Ken Burns’ current PBS series, “Jazz” (which began Jan. 8) tackles a big subject, so it’s appropriate that it comes in 10 installments and runs for 17 1/2 hours. Even at twice that length it would, by necessity, seem sketchy.
Jazz has a long history, propelled by hundreds of significant talents, and so choices have to be made. Burns’ approach — or rather that of his writer Geoffrey C. Ward and his senior creative consultant Wynton Marsalis — is to emphasize the music’s first 55 years and then do a relatively quick run-through of the remaining 45. Organized this way, the series has a definite rise-and-fall narrative, followed by a dutifully optimistic coda.
This chosen emphasis is also a tacit acknowledgment that jazz’s developmental phase has come to an end. This is only natural. Art, unlike science, is not endlessly progressive; every musical genre will eventually run out of possible permutations. Then, it will either mutate into something else, die out or, more likely, turn to its past for sustenance. It’s like a Möbius strip; you can only go so far before you’re heading back home.
A microhistory of jazz would go like this: New Orleans syncopation to swing to bebop to free jazz (the last permutation) and then a lateral movement to rock and funk (i.e. fusion, a promising mutation unfulfilled) and finally neoclassicism, which is where the music’s mainstream has been for about 20 years now.
Still, one has to wonder if Burns & Co.’s decision to devote more than three hours to the years 1935-39 and only half that amount of time to the music’s last 40 years isn’t overly sentimental, a preference for jazz’s years of certainty and growth over its more recent history of upheaval and opposing camps. Make no mistake, the first eight episodes of the series are excellent. One could argue that their leisurely pace is necessary to not merely present innovative geniuses such as Armstrong, Ellington and Parker, but to give us enough of their music and its context to allow its original shock-of-the new impact to resonate once again. There’s a sustained mood of wonder threading through this story as a new and seemingly indomitable form of creation moves through the lives of various people — some force which blossoms apart from their personal triumphs and tragedies — and spreads throughout world culture.
But by episode nine (1956-60), the mode has changed from sustained, linked stories to fragmented collage. Time is running out and our leisurely stroll is turning into a quick jog. Sonny Rollins is given a nice thumbnail profile before we’re rushed back to Duke Ellington for a brief update. Miles Davis makes his first, but not last appearance, then Soupy Sales is introducing Clifford Brown on some TV show (oh wow). Then its back to Louis Armstrong for 10 minutes which, considering the limited time left and the huge coverage he’s already been given, seems like an egregiously ideological move. Art Blakey is given a good 10 minutes or so, as is Billie Holiday. Then it’s back to Miles, who turns out to be a lead-in to Coltrane, and finally Ornette Coleman.
Coltrane and Coleman are the last of the great (by consensus) innovators and they get respectful segments. Albert Murray, one of the series’ many talking heads, takes a dig at the latter, saying that “the whole idea of art is to create a bulwark against entropy or chaos.” This only makes the point that he has spent much time listening to Coleman’s music. As for the rest of the well-populated jazz avant-garde of the ’60s and beyond, it gets a voice-over nod, saying how it would continue to “inspire and divide” jazz for decades to come. Well, thanks for letting us know.
Episode 10 (1961–the present) is even less coherent, which is probably fitting. Cecil Taylor and electric Miles receive the pro-and-con treatment, with fusion in general getting another “decades to come” dismissal. The Armstrong and Ellington stories are finally wrapped up and asides are offered on the Art Ensemble of Chicago and (I must admit surprise here) Archie Shepp. The symbolic centerpiece of the episode is the mid-’70s release of Dexter Gordon’s Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard, a triumph for the acoustic good after all that evil electric Miles. Then Marsalis comes in as the messiah of neoclassicism and we’re home free.
Given the state of things, I’m not sure if this could have been done better except by making it much longer (which is unrealistic). If you have to short shrift someone, you may as well stick it to the troublemakers (though they could have at least mentioned Albert Ayler and Sun Ra and ...). In the end, the Marsalis camp has won anyway. Jazz has been tamed, the edges have been beveled, the wild ones banished. We can now look forward to an endless exploration of the existing repertoire. Or so it seems.Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org