He Got Rhythm

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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.

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky