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January 24, 2001

One Critique of Ken Burns's Documentary "Jazz"

Email forwarded by AJHF member, Jay Payette.

From: "Jay Payette" <jaypayette@prodigy.net>
Subject: One Critique of Ken Burns's Documentary "Jazz"
Date: Tue, 23 Jan 2001 15:01:29 -0600

I don't entirely agree with everything this writer says about Wynton or Ken Burns or jazz music or how Burns handled jazz in his documentary. I also think the writing is long-winded and diffuse. However, if you can wade through all the extraneous foaming-at-the-mouth and name-calling, there is a germ of truth in there. In what I've seen so far, Burns has over-emphasized the popularity of some artists, and in general, vastly over-emphasized the sociological aspects of the music at the expense of the artistic aspects of the music. This piece is worth slogging through.

-----jay

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You might have seen this piece already, but am sending it in case you haven't. Apparently, the writer is a saxophone player, Mike Zilber.

Jim

_______________________

----- Original Message -----

From: David Liebman
To: Gene Lees
Sent: Wednesday, January 17, 2001 8:09 PM
Subject: more on Burns

Best stuff I have seen on the Burns thing - he mentions me but still real valid - good saxophonist from west coast - mike zilber

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J'ACCUSE, BURNS and MARSALIS - or - KEN AND WYNTON'S BIG LIE

O.K., maybe the stakes aren't as high as in the Dreyfuss affair, and Emile Zola I ain't (though we share a consonant or two), but to those of us who care passionately about jazz, Ken Burns has committed cultural perjury.

Aided and abetted by his amanuensis, Wynton Marsalis, Burns is fobbing off on the American public a series that is part hagiography, part-Reaganesque faux-nostalgia and, when it comes to the last 40 years, largely a lie of omission and commission.

Let me ask you a question. What would you think of a series on American presidents that spent 18 hours on presidents before Teddy Roosevelt and 2 hours on presidents from TR on? Well, in Jazz, Burns creates essentially the same ratio. He spends 18 hours on the music before 1961 and TWO hours on the music after that. To go back to our presidential analogy, a similarly styled Burns documentary on our leaders would have spent as much time on Grover Cleveland, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan as on TR, Wilson, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton combined. Would YOU think such a series gave a fair representation of presidential history. And what if, within that miniscule two hour segment on everyone from TR to Bill Clinton, Burns asserted that nothing of significance happened after Wilson until the second term of Ronald Reagan! You might think that maybe, just perhaps, some interesting history from FDR through Richard Nixon was left out (so they could fit in more on George Washington, perhaps.)

Can I be clear here? Burns has done a tremendous service in some of his early historical footage and background. If he had made a documentary entitled jazz until 1960, I would have had little complaint with him. If he'd entitled his documentary Everything I didn't know about jazz until Wynton told me, I'd be fine with that, but Burns does a tremendous educational and historical disservice to the music on a level with, say, making a film about the entire civil war that ended with Lincoln's emancipation proclamation in January of 1963.

A little background is in order.. Jazz went through an astounding period of ferment, turmoil and upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s, much like the rest of the country. Longstanding precepts were challenged, transformed or simply chucked. Much incandescent music resulted, along was some truly horrible sonic abortions. (As an example of the latter, I believe the fifth circle of Hell is reserved for uninterrupted listenings to Anthony Braxton's solo double album, For Alto) The 1970s featured Miles' ex-sidemen creating a staggering mix of jazz, funk, rock, free and Latin influences in such seminal bands as Weather Report, Mahavishnu, Headhunters, Light as a Feather, Lookout Farm. To paraphrase Marty Kahn, this fierce and brilliant fusion had about as much to do with today's corporate smooth jazz as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane had to do with Welles' commercials for Ernst and Julio Gallo.

By the beginning of the 1980s, cultural retrenchment was rampant everywhere, from our pre-senile ex-actor President to Bill Cosby's Politically correct update of Father Knows Best. It was sadly fitting that the decade of unfettered avarice and reaction was brought in by the assassination of John Lennon, only a month and a half before the giddy Gipper took office.

