Louis Armstrong was a great trumpet player, a major jazz innovator, and a widely beloved entertainer. But was he the Second Coming? This is the hardly exaggerated implication of Ken Burns's Jazz documentary, and it's one well worth pondering -- not for what it says about the great Satchmo, but for what it says about a tightly blinkered view of history and race that has come to dominate the presentation of music in America.
Burns -- who first came to fame with his PBS documentary on the Civil War -- is an admitted musical neophyte. But he found as mentors the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and writers Stanley Crouch, Gerald Early, and Albert Murray, who anchor the commentary for the nineteen-hour documentary Burns has now produced. They also provide the thematic core of the book Jazz, which has been published in tandem with the documentary's PBS premiere this month, along with several Ken Burns Jazz CD compilations.
The average viewer might expect of these men both a helping hand in introducing the novice to a new life of listening pleasure and, at the same time, apt historical and musical context for the devotee. But their role in the Burns documentary proves quite different. Rather than helping viewers to hear the rich and varied history of jazz, they are there to instruct us in how to see it: as the exclusive domain of the black, blues-oriented musicians who have long suffered at the hands of the white and derivative interloper.
It's an old story, but there's something freshly shocking about watching it unfold -- unchecked, even unremarked upon -- as a matter of uncontroversial fact, "proven" by the seeing-is-believing conventions of documentary-making: the grainy photos and film clips, the talking heads, the soothing voice-over narration, and the marvelous music (which is, by the way, all too often voiced-over by those talking heads). The result is a vigorous exercise in political correctness, a distortion of cultural history that only deepens racial division while ill-serving the music it sets out to celebrate. Even more dispiriting is the fact that Ken Burns passed up a genuine opportunity to showcase one of the only organically and expansively multicultural movements in American history -- the evolution of jazz.
Of course, neither Burns nor his mentors see the music that way. Where there was an unprecedented mixing of musical forms and colors a century or so ago, they see near-isolated black creativity. Where there was a blending of black rhythmic virtuosity with European harmonic sophistication, they see black musical separatism. As various musicologists have reminded us, what became a bona fide American musical vernacular in the twentieth century emerged from a complex cacophony: Negro spirituals and blues, Caribbean dances, Methodist hymns, North Country modal ballads, cowboy round-up tunes, gallops, hornpipes, polkas, "nationality" tunes from Europe, Victorian ballads -- not to mention the national craze for brass bands, and the emergence of Tin Pan Alley. But this historic, eclectic mix remains out of earshot of Jazz. The essence of this documentary is blues, the blacks who played those blues, and the whites who tried to play them and couldn't.
Such a point of view, as noted several years ago by Terry Teachout in a searing Commentary essay about the racial cleansing of jazz at Lincoln Center, stems from what may be called the "racialist" school of jazz theory. Murray, Crouch, and Marsalis -- joined in Jazz by Early and, of course, Burns -- all enthusiastically subscribe to it. Teachout defined this outlook as "an ideology in which race is a primary factor in the making of aesthetic judgments." At New York City's Lincoln Center, under the direction of Marsalis and Crouch, the racialist ideology has played out in a series of jazz programs based on the work of black players, composers, and arrangers. In Ken Burns's Jazz, it has been codified for the general audience.
It couldn't be otherwise, given the guides Burns has selected. Albert Murray is the author of Stomping the Blues, a 1976 explication of jazz as an outgrowth of the blues, which was ardently praised by Stanley Crouch as "the first real aesthetic theory of jazz." The book might also be called a jazz racialist's bible. You can get its flavor from the fact that Murray's single assessment of white jazzmen occurs in a perfectly poisonous caption accompanying a photograph of a few white and several black musicians. Murray derides the whites -- among them Miff Mole, Gene Krupa, Bud Freeman, and Gerry Mulligan -- as members of the so-called "third line," a play on New Orleans parade lingo, suggesting worthless followers and hangers-on. This isn't respectable music criticism; it's racially charged invective.
If anything, Gerald Early is even more direct. "The greatest practitioners of this kind of music have been African American," he states in the documentary. "It comes from a particular kind of American experience with democracy, with America, with capitalism, with a whole bunch of other stuff." To accept this point of view requires the strict segregation of all black musicians from white musicians -- ranking Cootie Williams, Art Blakey, and Thelonius Monk above Harry James, Buddy Rich, and Mel Powell. (It calls to mind a famous 1950s "color-blind test" the critic Leonard Feather gave trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who had boasted he could tell a jazz player's race just by listening; Eldridge incorrectly guessed the race of almost every musician who was played for him.) It may be possible to perform the kind of subjective ranking of master musicians that Jazz attempts, but there is something perverse about doing it entirely by racial bloc, which is what Jazz forces the viewer to do.
Consider Wynton Marsalis's shameful explanation that Benny Goodman's white skin -- not his electrifying clarinet playing, and certainly not his creation of the big band -- earned him the title of the "King of Swing." "The majority of people who bought the records were white," says Marsalis (who is to Jazz what Shelby Foote was to Burns's Civil War series: the touchstone commentator for the duration). "The majority of the people who wrote about it were white, the record companies were owned by whites. Just the music came out of the Afro-American community. So it just stands to reason that the 'King' would be white." Just in case a viewer doesn't get the full import, Burns cuts wordlessly to a vintage portrait of Duke Ellington, whose place in the racialist theory of jazz is that of the legitimate but denied musical monarch.
