He Got Rhythm

Ken Burns wants you to know why Jazz is America's music

When he was working on the prologue to the first episode, an eight-minute introduction, writer Gerald Early offered a comment that stuck with Burns and, in the end, led to what would become his next project. Early noted that when archeologists study our civilization 2,000 years from now, this country will be known for only three things: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz--"the three most beautiful things America's ever produced," Burns repeats. Using jazz as his, well, instrument, the filmmaker could riff even further on Baseball's themes; suddenly, he realized he had the makings of a sequel.

"Gerald's quote tends to put a smile on the face of the listener or reader, but he's right," Burns says from his offices in New Hampshire. "Our genius is for improvisation, and I intellectually thought, 'Well, I should think about jazz.' I didn't know much about it. I ran a record store when I was in high school and sorta knew a lot about it, but hadn't taken it into my heart. I was a child of rock and roll. And I'd met Wynton Marsalis a few years before. He'd heard me give a speech about the Civil War, and he came up to me and said, 'Man, you should do jazz,' and I went, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' No one likes to be told what to do, but all of a sudden here's Gerald Early ratifying that the three great things are the Constitution, whose greatest test, of course, was the Civil War; baseball, which I was then in the middle of working on; and this thing called jazz, which I know almost nothing about, just as I had known nothing about the Civil War and baseball.

"And then, the central episodes of Baseball--the '20s, the '30s, the '40s--had jazz as its background. I was putting jazz in them, and it was working: Count Basie and Lester Young's 'Tickle Toe' over Babe Ruth's called shot. And I finally said, 'That's it--I'm not working on a sequel, I'm working on a trilogy, and I have to turn to jazz.' Baseball was released in the fall of 1994, and six and a half years later, here's Jazz. And ya know what? It really carries on the story. They're so totally related to each other. The central fault line of race is there, and Jazz continues this American narrative, which is really about the 20th century as much as it's about this music. And at the same time, it offers some kind of glimpse into some possibilities for us, I think. At least for me, it's been curative."

Jazz concludes with the death of pianist-composer Duke Ellington in 1974.
Sony Music Archive
Jazz concludes with the death of pianist-composer Duke Ellington in 1974.
Charlie Parker played (and lived) harder and faster than any jazzman had before him.
William P. Gottlieb
Charlie Parker played (and lived) harder and faster than any jazzman had before him.

Art, Tolstoy once said, is the transfer of emotion from one person to another, and Burns' enthusiasm for his subject is indeed contagious. If the music is in a period of stagnancy--if all we're left with are shadows of legends, young men mimicking the cracks and pops of old acetate recordings polished and sanitized for the digital age--then Burns reminds us not only of the music's vibrancy but of its relevance. The film, book, and boxed set let us inside the music in such a way that we understand what a wordless melody really says, really means. Jazz shines a light into hidden corners of history, where only scholars and critics hang out to discuss Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and Mary Lou Williams, and it makes mortal those men and women who have been enshrined and entombed in history books for so long that their contributions to culture have been shrouded by the dust of apathy.


Burns, who despises historians who soak their works in the tears of sentimentality and nostalgia, makes no attempt to hide the fact that his film has its own set of heroes. It deals extensively with Armstrong, Parker, Davis, Coltrane, Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie, building Burns' narrative around theirs as they evolve from young men learning their way around their instruments to giants who would create the soundtrack for the 20th century. The film actually ends with Armstrong's death in 1971 and Ellington's demise three years later; and Burns spends a single hour wrapping up the subsequent 30 years of history. He's already heard plenty of criticism from those jazz fanatics who want to know why he pays so little attention to modern-day practitioners. "And I say to them, 'So you tell me, among the people playing now or anyone alive in jazz, who is the equal of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis, or Coltrane?'" he says. "Complete silence. I said, 'I have made my point.'"

Indeed, there are those among the jazzerati who believe the marathon film--and Burns does like to think of Jazz as a single piece of work, divided into chapters as though it were a sweeping novel--is incomplete, insufficient. Though its premiere is still two months away, the self-appointed gatekeepers of jazz have already descended upon Burns to let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he's ill-informed at best about the history of the music and plain ignorant at worst.

"I can only assume that you are getting some very poor advice and serious misinformation," wrote concert and album producer Marty Khan on one jazz-freak Web site, www.birdlives.com. Khan's missive was presented as an open letter to Burns, and in it, he griped to the filmmaker about the fact that he left out of Jazz any substantive reference to pianist-composer George Russell, whose polytonal compositions "profoundly influenced many of our greatest jazz artists," Khan insists, "including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, etcetera." Russell, incidentally, was a white man, but Burns also leaves out Erroll Garner, pianist and composer of the beloved "Misty." A section on Garner was filmed but excised, simply because, as Burns insists, he's "not in the same league" as the aforementioned giants.

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