Wynton Marsalis burst on the scene in the early 80s, a young, cocksure trumpet phenom hailing from the cradle of jazz, New Orleans. Filled with brash pyrotechnics, tremendous mimicry skills of those who had come before and an almost unprecedented ability to switch between the classical and jazz worlds, Marsalis took the critical and corporate jazz world by tsunami. Initially, Wynton mined the fertile fields of mid-60s Miles, with brother Branford doing a credible Wayne Shorter to his brother's prince of darkness, Kenny Kirkland tearing it up ala Herbie Hancock on the piano and the raging Tain Watts doing a Tony Williams/Elvin/Tain thing. This initial group remains Wynton's best group by far, and it is no accident that the music the group created came before Wynton fell under the influence of two profoundly conservative African-American music critics, Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray.

Stanley Crouch, the David Horowitz of jazz criticism, was initially a fervent apostle of the new free thing. Grandly declaiming David Murray as the next Coltrane, Crouch, a failed FREE jazz drummer (Migod, how do you fail at FREE jazz drumming?) eventually changed his politics somewhere in the mid-80s and began retrenching further and further back into the mists of jazz time. Now Crouch has no truck with music stylistically after, gee, 1960, the time when Ken Burns asserts that jazz lost its way. (Is a pattern emerging?)

Crouch's partner in the education of Eliza Marsalis Doolittle was Albert Murray. A cultural historian specializing in the blues, Murray had superb knowledge of the early blues musicians all the way through the KC territory bands of the late 1930s. Unfortunately, he also developed a powerful formalist ideology wherein jazz was essentially a blues-based music. This is utterly inaccurate as history. I don't have time to delineate all of the non-blues cultural currents which made up and continue to inform jazz, from Cuba to Europe to Ragtime to Brass bands, so if you want a brilliant and detailed refutation of Murray's thesis, read Dick Sudhalter's essay in the NY Times a couple of years back. Suffice it to say, claiming that jazz is essentially a blues-based music is like saying that Paella is basically a shrimp dish.

Under the tutelage of Crouch and Murray, Marsalis became increasingly dogmatic that the real jazz was pre-fusion, then pre-modal, then pre-bop, and now Louis Armstrong is about as modern as Wynton likes to venture. Marsalis is now the Ronald Reagan of jazz and, like Reagan, has no memory of those nasty 60s and 70s, preferring to bask in the halcyon days of Roseland, Satchmo and wax recordings. "Well, here we go again."

That is certainly his prerogative, but in his drive to museumize the music, Marsalis has gained some powerful allies and his actions have far reaching consequences for the art form. He heads Jazz at Lincoln Center, an organization dedicated mainly to repertory of the 1920s-1950s, is by far the most recognized and quoted jazz musician among the mainstream media, and now, through the unholy alliance with Burns, has put his hand into rewriting the history of jazz to write out all of the advances of the 1960s and 1970s. He and Burns are guilty of historical malpractice.

I have a cheap little psychoanalytic theory about Wynton, based on nothing more than idle speculation. I remember seeing him blaze through town when I was a student at New England in 1981. He and I are the same age and I recall being astounded by his trumpet playing with Blakey.

Free, cocky and utterly unselfconscious, Marsalis dazzled the room. We all went home buzzing about the young man who had played trumpet with an unparalleled authority and joy - dipping freely into everyone from Clark Terry to mid-60s Miles to Woody Shaw to Freddie Hubbard. We were convinced that anyone who had so brilliantly assimilated all of these styles and more at such a young age would surely, as soon as he found his own voice, reinvent the jazz canon. It was only a matter of time.

By the next time I heard Wynton, five years later at the Village Vanguard, I was deeply immersed in the NYC jazz scene. Playing and gigging with such folks as Wayne Krantz, Drew Gress, Ben Monder Jimmy Earl, Mark Feldman, Dave Kikoski, Bruce Barth, Ed Schuller and John Riley among others, I had a pretty good sense of what my generation was looking into musically. I eagerly anticipated what Wynton would have to show us.

Maybe he would lead the way - shine a light, so to speak. Instead, we were subjected to a stiff, careful and utterly regressive display of neo-conservative soloing starkly at odds with the joyful and unscripted music Marsalis had been delivering only a few years before. Marsalis has continued on his ever more regressive musical journey. At last report, the trumpet terror is channeling Gottschalk and is seriously advocating going back to the old megaphone style of recording, since it is a more authentic approach than those nasty electronic microphones. (I'm not kidding, he said that!)

