Last spring at Rutgers, I took a course entitled “Jazz and Film.” In it, we discussed the historical relationship between the two American art forms, analyzing critical and popular responses along the way.
One of the most interesting classes came towards the end, when we dug into the widely watched PBS documentary Jazz by filmmaker Ken Burns. I remember when the series came out on PBS — I was in high school at the time — but I didn’t watch it. I remember my jazz band director expressing both fascination (with the detailed storytelling) and disappointment (with the over-reliance on Armstrong and the dismissal of jazz after 1960.)
Revisiting those controversies proved to be an enlightening exercise. Eight years after the fact, the conversation spurred more impassioned discussion than anything else that we covered in class. The debate even spilled over onto the Jazz MA program’s listserv, with many other students chiming in. Generally, reactions fell into one of two camps: “Jazz” was good, because it exposed a lot of people to the music’s tradition; or “Jazz” was bad because it twisted and misrepresented the music’s history to conform to the Albert Murray/Wynton Marsalis political agenda.
I tended toward the latter category in my response, even though I still haven’t seen much of the film itself. I simply couldn’t get through the first episode having to watch Wynton scat self-indulgently and listen to the Voice Of God recount half-truths about the music’s origins. Not to mention the fact that trombonists are almost completely ignored: my man Jack Teagarden, for example, is barely mentioned despite playing an important role in the success of the film’s hero, Louis Armstrong, in the late 1940s.
As a part of the discussion, we read a number of responses that were written upon the documentary’s release, including a fascinating analysis of the film’s reception by Steven Pond and a thoughtful response by Don Rose. In Rose’s response, one observation in particular stood out:
The worst part is the film foreclosed anyone else from undertaking [a history of jazz] for at least another decade.
To me, this was the most problematic aspect of “Jazz”: that the film represented hotly debated opinions as facts, and then used the PBS publicity/branding machine to monopolize the discussion of why jazz matters today. As I wrote then,
Ken Burns’s Jazz ultimately does a disservice to the jazz community because it presents such an inaccurate, flawed, rigid, politically biased framework over which jazz discussion now MUST take place for at least the next few years. The vitality and diversity of the critical response to Jazz shows the way forward in jazz discourse, but the monolithic presence of the documentary holds it back.
When the NEA published its much ballyhooed survey, I noticed that the last survey was administered in 2002, right after “Jazz” had been released. Even with the massive institutional support behind it, with every jazz fan talking about it, and with millions of people tuned in, the survey found that the level of participation in jazz events still had declined slightly since 1992. As the effects of the publicity blitz wore off, and the economic took its toll on its promotion machine, audiences declined dramatically.
This, of course, leads us to the more recent debate that has been raging across the jazz internet: the “Can Jazz Be Saved?” Debate. Most of the blowback from Terry Teachout’s article came last month, but thoughtful responses are still trickling in. This is the first time that I’ve seen something besides “Jazz” stir up this level of passion, vitriol, thoughtful reflection and polarized opinion throughout the jazz community. So, as much as I disagree with Teachout’s article, I think it just might be a good thing for jazz as a whole.
The overwhelming response also suggests that the paradigm for discussion and coverage of jazz is finally coming out from underneath Ken Burns’s sizable shadow. Ironically, public broadcasting again appears to have a hand in the transition. A Blog Supreme is probably the first jazz blog aggregator out there with the backing of a brand as powerful as NPR, and one of the country’s last jazz radio stations, WBGO, recently launched its first new music show, The Checkout. An independently financed aggregator, commentary and review site, Jazz.com, has only been up and running for about two years. Also, the ease and accessibility of blogging software like WordPress has enabled many well-spoken musicians, writers and fans to post their own thoughts.
The proliferation of these tools is, I believe, finally loosening the overwhelming influence that institutional behemoths like PBS and JALC have on today’s jazz discourse. This, I have always believed, is a good thing. Last spring, I concluded:
The way forward for jazz and its community of musicians, collectors, fans and scholars lies precisely in the decentralized methods of discourse that are developing online — not in the attempts by Wynton Marsalis, Jamey Aebersold and others to codify it under larger social institutions. This variety of opinion and response will never be able to coalesce into a successful counterstatement against the documentary, but I don’t think we’ll need one. With time, the misdirected buzz created by Ken Burns’s Jazz will fade into the background and the appropriate diversity and vitality of jazz discourse will continue along without it.
Well, folks, it looks like we might not have to wait the full decade for this to happen, as Don Rose feared. The LA Times recently featured a lengthy article about Burns and his critics in which they report that he has moved onto a new project, National Parks. Thankfully, Burns is going to pick on someone else now; he is sure to galvanize a new community into loud criticism and impassioned defense of his work. Fortunately for jazz, this coincides with the encouraging development of a much more nuanced (and jazz-like) conversation online. Patrick Jarenwattananon’s Jazz Now efforts at A Blog Supreme are just the beginning (shameless plug: watch for my post there this week!) History will show that Ken Burns’s “Jazz” represents the last great old-fashioned institutional effort on behalf of jazz; now, I am very excited to see what happens as a new paradigm takes hold in the community.
Unfortunately, Ken Burns’s “Jazz” isn’t completely out of the picture; this will probably never be the case. It appears to persist most stubbornly in college jazz history curricula — its pleasant and seemingly comprehensive approach lends itself well to a shallow survey of jazz history. My roommate, in fact, a junior at Montclair State University, reported to me that this exactly what’s happening in his Jazz History course this semester. His teacher justified the use of the film by saying that it’s the “best resource available” for teaching jazz history. And this guy lives within 10 miles of the Institute of Jazz Studies. PLEASE. But that’s a discussion for another day — for now, please post in the comments if you share my optimism for the current trends in jazz journalism — and whether or not you agree that Ken Burns’s departure from the discourse is good for jazz.