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Heroes and Fools 

Ken Burns' latest documentary markets jazz to mainstream viewers

"What is jazz?" Among the music's cognoscenti, that's been the proverbial riddle ever since young Louis Armstrong first puckered up and laid lips upon his horn. Yesiree, that was 90 years or so ago, yet the question lingers.

Over the next several weeks, armchair musicologists will gather clues about what jazz is and is not, without leaving the comfort of the crib. That's right: Starting Monday, Jan. 8, jazz is on television. Imagine that.

If you're not already hip to the legends of Basie and Bird, prepare yourself to swing. The heroic story of jazz can be discovered on UNC-TV throughout the month of January. A 10-part PBS series, Jazz is a behemoth $14-million documentary courtesy of Ken Burns, who also directed the multi-episodic Baseball and The Civil War, among the highest-rated programs in public broadcasting history. Six years in the making, this latest Burns production is packed with 500 pieces of music, 2,400 stills and 2,000 clips. And its subject, a renegade musical genre, gets the Burns treatment, a cinematic shoeshine, a chance to parade before the American eye and bend the American ear.

As critic Larry Blumenfeld remarked in the December issue of Jazziz, "Burns is one of few Americans--maybe the only one--who could commandeer some 19 hours of television time dedicated to jazz, a music that, despite its rich history, now appeals to only a small minority of Americans."

Perhaps ironically, Jazz is intended to appeal to the majority--in other words, to non-fans. So even if you've never been a member of the exclusive cult of finger-poppin' hepcats, Burns is inviting you to pull up a chair at the table anyway. You see, Burns wasn't a jazzhead either, until he realized how splendidly jazz danced beside his images of baseball. If baseball is America's pastime, he reckoned, then jazz is the nation's soundtrack.

As Burns tells it, "Jazz is not just a story of this amazing music over the past century. It is a story of that century. It is about race, it is about two world wars, it is about a Great Depression, it is about sex, it is about drugs and the terrible cost of addiction. It is about creativity, and heroes and fools. It is about the growth of cities. It is about civil rights. It is about all sorts of things that get swept up in jazz's history."

Joined at the hip to Baseball and The Civil War, Jazz completes what Burns now calls his American trilogy.

"There's probably a little old lady in Dubuque and she's tapping her toes right now," the director says. "That's who we make [Jazz] for. Somebody that would say, 'Oh, no, I'm not into jazz music.' Ten years ago she was not into military history either. We showed her that she could be and that it could be a satisfying, emotional archeology. We've done the same thing with Jazz."

The invisible hand behind the celebrated cinema of Ken Burns is Geoffrey C. Ward, a former editor of American Heritage magazine, the award-winning biographer of Franklin Roosevelt and screenwriter for The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. In jazz-speak, composer Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington as writer Geoff Ward is to Burns: a secret weapon, the soul-inspired skeleton to Burns' considerable body of work.

Columnist and Jazz-adviser Gary Giddins praised Ward's ornamented screenwriting like this: "His eloquence inevitably makes those who read his narrations sound like seers." In Jazz, the narrator is actor David Keith--and Ward's poetic prose makes him sound sage-like, yet streetwise.

Just like the jazz he describes, Ward's pen combines rhythm and romance. "It is an American music," Keith unhurriedly shapes the words of Ward in a textured voice, "born out of a million American negotiations. Between having and not having. Between happy and sad, country and city. Between black and white and men and women. Between the old Africa and the old Europe, that could have only happened in an entirely new world."

These words appear pretty on the page, but they sing lovelier by far on screen in Jazz.

On the telephone, Ward speaks passionately about the music he adores. "As opposed to Ken, I'm on the other end of the spectrum," the writer ruminates from his Manhattan digs. "I've been a fan since I was 10. I've collected jazz all my life. This was a chance to grab a whole new audience for the music. So, well, it was too good a chance to pass up."

The duo originally met while Burns was making a film on Shakers and asked Ward to be a consultant on the project. "I gave him a lot of suggestions," says Ward. "He took none of them, but we really hit it off. On the way back from the airport, he asked me, 'Do you want to try writing a film?'--and I didn't know enough to say 'no.' So I wrote Huey Long, Ken's third film."

The now-trademark Burns-Ward collaborative method of storytelling hasn't changed much. Burns' camera brings archival black and white photography to life with subtle pans and tilts, while vivid full-color interviews swing in visual counterpoint. The chronology rewinds and fast-forwards, then rewinds again. Meanwhile, the sonic accompaniment pools overlapping waves of information, a tri-fold composite of sound bites, narration and music. In Jazz, naturally, spangled performances like Armstrong's majestic "Stardust" require little commentary. Satchmo's glistening horn is enough.

"If you've seen Ken's films before," Ward admits, "Jazz is presented in the same style. It's done in chapters and the material is very biographical. Ken and I believe that history is biographical. We want to know what some people did. I like reading about human beings. The wonderful thing about jazz is that the human beings who made it are so incredibly individualistic."

Like a twin-thread knitting together a century of history, the images of Ellington and Armstrong run through every episode. Ultimately, however, Jazz is a stage for Armstrong, a precocious orphan who was transformed by music and became, according to Burns and Ward, an unlikely American hero. Armstrong did not invent jazz, but he was the music's first superstar. Nicknamed "Satchmo" because of his satchel-shaped mug, he perked up even the drabbest pop songs with cascading rides on his cornet, as well as his singular voice, a gravel-toned instrument capable of turn-on-a-dime scat and joyous asides. Revitalized by the lens, Armstrong embodies Gabriel, horn raised, eyes blissfully clamped shut, oval smile unveiled in pearly glory.

