Jazz is a noble attempt to be the defining documentary about jazz, “America’s art music” and one of the greatest things to happen in human history, in my humble opinion.
Burns has assembled his usual materials – pictures, quotes, historians, contemporary music – to go along with video clips and reminiscences due to the fact that much of this music was performed when it could be recorded either by audio alone or by audio and film.
And it should be commended that the tried to do this, just like Burns should be commended for his other long-form documentary projects. But this film is not the story of jazz.
Rather it is a biased and inaccurate account that is ultimately a failure as a history of jazz, and so a failure as a film. It is an excellent history of jazz prior to about 1950, and if that was its stated goal, we would have another excellent Burns documentary.
Instead we get typical Wynton Marsalis conservatism that is opposed to everything that is great about jazz. (And this isn’t necessarily a criticism of Marsalis himself, as he is an excellent educator – I can tell that by his interviews. But he is horribly wrong about what jazz is and isn’t.)
This film is something like 19 hours long, and barely makes room for anything post-bop. These conservative types are the worst: they idolize Bird and Diz for how they broke with tradition but hate late period Miles or late period Trane, or hate Ayler for the same reasons. And of course they totally ignore the Europeans post Reinhardt as if European jazz had barely happened at all.
Here are some of their various crimes:
- Monk is ignored until near the end and when they do eventually discuss him its partly to talk about how he was ignored.
- Bud Powell barely gets any time.
- They spend something like 90 seconds on Mulligan’s piano-less quartet.
- Brubeck gets some time, but hardly as much as you might think given the revolutionary nature of the one recording of his they actually acknowledge.
- Davis gets more attention than anyone else post-Bird but Davis should get similar amounts of time to Armstrong and Ellington and yet the first 15 hours or so are dedicated primarily to Armstrong, followed by Ellington – Ellington is not mentioned in the earliest segments – and Miles gets major sections of the last few episodes and that is all.
- Speaking of Davis, when he did cool jazz, apparently it was cool, but when other people did it, not so much – now I don’t particularly enjoy cool, but they don’t really provide any reason for their opinions and they shouldn’t ignore the fact that cool jazz has been as popular as bop post-war.
- What was with that brief, horrible “history” of rock and roll? It was all of 90 seconds and seemed to imply that Ray Charles invented it and Elvis made it popular. Um, right…
- Trane’s free jazz phase is ignored altogether until the final episode and Coleman gets what feels like 10 minutes.
- In the last episode, when they list contemporary styles of jazz they omit fusion entirely and then later fusion is dismissed as Miles’ attempt to make money, even though if they had actually paid any attention to history, they would know he wasn’t even the first fusion musician. (This is the most egregious error of the entire program. They insist that Miles only embraced fusion because of his experiences at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival but this is idiotic and easily fact-checked: Miles’ first fusion album – not the first ever – was released in July of 1969, probably prior to the festival, which I believe usually takes place in August. Moreover it was recorded in February, i.e. half a year before the festival. Also the idiots keep calling the instruments used in Fusion “electronic” as if an electric guitar or bass is “electronic.”)
- Apparently, because Armstrong sang pop tunes that were hits during the British invasion, we should care more about his ’60s work than, say, Miles’ work of the same period, which is basically the embodiment of the “When I was younger things were better” conservatism that ruins this series.
- The brief amount of time they give Mingus is almost entirely dedicated towards his social comment, and not his actual music.
- The Art Ensemble of Chicago gets only a few minutes.
- They and Taylor are pretty much the only people who are addressed in Free post-Coleman, and Taylor gets some flak because apparently he’s just too difficult to bother with. (And the same people who accuse Taylor of being too difficult accuse Miles of pandering…)
- Hancock is discussed as as sideman only.
The film completely ignores the following genres (only the ones I can think of off the top of my head):
- Chamber jazz;
- Fusion (the modern variants with alternative rock and hip hop);
- Klezmer jazz;
- Modern creative;
- And no doubt many more.
The documentary further omits or barely acknowledges many important jazz artists, here are only a few:
- Chet Baker (mentioned only in passing);
- Anthony Braxton;
- Don Cherry (mentioned only as a member of Coleman’s quartet);
- Steve Coleman (mentioned only in passing, shockingly as someone we should listen to);
- Chick Corea;
- Eric Dolphy;
- Every single European jazz musician post-Reinhardt and every other international jazz performer;
- Every post-Miles fusion performer;
- Ahmad Jamal (mentioned only in passing);
- Keith Jarrett (mentioned only in passing and only in relation to Art Blakey – can you imagine thinking Keith Jarrett is only worth knowing as a sideman to Art Blakey?!?!?);
- Roland Kirk;
- Wes Montgomery and every single post-Charlie Christian jazz guitarist save one I didn’t know (who is mentioned in passing) – that’s right, the guitar as a jazz instrument is ignored from the 1940s onward;
- Lee Morgan (mentioned only in passing);
- Bud Powell (mentioned briefly);
- Every major jazz vocalist post-Fitzgerald (though a couple are shown as interviews and Cassandra Wilson gets a sentence);
- John Zorn;
- And numerous others I am forgetting – I apologize but I haven’t set out to write a definitive history here, I was just attempting to watch one.
Supposedly many of these people aren’t mentioned or barely mentioned because they helped kill jazz. Clubs closed and people stopped listening because of too much innovation.
And who will safe us from the poverty of self-indulgent free jazz and pandering fusion? Why, it’s Wynton Marsalis, the same guy who we’ve been listening to for 18+ hours. Talk about self-serving… I mean, I don’t know what Burns was thinking but the final hour of this film is practically an advertisement for Wynton and his despicable conservatism. I mean, how can these guys seriously let him say this shit? Your lead interviewee is also the person who “saved” jazz? And you don’t question this? Unbelievable.
And then they give us a list of the people we should be listening to, multiple of whom had participated in the program as interviewees. Thanks, I’ll be sure to listen to these people who are apparently so much better than everyone ignored, who all actually have reputations and make great music.
But I’ll give them one thing: At least they have Artie Shaw talking about how much he hated Glenn Miller. That part was awesome.
If you want a history of the first decades of jazz, watch this. If you want a history of jazz, read a book, such as Alyn Shipton’s excellent history.
I really wanted to give this a 3 or lower, however the first 8 episodes are a near-excellent history of jazz in the first half of the 20th century, and so that is why I am being kind and giving it a 4.
- Written by Geoffrey Ward
- Directed by Ken Burns
- Narrated by Keith David
- Country of origin: United States
- Original languageL: English
- No. of episodes: 10
- Producers: Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
- Cinematography by Buddy Squires, Ken Burns
- Editor: Paul Barnes
- Running time: 1140 minutes
- Budget: USD$13 million
- Original network: PBS
- Original release: January 8 – 31, 2001