To uphold this and other unabashedly racialist theories, Burns's commentators must boost black musicians to heights beyond reach and denigrate white musicians to mediocrity. Which brings us back to Louis Armstrong and his role in the documentary. It bears repeating: Louis Armstrong was a great trumpeter, a major jazz innovator, and a widely beloved entertainer. But was he, as viewers are informed, "a gift from God"? "American music's Bach, Dante, and Shakespeare"? The creator of "the melodic, rhythmic vocabulary that all of the big bands wrote music out of"? The creator of "some of the most abstract and sophisticated music that anybody has ever heard, short of Bach"? Someone with "an unprecedented sense of rhythm"? "The greatest musician in the world"? Is it true, as Burns writes in the series's accompanying book, that "Louis Armstrong is to twentieth-century music (I did not say jazz) what Einstein is to physics, Freud is to psychiatry, and the Wright Brothers are to travel"?
The point is neither to criticize Armstrong nor to deny his impact on American music. The point is rather to question the near-hysterical hyperbole that characterizes Jazz in its assessments of its pantheon players -- Armstrong above all, along with Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, joined by Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Thelonius Monk, and Art Blakey (and, what do you know, Wynton Marsalis).
Duke Ellington, for example, is "America's greatest composer," who "couldn't write or record anything other than masterpieces," all the while creating "chords that were never heard before" (at least by Ken Burns). Billie Holiday was "the greatest jazz singer of them all," and even "the single most influential singer American music has ever produced." (Of course, Bessie Smith is also said to be "the most important female vocalist in the history of jazz," so go figure.) Count Basie "had the greatest rhythm section in jazz history," and "a pulse that was definitive"; indeed, "no band had a greater impact than Count Basie and his band."
The flip side to this feverish pitch is the low-key letdown, the undercutting technique perfected in Jazz to deflate the reputations of those white musicians who even rate a mention. (The documentary also presents baleful historical footage of lynchings, Ku Klux Klan marches, and "whites only" signs to drive the point home.) Benny Goodman, for one, is consistently depicted as something of a commercial fraud whose success came at the expense of others, particularly Fletcher Henderson, a black arranger of great talent without whom, it is implied, Goodman wouldn't have amounted to much.
Even Goodman's early sessions with black musicians -- beginning with 1934 recordings that ultimately led to serendipitous collaborations with pianist Teddy Wilson and vibes player Lionel Hampton, among others -- are presented in such a way as to suggest petty acts of self-aggrandizement: "Benny Goodman saw no reason why mere custom and prejudice should keep him from improving his band," the narrator intones, slipping yet another compliment into the bandleader's back. After what Goodman suffers in Jazz, it is a smarmy thing that his picture is used to sell the documentary's boxed CD collection.
Every Jazz viewer will have his own list of omissions and gloss-overs. Mine begins with Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa, and Mel Powell. Other regrettable gaps include the musically daring Boswell Sisters, especially considering the influence of Connie Boswell on Ella Fitzgerald, for instance. And, speaking of Ella Fitzgerald, why is there hardly any mention of "the First Lady of Song" following her debut as a teenager singing novelty tunes? Indeed, there are few singers featured in Jazz aside from Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Bessie Smith -- no jazz-age Bing Crosby, no Mel Torme, and no band vocalists.
Which brings us to what may be the most telling omission of Jazz: its complete disregard of American popular song. To be sure, instrumentals were at the heart of jazz, from Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" to Benny Goodman's version of "Sing, Sing, Sing" to Dizzy Gillespie's orchestration of "A Night in Tunisia." But so were songs by the likes of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, and others. The standards of the jazz songbook composed by these men -- who were, pace Ken Burns, mainly white and often Jewish -- are too numerous to list, but jazz lovers would be bereft without Louis Armstrong's rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," Sarah Vaughan's version of Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York," Tommy Dorsey's version of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" (vocal by Frank Sinatra), Coleman Hawkins's version of John Green's "Body and Soul," and John Coltrane on Rodgers & Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" ("a cloying little waltz," says Jazz), to name just a few.
Aside from Duke Ellington, the only composer I remember hearing about in Jazz is George Gershwin, peremptorily dismissed as having "spent countless hours listening to black piano players in Harlem." Of course, as Albert Murray would have it, jazz performers produced their own material. "Blues musicians," he explained in Stomping the Blues, "proceed as if the Broadway musical were in fact a major source of crude but fascinating folk materials!"
Ken Burns seems receptive to this rather outre point of view. Jazz explains how it was that Louis Armstrong managed to transform "the most superficial love songs into great art," and how poor Billie Holiday had to do the same, turning "routinely mediocre music into great art." ("Art" is a common word in Jazz.) Robin and Rainger's "Easy Living" -- a favorite Holiday recording -- springs to mind as an example of the tripe the poor woman had to sing. No wonder she took to drugs. And while we're on the subject of root causes, consider poor Bix Beiderbecke, the lyrical and legendary cornetist who came to a tragic end at twenty-eight, a victim, as one Jazz theorist would have it, of artistic segregation: If Bix had only been permitted to play with black musicians -- who were, we are told, "as good and in some cases better than he was" -- he might not have died so young.
Over Burns's preface to the book version of Jazz there stands a quotation from Duke Ellington, who said "the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country." We can indulge a great musician, but it is tough to take this kind of faux-intellectual stuff from Burns and the rest of his Jazz band. In the end, these nineteen hours of film are about too many angry axes and too many senseless words. Fortunately, what endures is the music, so much of which remains available, beckoning anyone -- of any color -- who has an open ear.
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