So here's my theory: Wynton, a truly smart man, with gifted ears and powerful instincts, KNEW that he had nothing new to say, that he was only a brilliant mimic. He was not , to paraphrase Gil Evans, a sound innovator. Knowing this, Wynton, in a position of influence and power unparalleled in jazz, chose to redo the rules of the game. If he couldn't move the music past the innovations of early 60s Miles, he would reject ALL jazz after that as fraudulent, either cacophonous garbage or cynical commercial sellout. Wynton, as jazz pope of the retro-crowd, released infallible papal bull (in both senses of the word) after papal bull: All electric jazz is cynical commercial pandering. Free jazz is pseudo-intellectual claptrap and so on and so on. Each pronouncement from Marsalis and approving amen from Crouch, Murray, et al. was designed to insulate him from the awful truth: He had nothing new to say in the art form he loved.

Now, through his mouthpiece Burns, he has found an unfettered worldwide audience to spread his big lie about jazz after 1960.

The hills are alive, with the sound of - Buddy?

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. First off, I'd like to dispense with the point that in actuality, Burns spent 18 hours on 100 years and 2 hours on 40 years. I'll grant that the years 1863 to 1917 are all intrinsic in helping build the stew known as jazz and worth two hours of precious time IF the remaining periods are treated equitably. But the relevant numbers here are 16, 42, 2, and 39. 16 is the number of hours Burns spends on the 42 years between 1917 and 1960 and 2 is the number of hours Burns takes for the 39 years between 1961 and 2000. Even the years 1917 to 1924 are arguably not worth the two hours spent on them here. Jelly Roll Morton and Armstrong, viewed as the two key figures in early recorded jazz, didn't press wax until 1925

1) Jazz is viewed as a soloist's art form. Why? Thanks to Louis Armstrong and others who broke free of the collective front line born in the marching bands of New Orleans. Prior to 1925, with the possible exception of Sidney Bechet, individuals were not coming out from the front line. Armstrong's creative powers and stunning virtuosity were so compelling that most historians (and this is one of the things that Reverend Marsalis and I agree on) credit him with virtually singlehandedly creating the idea of the jazz solo virtuoso. That happened around 1925, as did Jelly Roll Morton's (the first great jazz composer) first recordings, so I contend that jazz, as a vehicle for extemporaneous solo creation dates from then, specifically the Hot Five recordings of Armstrong and the exquisite solos of Bix Beiderbecke.

2) If an artist is no longer with us we can no more speak intelligently about what h/she sounded like without having the recorded evidence of his/her work than we can credibly hold forth on the speaking ability of any president prior to TR. Well, guess what? There are NO recordings of any jazz group AT ALL before 1917. Buddy Bolden, icon so revered by Wynton and his crew, stopped performing in 1907. Hands up anyone over 93. O.K. the rest of you are just moving air to even venture an opinion. There is no doubt that Burns is a master at taking period photographs and inserting contemporary narration over it, but I draw the line at having 40 year old Wynton play what he thinks Buddy maybe sorta, coulda, mighta sounded like. This at the expense of Bill Evans!!! (More on that later on.)

3) Whether or not you think the two hours spent on a time where there is no documentation of the sounds being created is reasonable, surely you will grant that spending two hours on the years 1935-37, which Burns does, seems a little out of balance, when only 2 hours are spent on the time between 1961 and 2000, and much of that two hours is spent falsely asserting that jazz had lost its way between 1965 and 1985 when Wynton Reagan Marsalis took over the joint.

So we understand, Burns spends as much time on a period where there is zero recorded evidence of the music as he does on the most extensively documented 40 years in the history of the music. That is utterly fraudulent in methodology and representation.

The fetishization of Louis Armstrong

Ah'm comin' 'lizabeth, ah'm comin'. Now Zilber's dissing Louis, ah'm comin' ta meet yah, 'lizabeth. Relax, take a beta blocker and read carefully:

Without Louis Armstrong there would be no jazz as we know it.
He was the first great soloist in jazz, the man responsible for the whole idea of a soloist telling his story. Armstrong's glorious sound, unhurried swing and exceptional virtuosity, coupled with an ebullient song-like lyricism, redefined what it meant to be a jazz musician. He set a whole new standard for improvisers (AND singers with his magnificent scatting. His jazz scatting is still just about the only such I'll go out of my way to listen to. Hey singers: You've got lyrics, use 'em.) To paraphrase Newton, anyone playing jazz today is standing on the shoulders of giants and Armstrong is the original giant on whom all others balance.

O.K. Feel better now? Can I get you a cold drink. I REALLY love Louis, honest. HOWEVER! Armstrong's fertile artistic period as an innovator was over by about 1932, and if you look at the Hot Five and Seven records as well as the duets with Earl Hines, we're really talking about a five year period. Armstrong never moved past the stylistic approach of the late 1920s, and by the late 1930s artists such as Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Christian were far more developed harmonically, rhythmically and formally. This is not to demean Armstrong in any way. Without Armstrong, there would have been no Lester, Bird, Miles, Trane, Herbie, Liebman, Woody Shaw, and so on and so on.

And yet, it is equally absurd to hold Armstrong up as non pareil in terms of his musical substance. It's like saying no one in physics, even Einstein, will ever be at the level of Newton. This is exactly what Burns and Marsalis assert. In interview after interview, Burns has a smug and prepackaged sophistry for anyone who challenges why Bill Evans, Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea et al. get such short shrift. "Name me one person from the past 40 years as good as Louis, Duke, Bird or Miles and I'll put them in." This from the fella who five years ago owned Kind of Blue, Love Supreme and a bunch of rock records. Well Ken baby, I'm not sure what you mean by good, but ya know, if Newton came back from the dead he would be utterly baffled and nonplussed by quantum physics of today. By the same token, drop Louis in any band of world-class current day jazz musicians, say Dave Douglas' group or Dave Liebman's, and the rhythms, harmonies, melodies, forms and tempos played would be so far in advance of anything conceived of by the Hot Five that poor Louis would be utterly flummoxed and bewildered. That doesn't make one better than the other - it's like comparing Mandarin and Provencal cuisine. It merely show's the fatuousness of Burns' Marsalis-supplied line of defense.

1961-2000 The Big Lie

The iconicizing of Louis goes so far into retro-absurdity that Burns wastes valuable space on his companion CD set shoehorning in Armstrong's kitschy rendition of Hello Dolly while at the same time finding no space on the 61-2000 CD for Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, John Mclaughlin, Wes Montgomery, Oregon. Mahavishnu, Dave Liebman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Steps Ahead, and.I'll stop here cause I'm trying to keep this thing under 4000 words. I don't even think the most diehard early jazz fanatic would assert that Louis' Hello Dolly ranks with Chick's Now He Sings, Now he Sobs or Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer in importance, but to Burns/Marsalis, it is clearly more important.

Even when Burns focuses on a post-1960s artist, he damns with faint praise. This as just one example among many demonstrating Burns' staggering ignorance about post 1960 jazz. Who's he talking about when he says: "As obviously talented as ________ is, he isn't a great soloist or composer or a major innovator." Why Herbie Hancock of course! Most practicing jazz musicians would rank Herbie among the top pianists in the history of jazz. From his earth-shattering work with the Miles Davis quintet of the 60s to his exquisite blue note releases, from his cross-cultural Sextant, fusing African, jazz and funk to his astonishing duet records with Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, Herbie has established himself as an artist of the highest order as a soloist, accompanist and composer. But no, Ken Burns says otherwise.

I think the Burns/Marsalis party line is never more clearly stated than in the preamble to the last episode, covering 1961-2000. According to the film, jazz, by the early 1960s had lost its way. Hello Dolly and Girl from Ipanema excepted, Beatles and other nasty rock n'rollers were outselling jazz by large margins. (Never mind that Beboppers such as Bird and Diz never came close to the sales of Sinatra and Perry Como and that Elvis Presley out sold Miles' biggest hit, Kind of Blue by ten to one.) Miles, according to the film, decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Yep, it's a shame that Miles spurned such challenging fare as Hello Dolly for the obvious commercial pandering of Miles Runs The Voodoo Down and Agartha.

Burns/Marsalis go on to hail Dexter Gordon's return in 1976, purveying his smooth hard bop of the 1950s as saving jazz from itself: a vast sea of commercial, electric pandering and squawking 'free' jazz charlatans. Then a certain young trumpet terror from New Orleans came on the scene, coincidentally right at the same time as another retro figure, Ronald Reagan, and led the unwashed masses away from the slums of fusion and free, back to the sober, Italian-suited recreations of ever more distant forms of jazz.

