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Published: 2000/12/15
by Bob Makin

Ken Burns Explores the Roots of the Jam Scene in Jazz

Ken Burns, the acclaimed director of the epic PBS documentaries, “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” will conclude his “American trilogy” with “Jazz,” which will air from Jan. 8 through the end of next month on PBS.

I spoke with Burns about how his experiences during the five-plus years he worked on the 10-part, 19-hour “Jazz.” He came to learn and demonstrate that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are the epitome of jazz, which is the quintessential American music and the country’s greatest contribution to world culture. Sadly, jazz often is appreciated more overseas than in the good old US of A. That’s what makes the jam band scene so special with its roots in, ties to and abundant respect for jazz.

Like Burns’ previous American epics, “Jazz” is more than just music. It’s a mirror of American society, including race issues, the drive to improve ourselves and a love for improvisation (explains why all those jam bands are so beloved).

To all those Medeski Martin and Wood and Bela Fleck & the Flecktones fans who feel slighted that they’re not even mentioned in “Jazz,” don’t feel bad. Such greats as Erroll Garner, one of Charlie Parker’s pianists and a great self-taught band leader in his own right, and the influential trumpeter Chet Baker ended up on the editing room floor.

But as schoolchildren will learn, Burns’ dramatic, uplifting and incredibly thorough documentary is a rich and wonderful story, not a by-the-numbers encyclopedia of jazz. The five-disc companion CD, “Ken Burns Jazz The Story of America’s Music,” is as much a must-hear as “Jazz” is a must-see. For fans of jam bands who want to become more familiar with the influential, still-evolving genre, Burns has provided an excellent starting point with both the PBS program and the box set. Music lovers who gravitate to both scenes should just kick back and enjoy the majestic ride.

In the meantime, enjoy this chat with Burns.

Comment on how jazz is part of a trilogy of American contributions to world culture and history that includes The Civil War and Baseball.

Well, let’s leave it in America for a minute. When I was making the film about the history of baseball, I was beginning to see it as a sequel to the Civil War series. It defines us. If you want to understand what we had become, baseball offers a good way to understand it because it reveals the age-old questions of race, immigration, assimilation, the struggle between labor and management, exclusion of women and the nature of heroes, villains and foils. It’s a great mirror of American history. While doing the film, Gerald Early, a writer in St. Louis, said that when they study the American civilization 2,000 years from now, Americans will be known for three things the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. That puts a smile on your face when you think about it. But the genius of Americans is improvisation.

The Constitution is four pieces of paper that help adjudicate the most complicated problems of the 21st century, even in Florida, despite the fact that they were written in the late 18th century. Baseball is a simple children’s game with a stick and a ball that uses chess-like combinations. Jazz music is the only serious music that we invented and at the heart of its genius is improvisation. Those are the perfectly wonderful things that Americans done. And because jazz is an art form that can be shared with the entire world, there’s universal truths.

What where your main goals with Jazz and how do you think you’ll be able to accomplish them?

Historians and filmmakers make lousy prognosticators, but I do know I had a complicated set of desires. I wanted to tell a complicated narrative for people who were not into jazz. It was the same for the people who were not into military history, yet watched ‘The Civil War’ in record numbers. That’s because what they were watching wasn’t about military history. It was a kind of emotional archeology as to who we are as a people. That’s what jazz is. It’s not just music and extraordinary people making music for the whole history of 20th century America. It’s two world wars, a devastating depression and the music that got people through them. It’s race and the age-old American question of judging people based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin as Dr. King said. It’s sex and the way men and women talk to each other. It’s the mating call of America. It’s drug abuse and the terrible cost of addiction. It’s the growth and decay of American cities. It’s civil rights. This film is about the joyous toe-tapping music that was the soundtrack of all of that. I guarantee that a person who says they don’t like jazz, if they honor me with their attention throughout the series, they’ll tap their toes to the most avant garde of the music, let alone the swing and the dixieland and all the great, more accessible stuff.

