Giant Steps

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

That may be. But because they are previously released material, they also clog the bandwidth by keeping out newer material. Perhaps just as important, they are pure profit. And Burns surely has a cut of each piece of this rich, culturally resonant pie.

"This is evangelical," Burns says. "I'm in it because of the idea of spreading it. We've always had a companion book and a soundtrack to the film, but this is the first time the subject is music that is central to who we are as Americans but that gets lost in the shuffle. I think a farmer in Nebraska should know about jazz, a librarian in Seattle. This is not just for the jazzerati."

At one time, Burns says, jazz represented 70 percent of the popular-music market; he's heard it's down to less than 2 percent, a figure he'd certainly like to increase. Criticizing such popularizing efforts as his doesn't help, he says, suggesting he's tired of jazz purists' carping about the mainstream nature of his jazz presentation.

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

"The jazz community doesn't help its cause by becoming like Pigpen in the comic strip, kicking up a lot of dust," Burns said.

Burns reportedly only owned two jazz discs before filming Jazz but says his father used to play Ellington, Glenn Miller and Shelly Manne while he was growing up.

"I also worked and briefly ran a discount record store from 1968-1971 before I went off to college," he explains.

Burns grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and studied filmmaking at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. His interest in American history drew him to jazz, and he maintains that even if he wasn't an expert when he started the film, he learned enough in the process of making it to become an authority of sorts.

"More and more, jazz was a siren call, drawing me inexorably to questions on what this music was about," he says. "I get into subjects because I don't know about them. Too often, films are merely the expression of what somebody wants to tell you they already know, and they're stifling and one-dimensional. This film -- all of my films -- are processes of discovery. That's why they're popular, because I'm sharing my enthusiasm. It's like the bloom of romance."

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