Giant Steps

Enthusiasm fueled Ken Burns' new documentary on jazz, but the pursuit of profit also looms large

It would be hard not to know that Ken Burns is about to unveil his third documentary. The topic is jazz, and the primary vehicle is a 19-hour TV show that's being hyped through various outlets. Ken Burns' Jazz: A History of American Music is not only a PBS docu-thon, it's a $60, five-CD set on Columbia/ Legacy, a single best-of CD, another 22-CD anthology of the key jazz founts from the big box on both Legacy and Verve, a $65 Alfred A. Knopf book by Burns and Geoffrey Ward, and numerous tie-ins with the likes of Starbucks, Sony Music and General Motors.

Burns, who undertook similar cultural mass-marketing with baseball and the Civil War, is mounting a multitentacled effort to revive an all-American art form people write about in a volume far out of proportion to its record sales. That alone suggests the quandary at the heart of Burns' approach: It has pitfalls of intent and of editing. It also has great potential.

"I'm taking something that's normally background and making it middleground, foreground and, in a few extraordinary cases, a kind of hyperground, where you almost feel that you, the audience, are in on the act of creation," says Burns, who calls Jazz his best film.

Miles Davis and Gil Evans
Vern Smith
Miles Davis and Gil Evans
Miles Davis and Gil Evans
Vern Smith
Miles Davis and Gil Evans

A prolific documentarian whose epic films on baseball and the Civil War drew huge audiences, Burns took six years to craft the 10-episode Jazz. He and his crew assembled 2,400 stills, 2,000 film clips, 75 interviews and 497 pieces of recorded music. The licensing alone must have been incredibly time-consuming. The visual proof of the pudding will come clear on Jan. 8, when PBS launches the broadcast.

Burns clearly hopes the public will fall in love with jazz, or at least his version of it. His mammoth undertaking, trumpeted in year-end advertising and editorial features in many publications, is sure to draw viewers, readers and listeners (WGBH-TV in Boston will, for example, show each episode nine times within the first week). A compilation tape features interviews with such jazz eminences as critics Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins, the brilliant historical straight arrow Wynton Marsalis and the late bassist Milt Hinton, who's brought to life with archival photos edited so kinetically, they're jazzy in themselves.

Already the documentary, and its various tie-in products, is causing controversy, largely because it shortchanges the last 40 years of jazz, condensing it into two hours of videotape, about 60 of the book's 490 pages and two of the five CDs of the boxed set. Burns lionizes Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, making them the hooks of his venture. If modern (and postmodern) jazz is about group improvisation and the subordination of ego, Burns's efforts give it less than short shrift. He suggests, however, that it isn't yet time to historicize much modern jazz.

"It was my conscious decision to tell a history of jazz," Burns says. "My narrative basically stops in the film around 1975 [the year after Ellington died]. A historian's worst job is to tell people what's going on in the present. My feeling is, you need about 30 years out before history begins. In this case, it's 25 years."

Such historical compression might not be accurate, but it's perfectly reasonable to Burns. Not only can he justify stressing such giants as Armstrong, Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Davis, he says, it takes time to determine whether a musician should join the jazz pantheon. It's fitting to him that the box begins with Armstrong's 1931 recording of "Star Dust" and ends with a 1994 Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" (that estimable orchestra is under the direction of Marsalis, the outspoken but conservative trumpeter who served as the backbone of this project). This is the official version of jazz, mainstreamed, with designer edge, by the frequent narrative and commentary of Marsalis, a brilliant trumpeter who can be strikingly authoritarian and narrow-minded.

"If I ask somebody who wanted much more of this modern era today to tell me who among the people playing today would be in the Mount Rushmore of jazz along with Armstrong, Ellington, [Charlie] Parker, [John] Coltrane... we just don't know," Burns says. "We need that passage of time; we need historical triangulation to take place that permits us to look back and say, "Oh, so-and-so is important to the jazz canon.' That's what the present can never tell you."

Burns is as interested in the marketing of his latest project as in his topic. Not only is corporate funding provided by General Motors Corp. (brochures about Jazz are available at all GM dealers), the cuts on the individual CDs represent the first corporate crossover between Columbia and Verve Records. Additional funding comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and various charitable trusts and foundations. GM and others involved are working with the Music Educators National Conference and underwriting a Jazz-related program for the United Negro College Fund. Although his signature is clearest on the box set and the best-of disc, Burns considers the individual compilations at least as important.

"If you are interested in a major artist in jazz, haven't heard them before and go into a big record store, you'll find dozens and dozens of CDs, and many will say "best of,' and no one will be, until this came along," he says. "This cuts across all labels. At budget prices, I think these 22 [compilations] are a real way for folks to get into jazz."

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