Comment on the importance of Louis Armstrong to your documentary and the music it chronicles.

He, along with Ellington, are at the center. They are the double helix, the structure of the DNA of our story. Every episode, they anchor the story. They are the two most important figures in jazz. The important person in music in the 20th century in music is Louis Armstrong. All the jazz people we hired as consultants say he is to music what Einstein was to physics, what the Wrights were to travel. He is the embodiment of 20th century American music because he changed the way everyone played. With his instrument, he single-handedly transformed jazz into the soloist’s art and he did the same with singing. He took a totally new way of singing and influenced every other American singer that came after him. A lot of people think he was this guy with a handkerchief and a big smile, a trumpet player who sang beautiful ballads, but he invented the concept of swinging, the utterly modern concept of playing before and after the beat and not on it. Like Einstein is to time and relativity, Picasso is to paintings and Freud is to interpretation of dreams, Armstrong is to music. He’s that significant.

The biggest chunk of the program dedicated to one style of jazz is swing. Over the history of jazz, why is swing so significant?

That’s when jazz came closest to becoming America’s popular music. The swing jazz era represented 70 percent of the music industry. It was a phenomenal period so we give it a lot of attention. The jazz age was from early Duke Ellington to bebop. And that’s swing.

I often compare swing to jazz like rock is to R&B a race-barrier breaking avenue to the masses.

R&B is when bebop came out of the second world war and no one wanted to dance to it, the abstract expressionism of it. Some of the big band leaders, like Louis Jordan, took the simplest, crowd-pleasing rhythms of swing and created R&B. Then you have a jazz singer like Ray Charles doing the call-and-response intonations of the sanctified church music combined with jazz, and he forms soul. But white people were the dominant population. Blacks were only 12 percent so it’s the white audience that dominated and the rest is history. We adopted both rhythm and blues and soul into our own hybrid, borrowing liberally. But the truth is that without jazz, they wouldn’t have created rock ‘n’ roll. Swing was invented by Louis Armstrong. He was the pioneer. But it did not get huge until Benny Goodman became the king of the swing era. It was the same thing with Elvis Presley and R&B. That sound didn’t get to a mass audience because the black audience was only a fraction of the music listening public.

In ‘Jazz,’ you take Wynton Marsalis’ stand that fusion is more rock than jazz. Why?

That’s a big debate. Jazz is complicated, sophisticated and elegant. Hip-hop, rap and rock are like fast-food. No one’s going to begrudge you a burger and some fries, but if you really want some nutrition, I’ve got a meal for you.

Popular music is about sex. America’s great music was born in the saloons and whorehouses of New Orleans, but the marketing of pop music is really about sex. Madonna and Britney Spears will bring you to the bedroom, but they’re not prepared once they get you there. The last six years I’ve been making ‘Jazz,’ I’ve learned exactly what you have to do. I don’t begrudge Madonna and Britney, but it’s Duke Ellington and Miles Davis that are going to know what to do once you get there.

Why stop with Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson and some of the other very traditional-sounding artists ? Why not look at some of today’s ground-breaking jazz acts like Medeski Martin and Wood, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and Charlie Hunter?

We made a decision to sample at the end of the film some of the new jazz tributaries. We couldn’t do everything or it would be a 50-hour film. It yet may turn out that Bela Fleck will be at the level of a Louis Armstrong or a Miles Davis, but it will take 25 to 30 years before we know that in retrospect.

Is there anybody that still bothers you that you left out of the documentary? And what about the boxset, which, of course, forced you to be even more selective?

Tons, but there was less left out of ‘Jazz’ than ‘The Civil War.’ There was more left out of ‘Baseball’ about the World Series than was left out of ‘Jazz.’ People like Chet Baker, Stan Kenton, Errol Garner were great but they were not seminal pioneers that moved the genre forward. We were wedded to tell a few stories well rather than be an encyclopedia.

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