It's a nice story. It's also a fundamentally dishonest recounting of what happened in jazz after 1961. Master saxophonist Liebman has a great line: "If you really want to know what's happening, ask the musicians," and I mean other than the astoundingly reactionary Wynton Marsalis. By the way, as discussed above, Wynton is the first influential jazz musician in the history of the music with not ONE innovation to his name. Furthermore, he is the first influential jazz musician in history who takes his cue from two NON-MUSICIANS, Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray.

Just what did Ken and Wynton leave out? Lets start with the 60s, the decade in which, according to Burns/Marsalis, jazz lost its way. From Bossa Nova to Albert Ayler, an almost inconceivable range of Jazz was created in that landmark decade. Let's focus in on just three of the groups from the decade when jazz "lost its way". Most working jazz musicians consider that the hardest chunk of music to master is the music which began in about 1959 with Coltrane, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. They recognize that the extraordinary level of freedom AND control of materials exhibited by the Davis quintet, the Coltrane quartet and the Evans trio is unsurpassed and a rich lode of material for further development. The exceptional level of interplay and rich harmonic development by the Evans trio has informed everyone from Hancock to Corea to Jarrett to current star Brad Mehldau. The amazing conversations, break neck tempos, superimposed rhythms and densely free chromaticism of the Davis quintet has shaped every band from Woody Shaw to Dave Douglas to Wallace Roney to Tim Hagans. The powerful cantorial tenor of Coltrane, the volcanic dialogues with Elvin Jones, the stretched harmonies of Tyner's insistent fourths have marked every tenor player since Coltrane, including Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Mike Brecker, Kenny Garrett and Wynton's brother.

Then we get to the 70s. I know it is not PC to say it, but the 1970s had a wealth of phenomenal music. Like the 30s, and the 50s, it was a time when the music became widely popular, with records such as Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Weather Report's Heavy Weather selling a million copies each. Like the 30s and the 50s, one has to separate the wheat from the chaff - so just as one makes a qualitative distinction between Count Basie and Glenn Miller, one needs to make a qualitative distinction between Grover Washington'' "Mr. Magic" and Weather Report's "The Juggler".

Incredibly, Burns, in his penurious allotment of post 1965 music (7 tunes), picks "Mr. Magic", Hancock's "Rockit" and Weather Report's "Birdland" as three of the seven tunes. That would be like picking Paul McCartney doing "Till there was you" as representative of the music of the Beatles. Meanwhile a whole wealth of brilliant material from the decade is omitted, including far more stellar representations by Hancock and Weather Report. It may seem hard to believe, but on Burns' companion CD the following artists don't make the cut in this Pravdaesque retelling of jazz's last 40 years: Chick Corea, John McGlaughlin, Keith Jarrett, Oregon, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Henderson, Pat Metheney, Anthony Braxton, Steps Ahead, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Dave Holland, Jan Garbarek, Lifetime, Dave Liebman, Mike Brecker, Joe Lovano....aww shit, it's too depressing to go on. And yet, Burns finds time to include Wynton's vanity project, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra doing a cover of Take The A Train. Paging George Orwell, Mr. Orwell, there's a package from Mr. Burns and Mr. Marsalis for you at the front desk. George Orwell to the front counter, please.

A couple of friends of mine who are high up in the music biz, having received sneak peeks, say "hey, lighten up, Mike. I know the last 40 years is bullshit, but what the hell, any publicity is good publicity, don't ya think?"

No, I'm sorry to say, I don't think. Jazz is a living, breathing music and in every major city there are serious, hardworking musicians trying to move this music forward. They've learned the lessons of the masters well, Louis AND Lieb, Duke AND Diz AND Douglas, Morton AND Mingus AND Mike Brecker AND Melhdau. They will not stand for the museumizing and minstrelizing and misrepresenting of this glorious and ALIVE tradition.

And so we will not go gentle into that good pledge night, Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis. It is in sorrow as much as anger that j'accuse, j'accuse again and again and again, of perpetrating the big jazz lie on the American public. 'Cause it don't mean a thing if it ain't got Bill, Chick, Wayne, Mahavishnu, Jaco, Sco, Lieb, Brecker, Joe Hen..

-END-

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