Ken Burns – Jazz (A History of America’s Music) – Revisited! (January 25, 2001)

Ken Burns.jpg

Submitted by Bill King

I recently noticed Ken Burns epic documentary on American jazz arrived on Netflix. I remembered somewhere buried in a box of recorded interviews a conversation we shared in person back in 2001.The interview takes place at Starbucks in Yorkville – January 25, 2001. Verve Records is releasing a series of companion discs containing many of the stellar individual performances from the film in a box set. Jazz is a documentary miniseries in nine episodes (1917-1961) looking at the music, social conditions – the racism, innovation and perseverance that shadowed a new American music. With this comes push back. The volume in Starbucks makes it near impossible to carry on a conversation. I ask Verve publicist Glenda Marlene if she would inform staff to lower volume. Burns is instantly recognizable.

Ken Burns: So, turn down jazz … and turn down our records?

Bill King: No one can do that. Ken, I’ve assembled a few questions from scouring chat boards - conversations critiquing the documentary.

K. B: Isn’t it unbelievable. People need to get therapy immediately. I read one thing where they were accusing me of writing - what Wynton and Gerald Early - writing it down for them. We never did – we never told people what the questions were. The proof of this is – every once in awhile Wynton looks up, obviously to read his cue cards and because we are so clever we have Gerald look down to read his.

B. K: All though the series has your stamp is all over this, you never appear in the film.

K. B: But, that’s really the way to go.

B. K: You rely on journalist like Stanley Couch, Gary Giddins etc to tell the meat of the story.

K. B: Disagree. Most of the talking heads are musicians – more than fifty per cent. In fact, the single greatest narrative device – agent of the narration, is what we wrote – the actual story. The talking heads either amplify or provide apostasy or controversy. Rarely do they direct the story other than like a cute antidote – a duel - Sydney Bechet fights as told by Wynton. The rest is our narration and research and physical writing.

B. K: Gary Giddins seems to attract less criticism.

K. B: Only from one particular school. We are now talking about people who are one per cent of one per cent. They come with their baggage. Instead of watching my film they take a piece of paper out. Wynton already means one thing to them, whereas, to Americans, they accept him at face value. Gary Giddins means another thing to another set of critics, a good guy to counterbalance the bad guys. The rest of the world has no such baggage. They are decoding the symbolism of this based on everything these people have done before, yet none of them advance any of the agendas they have – none of them. They just describe human beings – sounds of music.

B. K: How do you address an artist like Keith Jarrett who had this to say about the series?

The NY Times printed a letter written by Keith Jarrett:
40 Years Missing
To the Editor:
Regarding Ken Burns's (or is it Wynton Marsalis'?) "Jazz": Now that we've been put through the socioeconomic racial forensics of a jazz-illiterate historian and a self- imposed jazz expert prone to sophomoric generalizations and ultraconservative politically correct (for now) utterances, not to mention a terribly heavy-handed narration (where every detail takes on the importance of major revelation) and weepy-eyed nostalgic reveries, can we have some films about jazz by people who actually know and understand the music itself and are willing to deal comprehensively with the last 40 years of this richest of
American treasures?    
New York

K.B: I’ve heard what he had to say – read it in the New York Times. I don’t address it. I don’t dignify the racism. I think his comment diminishes his stature as an artist.

B.K: Much is directed at Wynton.

K.B: The last time I checked it was a free country and people are allowed to have opinions. Nobody can blame me for including people. Think of the range of people we have in this film. James Lincoln Collier, Dick Sudhalter, Gee Lees, Wynton, Stanley, Albert Murray, Gary – a whole range of other people. Somehow, when some see Wynton appear, they only see the evil. The rest of the country sees a genius who is helping them understand this music which the people are calling “this evil” have done the best to obscure from the public. It’s hilarious.

B.K: I see Wynton playing the role that Leonard Bernstein did in explaining classical music to a broad audience.

K.B: One of the greatest teachers I have ever met. I have no idea what Jarrett’s beef is with him or them – I do not care. It’s tied up in jealousy. Keith Jarrett is not in the film. Neither is Francis Davis in the film. His wife is Terry Gross. She refused to have us on Fresh Air which I now call ‘Stale Air.’ So frightened of our ideas - she had a week of jazz and allowed her visitors to trash the film without any chance for us to say ‘go get a life.’ These people need to get a life. This is a good thing for jazz, unless you don’t want that. I don’t think Keith Jarrett wants good things to happen for jazz. He’s so self-involved with his own battles that he’s forgotten that I’m totally uninterested in them. When little kids squabble they think who hit who first is the most important thing. I’m only interested in telling this story – the story of this music.

B.K: The series has a near reverential tone to it, was this planned?

