Ken Burns and “Jazz”

Before the original release of the Ken Burns film Jazz 11 years ago this month, I knew very little about traditional mainstream jazz; afterward, I began listening to everything I could get my hands on. Now, I consider myself maybe halfway knowledgeable about the music and its history. I watched the film again recently, and found myself thinking about this:

—Louis Armstrong “invented modern time.” Time in terms of music, that is, and although I’d never thought about it before, it’s true. Pre-Armstrong jazz does not really swing, at least not as it does after Armstrong comes onto the scene in the early 1920s. And in popular music other than jazz, rhythms become less stiff and more supple after Armstrong appears.

—Gary Giddins knows him some jazz. (The longtime Village Voice critic is the one who makes the time observation.) Of the experts who speak on camera in the series, his comments are consistently the most insightful and interesting. Musicians who played with the giants of the past generally have fascinating insights too, and it’s great to hear from bandleader Artie Shaw, who was pushing 90 when the documentary was produced. Trumpeter (and program consultant) Wynton Marsalis, on the other hand, is a hideous gasbag. When he’s commenting on technical aspects of performances or artists, he’s fine. When he starts philosophizing that (to name but one example) Bix Beiderbecke and Ella Fitzgerald played jazz because they knew it signified the kind of nation America was going to become, I reach for a heavy object to throw.

—There is but one mention of Nat King Cole in the series, if I’m recalling correctly. Never mind the uniqueness of Cole’s piano style, light and playful, and how he pointed the way for a whole army of jazz vocalists who accompanied themselves on piano. And never mind that he stands alongside only Armstrong as a performer who was as influential a singer as he was an instrumentalist. It was Cole’s misfortune to reinvent himself as a pop singer at the start of the bebop era, which seems to erase his contribution to the history of jazz.

—According to Jazz, the sole effect of R&B’s rise in the 50s and 60s was to inspire Miles Davis to make Bitches Brew in 1969. But R&B had influenced the development of soul jazz a decade before. Soul jazz brought to prominence a whole generation of influential players: the crop of organists who made that instrument a new force, such as Jimmy Smith (a towering figure who gets mentioned once, I believe), Jimmy McGriff, Richard Groove Holmes, and Brother Jack McDuff, as well as sax man Lou Donaldson, pianist Horace Silver, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. But because Burns has chosen Armstrong, Davis, and Duke Ellington as his focus, the jazz history of the last third of the 20th century ends up being the tale of their decline from prominence, and that story is told at the expense of other possible stories. The effect is to make the last two installments of the series feel both hurried and padded; there’s a real sense that an entirely different (and more satisfying) documentary could have been made about the period from 1960 to 2000.

—Quibbles aside, Jazz is beautifully shot and overflowing with the greatest American music of the 20th century, and it benefits from the sterling narration of Keith David. It’s been said that the most beautiful sound in the English language is baseball broadcaster Vin Scully saying the name “Fernando Valenzuela”; I’d cast a vote for David saying “Coleman Hawkins.”

Because we love us some Jimmy Smith, here’s a clip of him in a 1964 movie called Get Yourself a College Girl, which starred Mary Ann Mobley, Chad Everett, and Nancy Sinatra. It featured a strange variety of musical acts apart from Smith, including the Dave Clark Five, the Animals, and the Standells, plus Stan Getz and Astrid Gilberto doing “The Girl From Ipanema.” It’s not available on DVD, although it does show up on Turner Classic Movies now and then.

5 thoughts on “Ken Burns and “Jazz”

  1. porky

    couldn’t agree more with your comments on Giddins and Marsalis. Whenever he came on I was mesmerized by Giddins’ comments. The latter takes himself a MITE too seriously.

    Re Nat King Cole: also agree heartily. PBS did a history of rock and roll in the mid to late 90s and did the same thing to Buddy Holly. In the doc he was a guy who died in a plane crash with two other 50’s rockers. That didn’t keep them from using his “Not Fade Away” for the show’s promo with video clips of both the Stones and the Grateful Dead doing the tune.

  2. inasha

    I’d have been a lot happier with the Ken Burns Jazz series if he had spent a little less time on Satchmo and a little more on Cab Calloway and Cole Porter.


  3. Pingback: Essential Soul Jazz Recordings | THE PLUGININ EXCHANGE

  4. mrlopez2681

    I agree with you about Marsalis – he spews some mighty hyperbole not only in “Jazz” but in other docs I’ve seen him in … Ken Burns “Jazz” is unforgivable on a major point – Ella Fitzgerald is mentioned only ONCE in the entire series, merely as a footnote in the last episode when the narrator refers to the closing down of the Savoy Ballroom. A brief clip of her scatting is shown in the final montage before the credits of that final episode, BUT THAT”S IT. Even the great Josephine Baker got a short but significant mention in one of the first episodes. Burns devoted more time to Sarah Vaughan than he did to Fitzgerald. Now, I’m not trying to denigrate Vaughan (whom I adore) but she was never a JAZZ singer en par with La Fitzgerald, and Vaughan was even known to hate being called a Jazz singer. Why Burns made such a snub, I don’t know … he did this with just about every great Jazz vocalist of note. Only Billie Holiday gets a decent nod in the documentary, but even she doesn’t get as much time as the instrumentalists. Considering that this doc is nearly 13 hours (or more?) what is up with that?! I must protest at this comment – “I’d have been a lot happier with the Ken Burns Jazz series if he had spent a little less time on Satchmo and a little more on Cab Calloway and Cole Porter. ” I really don’t know where to begin with that one.

    1. J.A. Bartlett

      Really? Only one mention of Ella Fitzgerald, even when talking about the Chick Webb band at the Savoy?

      I am thinking about watching “Jazz” a third time with the specific goal of imagining an alternate documentary. I think it could be done, and would tell the story of the music about as well.

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