He Got Rhythm

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

In his letter, Khan suggests that Russell is missing from the documentary because Burns has relied too heavily on the suggestions of Wynton Marsalis, who, indeed, is all over the film and receives his own six-page question-and-answer section in its companion book. Marsalis (and critic Stanley Crouch, one of Marsalis' confidants and another highly visible figure in Jazz) has been the fault line in the jazz community, such as it is, ever since he took command of Jazz at Lincoln Center in the early '90s. New York critics insisted then, and now, that Marsalis' choice of programs, nearly all of which have focused on black composers, were and remain "racist," in the words of New York Times critic Peter Watrous in 1994. They dog him for being arrogant, aloof, and a man who stares forever backward without ever moving forward; that he idolizes Ellington and Armstrong without ever mentioning Bix Beiderbecke or George Russell infuriates them even further. And they lob at him the most damning complaint of all: He's nothing but a rip-off artist, covering old standards like a tepid bar-band playing for drink tickets on a Tuesday night. Critics such as Eric Nisenson, author of 1998's Blue: The Murder of Jazz, curse Marsalis for his obsession with the past.

Burns knew that by hooking up with Marsalis, he was asking for hell; he knows how much of a "lightning rod" Marsalis is, just as he knew that he would never gather together in a single room the myriad advisors he called upon to assist him with Jazz. (The list includes such critics, historians, archivists, and educators as Crouch, Gary Giddins, Gunther Schuller, Loren Schoenberg, and James Lincoln Collier.) "We couldn't have assembled them in the same room, because a fistfight would have broken out," Burns says, sort of chuckling. "They wouldn't be able to agree on the shape of the table." But he could not have cared less about old feuds and ideological differences; his was not going to be a thesis, but a tale, and those interviewed for and consulted about the film were not allowed to offer theories or make accusations. They were brought aboard for very simple reasons: to tell stories and bring to life the ghosts of great men and women who are not around to speak for themselves.

"If you look at the film, there's not a single philosophical tract that these guys get away with," Burns says. "They're just telling stories, which is all I'm interested in doing, and that's the great saving grace of history--finally, at the end, God is the greatest dramatist. Shelby [Foote] wrote me a letter about that. He said, 'Think about it. This guy [Abraham Lincoln] gives up his entire professional life to save the Union, he finally saves the Union on the ninth of April, and five days later, he decides he's got enough free time to go to the theater. God is the greatest dramatist.' He's basically saying, don't try to manipulate it; just tell what happened one step after another, and this is true in jazz. Wynton Marsalis is terrific not because he's got a particular philosophy, but because he can make the Count Basie Band come alive and play every instrument or, at the end of the first episode, he can pause with a poignancy and try to deal with this question of race not only as a great musician who knows the history of jazz, but as a black man. It's an amazing moment in the film.

Billie Holiday is but one of 22 performers featured on discs released by Sony and Verve in conjunction with the premiere of Jazz.
Don Hunstein
Billie Holiday is but one of 22 performers featured on discs released by Sony and Verve in conjunction with the premiere of Jazz.

"The jazz community has turned itself into Pigpen from Peanuts. They're arguing all the time: 'Well, Wynton said this, and you're on Wynton's side.' You get all this argument, and this cloud of dust surrounds it. I'm trying to reach some little old lady in Dubuque who thinks Lawrence Welk is the bee's knees, and I want to remind her that Lawrence Welk is only in existence because there was this thing before him called jazz, and if you listen to this, you will find the pulse and the meaning of America in this music."

In The Civil War, Burns rendered flesh the specter of Abraham Lincoln; in Baseball, he found the sport's soul in Jackie Robinson. No figure looms more significantly over Jazz than Louis Armstrong. Burns refers to him repeatedly as the most significant musical figure in all of American history, and his panel of consultants never once argued with his assertion, to Burns' surprise and delight. Before he began working on the film, Burns thought of Armstrong as most Americans do: as a grinning, hankie-waving crowd-pleaser who sang "Hello, Dolly!" and "What a Wonderful World" "with one foot in minstrelsy," he explains. Soon enough, Burns was set straight by musicians and the music itself: Armstrong turned jazz into a soloist's art, changed the way musicians played their instruments, and transformed the way singers performed popular songs. In the book, Wynton Marsalis explains Armstrong as a man who possessed both "the deepest human feeling and the highest level of musical sophistication." For Burns, the revelation was startling.

That is why he decided to begin the boxed set, the series, and even the book with Armstrong's rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust." It is not the oldest song used in Jazz--it was recorded in 1931, 14 years after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band cut "Livery Stable Blues"--but it is, in some ways, the most significant. And Burns is dying to explain why.

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