"It's not just me," Ward chuckles. "Everyone who worked on this film became a devotee of Armstrong. There's something about him that's just beyond any other person in the world. There's something in his sound that sticks. Whenever I feel gloomy, I put on a little Louis Armstrong--and I feel better."

Tellingly, as the writer discusses Armstrong, who died in 1971, his rap slips into the present tense. Yes, Ward's Armstrong is still alive.

"He seems to encompass the full range of emotions--from joy to sadness and everything in between. Armstrong's a quintessentially American product, as inexplicable as Abraham Lincoln. You can't figure how either of them came out of the people and places they emerged from. How did they turn out to be these extraordinary people?"

Just as many grizzled sports fans lamented the sort of rose-colored tint Burns put on Baseball, Jazz will have to endure a wash of bad ink from the jazz community. Although most pundits like me have previewed only excerpts, Burns & Co. are already taking a critical drubbing over the documentary's cursory treatment of jazz's recent history. The final episode, "A Masterpiece by Midnight (1961-present)," merely touches upon free jazz of the '60s, the unruly fusion of the early '70s and the spirited no-holds-barred improvisation of today, a vital movement which purposely blurs the line between jazz, rock and world music.

As it begins its second century, jazz has lost its American accent, transformed instead into a thriving international tongue with myriad dialects. Burns' story prefers to stay at home, however, birthed in Armstrong's turn-of-the-century New Orleans and concluding figuratively with the recurring image of another trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, one of the director's chief advisors. Marsalis' New Orleans roots overlap nicely with Armstrong's, and tie up the history of jazz into a neat little packet. Convenient? Yes. Accurate? Not necessarily.

Ward has felt the poison arrows shooting out from the camp that Burns derisively calls the "jazzerati." If Jazz errs, he explains, it does so in the name of good storytelling. "Jazz after 1960 or so," he figures, "goes in so many directions that it would be very hard to find some people that we could follow. The film is built around people like Ellington and Armstrong. The music did not die when they died; I'm not implying that for a moment. But within the format that the film had already established, it would be very hard to introduce 50 new characters all in the last episode."

Ward and Burns are self-described historians. Reporting the events of the last quarter-century, they imply, falls under the tenets of journalism. "It's very hard to know who people will care about 20 years from now. So we did the same thing we did with Baseball. We just stopped."

Like a wily lawyer, Ward concludes his defense with a rhetorical question: "What do most Americans know about jazz? They know that Duke Ellington played some kind of dance music that their mother liked. Or they know that Louis Armstrong waved a handkerchief and sang 'Hello Dolly,' if they know that much. So the first thing we had to do was to deal with the alphabet of the jazz language. Dissertations, it seems to me, will have to come later."

Ward and the other confirmed jazz aficionados who worked on the film undoubtedly regret the things that Jazz doesn't do. Associate producer Natalie Bullock Brown researched and licensed hundreds of jazz film clips for Burns' company, Florentine Films. Brown, a former jazz columnist and presently a freelance producer at UNC-TV, admits the project sparked hours of self-reflection.

"Initially, I had a lot issues with what we were doing," she reveals. "As an African-American, I struggled with the fact that a white man was documenting this music. But as the process continued, I realized that ultimately Ken let the content dictate where the film was going. The decisions being made were sound decisions based on a consensus of opinion, not just Ken's. If everyone agreed on something, we knew the idea was valid. If there was dissension, it came down to the storytelling: Who or what best fits into the story? That was the ultimate question."

Brown gives Burns an exuberant thumbs-up. "Who else could collect this much financial support for a film about jazz?" she offers. "Other than the late PBS producer Henry Hampton, or maybe Spike Lee, there are no African-American filmmakers who could have pulled it off financially, particularly such a massive project."

All of us within the jazz community--even the naysayers--will watch every minute of Jazz, perhaps with a bit of trepidation. In Bob Blumenthal's excellent report in the December Jazztimes, he notes how Burns' The Civil War positively impacted the tourist trade at Virginia's many historic sites. So how will Jazz affect the state of jazz, one wonders? After all, this is the skewed sound that cynics have tagged as the most unpopular of America's popular music.

Natalie Bullock Brown hopes for the best. "I'm confident the film will be seen by those who've never even thought about jazz," she predicts earnestly, "as well as folks who think that Kenny G is jazz. I hope they learn to recognize the genius of Armstrong or Coltrane. And I hope people go and check out a live show or buy a CD."

Brown's parting shot punctures the bull's-eye. If you enjoy Jazz, then, by all means, go out and experience the genuine article. Show up at a club and happily shell out some coin to prove just how much you believe. Don't just say "Amen," brothers and sisters, tithe--and pass the plate on down the aisle. Every improviser worth his salt--from Louis A to Kenny G to the cat who busks in a back-alley of Franklin Street--enjoys the jangle of a proper payday.

Documentary film directors dig the percussive rub of gold against gold, too. Burns' paycheck is signed by General Motors, who just finalized a rich 10-year agreement with Florentine Films. Also aboard the rollicking Jazz-train is Starbucks, which will hawk the series' Sony/Legacy and Verve CDs in-store, the National Basketball Association, which will cue up bebop at half-time, and Knopf, the publishers of the photo-packed, 490-page Jazz: A History of America's Music, by Ward and Burns.

If you're uneasy about the cooperative--and perhaps compromised--nature of Jazz, feel free to shut your eyes and cover your ears. But the fact is, a film of such undeniable splendor and sheer magnitude could not have been made without potent underwriting. Without a shred of guilt, I'm down with Burns--and up with Jazz. EndBlock

  • What jazz stands to gain (and lose) from Ken Burns' new documentary.

More by Joe Vanderford

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