K.B: No, it’s just the commentaries of people. I’m a documentary film maker – looking and asking people. If someone tells me that he plays to make the ‘angels weep’ – hmm – that’s sounds interesting. If someone says his talents are ‘God given’ or ‘for her it was better than reefer or alcohol.’ You are looking at an 80 year old woman – a yenta, saying that. It’s a hilarious bite. It is possible to take things out of context and say this is what I’m saying but to be accurate journalistically – as I hope people would want to be – that you would see this is part of the collection of commentary. The narration even when it comes close to this will say – some people will say – it’s a ‘gift from God.’ Since everyone we talked to said Armstrong was a gift from God, or an angel – we still said and qualified it with saying – some people will say.

B.K: I don’t think players who come out of universities, especially since the sixties have fun with the music like their peers.

K.B: I agree. They were involved in an art, not an academic discipline. Tolstoy said ‘art was the transfer of emotion from one person to the other.’ I think what we find with the people we focus early in the film, the history of jazz – were people who still believed in it as an art. Now people talk about art but they don’t practice art. My film doesn’t say that. It’s just the humble comments of a citizen now that the film is done. The film doesn’t in anyway suggest that.

B.K: As complex as the music is, it must have been difficult keeping the story simple?

K.B: This was the most complex narrative I’ve ever tried to wrestle with. The overlapping stories - the stories like the seed gets planted in episode three and sort of blossoms in episode four – disappears for five then comes back in six. Person dies in seven. That kind of stuff intertwines the forty or so people who form the backbone and the other hundred and fifty who cross this stage. It’s the most complicated thing. What complicated even more besides wrestling a complex narrative – finding out what that story was we needed to tell. No one is permitting me among the ‘jazzerati’ to have my own art. That is to say – take my block of stone and carve it. That’s what I’ve done. But they just say, no you have to carve it how I want it carved. To which I say – fine, go make your own film. My words to Keith Jarrett – you don’t have to be rude, completely intolerant, and indeed racist. Why don’t you make your own film in which you can glorify the white contribution to jazz if you feel I haven’t exalted. You can be more than sophomoric. That’s fine, but you’ve got to do it. This took six years and millions of man hours.

B.K: There are those who say the film does diminish the role of the white musician in the development jazz.

K.B: I disagree totally. The response I’m getting to the stories of Bix Beiderbecke – Paul Whiteman - of which we liberated Paul Whiteman from the yoke of rip-off artist. We liberated Bix Beiderbecke’s story to an intense complexity. Freed Benny Goodman from the knee-jerk liberal assumption that he just stole. Glorified Artie Shaw. Dave Brubeck is a huge, huge, potent force in the film. This music is born in the African/American community, I’m sorry. It’s an opportunity for me to discuss race. Maybe what it is – people don’t want me to practice my art. They want me to have an objective view of jazz. And no one can do that.

B.K: The film says jazz is about America but what of the other countries that embraced the music early on?

K.B: Well, I’m an American film maker and I’m interested in using my subjects to tell me how my country works. So naturally I’m going to have that kind of parochial view. The film does continually in every episode acknowledge foreign influences and relationships and reactions and indeed, because this is an art form and not an indigenous folk music that it started out to be, then everyone has the ability to play it and contribute and is contributing to it. And the last end of the film it sort of celebrates the glorious inclusiveness of jazz. The fish I wanted to fry had to do with the way jazz reveals to us in America – who we are; good and bad.

B.K: You took some flack over Baseball for not including modern day players.

K.B: How many times do I have to say this – I am in the business of history. History is about stories that are over. I always stop – Baseball series included twenty-five years out and tell people I’m doing this and unhitch my narrative and then spend an ‘outro’ in an impressionistic taking in of that period – the modern period – which I do not have the historical perspective to judge. But, if that’s a continuing problem as it seems to be – then I ask every person, I ask you, I ask Keith Jarrett – who among today’s players are the equal artistically to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie. You wouldn’t probably know until we got several more years out who else is the most important people in jazz. It may be Keith Jarrett or Wynton. Or it’s a combination of Keith and Wynton and if they’d only play together, it would be great. We just don’t know.

B.K: I would argue Herbie Hancock is one of the last of the impactful innovators.

K.B: He’s in my film. He’s in the last of our twenty-two living artists which include Brubeck, Ornette Coleman ….. (Burns get’s interrupted for an autograph) “the last two are pretty spectacular – did you see Parker’s death last night?” That is the people’s reaction to the film. When I talk to people, 90% of the questions are about the three or four articles that have been negative and all the harping on the Internet of which a lie travels half way around the world before the truth ever gets started. But the truth just walked out the door! I made it for her!