from how many more tens or hundreds of thousands examined), includes 500 pieces of music), did 75 interviews, screened hundreds of hours of film and tape footage, and came up with a massive 19-hour doc epic that's getting enormous publicity, has two major labels (Sony & Universal/Verve) kicking out wonderful tie-in CD's (with two Delmark tracks), and didn't wait for first airing to release the whole 19 hours on VHS & DVD (w. extra stuff on the latter).

This has got to be the greatest publicity break for the music in ages! A clip-reel Mr. Burns was nice enough to send ran on our Video demo at JRM so much that the employees had it memorized. I just saw the series and I think it's damn good. It stresses the black origins in ragtime, blues, and religious music as well as the brass bands, opera, and other European and Caribbean music that was the New Orleans music scene in the late 19th century. (Leonard Feather would have hated the attention it gives Jelly Roll Morton as jazz's first great orchestrator.)

For a guy who had no interest in jazz when he initiated the project I think Burns did a hell of a canvas.

So what happens? Some jazz critics are dumping on him! Incredible!!!

The major complaints: (I have a few minor ones myself)

"Too much Wynton Marsalis." I have had my disagreements with WM but I can't disagree with much of what he's saying. He sure knows more of what he's talking about than that musician-teacher who didn't know of Louis' love for the Guy Lombardo sax sound. Not many young musicians can claim the objectivity toward jazz history that Wynton has.

"How can Wynton do Buddy Bolden?" Simple. He played the tune Bunk Johnson demo'd for American Music in response to questioning from Bill Russell about Buddy's style. -- And quite well, too. Paige van Vorst says the tune is "Happy Sammy", a 1906 composition by F.C.Schmitt retitled by AM as "Making Changes". This great tune ought to be played more often. Too bad they didn't just use Bunk's recording. (Not stereo?)

"Sound Of Jazz (or Jammin' The Blues) was better." Not much to argue with here except they weren't trying to do what Burns succeeded in doing: tell the history and explain the background of jazz's first half-century.

"No moral to the story." It's a doc, guys, not a nursery rhyme.

"Not enough about the avant garde, fusion, etc.." Mr. Burns announced that he would only lightly cover the last several decades so isn't it a bonus that he brought them in at all?

"I don't like this anonymous (voice of God) voiceover thing." Hey, that's how docs are done. And a reading of the credits will tell you who's speaking (when the subtitles don't) and who wrote it.

"It's too long." I can't believe they're complaining that jazz gets so much coverage.

"My favorite artist wasn't mentioned." It's called editing -- and pre-editing. Writers ought to be familiar with the word if not the concept. Burns is succeeding in speaking to millions of people who think they don't like jazz --- and showing them that there is probably some jazz they will like.

"Not enough about white musicians." Well, Bud Freeman and Django Reinhardt seem to be my own main complaints. Aren't they more important than Tommy Dorsey? It has always been obvious to me, however, that most of the lasting changes in the music are wrought by African-Americans.

Perhaps the main, tho unexpressed, complaint of many critics really is: "I wasn't consulted."

There were, inevitably, a few inaccuracies. I'm sure a lot of us mouldy figs winced at the mispronounciation of Gennett (as Gen-net instead of Jen-ett, as people in the family pronouce it.).

I was disappointed to learn that that brass band music was played by Wynton & Co. I think he played it well, having probably played a few brass gigs in his youth. I'd have preferred tho to see the bread go to guys who are still out there marching.

It's too bad the project didn't take place ten or twenty years ago when more first-hand accounts could have been included. There are musicians alive who played with Monk, Trane, etc. who could have been interviewed. But, hey, life is short and even GM grant money runs out.

Thanks, Mr. Burns and ... May we have an update? Please!

- Bob Koester


If you did like the show, or it at least piqued your interest, you might also want to consider these solid products issued by Verve & Sony to supplement the series:

Best of Ken Burns JAZZ

* 20 song overview of the series

* $15.99

Ken Burns JAZZ -- The Story of America's Music

* 5-CD Box Set Contains much of the music featured in the series

* $54.99

The Definitive Collection

* 22 CDs, one each of a variety of jazz greats.

* $11.99 each