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How Ken Burns Murdered Jazz

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Ken Burn’s interminable documentary Jazz starts with a wrong premise and degenerates from there. Burns heralds jazz as the great American contribution to world music and sets it up as a kind of roadmap to racial relations across the 20th century. But surely that distinction belongs to the blues, the music born on the plantations of the Mississippi delta. Indeed, though Burns underplays this, jazz sprang from the blues. But so did R&B, rock-and-roll, funk and hip hop.

But Burns is a classicist, who is offended by the rawer sounds of the blues, its political dimension and inescapable class dynamic. Instead, Burns fixates on a particular kind of jazz music that appeals to his PBS sensibility: the swing era. It’s a genre of jazz that enables Burns to throw around phrases such “Ellington is our Mozart.” He sees jazz as art form in the most culturally elitist sense, as being a museum piece, beautiful but dead, to be savored like a stroll through a gallery of paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

His film unspools for 19 hours over seven episodes: beginning in the brothels of New Orleans and ending with the career of saxophonist Dexter Gordon. But in the end it didn’t cover all that much ground. The film fixates on three figures: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the young Miles Davis. There are sidetrips and footnotes to account for Sidney Bechet, Billie Holiday, Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane.

But the arc of his narrative is the rise and fall of jazz. For Burns, jazz reached its apogee with Armstrong and Ellington and its denouement with Davis’ 1959 recording, Kind of Blue. For Burns and company it’s been all downhill since then: he sees the avant guarde recordings of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor and the growth of the fusion movement as a form artistic degeneracy. When asked to name his top ten jazz songs, Burns didn’t include a single piece after 1958. His film packs in everything that’s been produced since Kind of Blue (40 years worth of music) into a single griping episode. Even Kind of Blue—the most explicated jazz session in history—gets shoddy treatment from Burns in the film, who elides any mention of pianist Bill Evans, the man who gave the record its revolutionary modal sound.

This is typical of the Burns method. His films all construct a pantheon of heroes and anti-heroes, little manufactured dramas of good and evil. Armstrong and Ellington are gods to be worshipped (despite their fllirtations with Hollywood glitz), but Davis and Coltrane (both at root blues musicians to our ears) are fallen idols–Coltrane into the exquisite abstractions of Giant Steps and Love Supreme and Miles into the funk and fusion of Bitches Brew, On the Corner and his amazing A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Coleman, the sonic architect of the Free Jazz movement, is anathema.

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