Culture Magazine

I'd Be Wary of Ken Burns. In His Jazz Documentary He Stretched the Material to Fit His Myth of America.

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Ken Burns has a new Vietnam documentary out. I'd be wary of it. I've only seen one Burns extravaganza, the one on jazz, and that one made me a Ken Burns skeptic. Why? Because I know the history better than Burns. I bought the 10-DVD boxed set to get the archival footage. Otherwise...Here's a note I sent to my old teacher, Bruce Jackson, while I was watching the series on TV.
* * * * *
Dear Bruce,

If you've been watching Ken Burns' Jazz, I'd be interested in your reactions.

Of course, this has come to us with lots of hype and counter hype as well, much of the latter centered on the aesthetically conservative scope and selection of material. I'm quite sympathetic to this line of criticism, but don't want to pursue it here, at least not directly. The following caveats would remain even if he hadn't bought the Marsalis/Crouch/Murray line pretty much wholesale.

I find it to be a somewhat mixed bag. The documentary material is often quite fine -- I'm particularly struck by the scenes of dancers, though I've seen that sort of stuff before. However, he often mixes images, especially stills, from distinctly different eras without really telling you that. If you know the faces well, and even the instruments (e.g. Armstrong played distinctly different horns at different periods) this is obvious. I'm not sure how obvious this would be to someone who's new to the material. I suppose this is a nit-picky issue, but in an overall scheme that's chronological, this tends to lift the major figures out of history and into the eternal ether, which is surely one of the things going on here.

Then there's the talking heads, the authoritative commentators. I'm not quite sure what role these folks and their words play/will play in the overall impact of this work. The images and sounds are quite powerful.

In any event, what I find interesting is that the words we hear, whether in voiceover or from a head we see, are a mixture of things, but, with one exception, not signaled as such. The exception is where, in voiceover, we get a fragment from a contemporary source (newspaper, magazine, biography, etc.). That is always identified, as such, but only after it has been read. The other commentary includes identification of materials, names and dates & other straight history, how-jazz-works (mostly from Marsalis so far), interpretation, exaggeration, and unverified lore. What bugs me is that all this is presented on pretty much the same footing, on pretty much the same authority.

And it takes a pretty sophisticated person to recognize what's going on and to even begin to sort this out; more intellectually sophisticated and knowledgeable about jazz, I'd guess, than Ken Burns. I've never done any serious oral history or ethnography, but I've talked to many musicians and I've read lots of interviews and I know that you simply cannot take their words at face value. While it's possible that they may be deliberately playing you, that's really the least of your problems in dealing with what they say. They can only speak in the categories they know, and if those categories are poor -- and they certainly have been and still are for this music -- then the commentary will be poor as well. Beyond that, memory simply isn't reliable. Etc.

So that's an issue. And I'm not sure how you deal with it. I mean if you're going to interview 90-year-old Milt Hinton about what happened when he was twenty you pretty much have to present what he says. You can't give him a lawyerly grilling nor can you stick a little reliability meter there in the lower left hand corner. Now, if it is your explicit intention to do an oral history, then it's all talking heads and you frame it as an oral history and everyone knows it for what it is. But that's not what Burns is doing. He's presenting....well, just what is he presenting? that's the question. I think it's a nationalist myth, a rather attractive one, but still a myth.
Two examples. We get lots of grand statements about Louis Armstrong. Among those we have statements about his trumpet playing which lead you to think that all trumpet players before him were hacks. It's as though the cats Bach wrote for didn't exist, that they'd never played those ridiculously high parts with grace and delicacy on an instrument that, in some says, is more difficult that the modern one. Nor is there any sense of the virtuoso cornet tradition associated with brass bands, a tradition which was alive well into the previous century, a tradition Armstrong surely knew about, etc. But we have Stanley Crouch saying, with great authority, that the trumpet is the most difficult instrument to play. That's just meaningless. It serves no purpose but to pump up the legend. And when Wynton says how Armstrong's first notes on the horn must have been fine, I mean, he's getting dangerously close to natural rhythm, a bit of mythologizing he's takes pains to refute in other settings.

And then you have Wynton saying how Buddy Bolden is the first one to put his personality into his playing. And he says that with great glee and energy. But how does he know that? We don't have any recordings of Bolden's playing nor did Bolden leave any diaries or interviews where he talks of his intentions and methods. All we've got is legend, and Wynton embroiders on that very nicely. Now, I know the history well enough to know that Marsalis is just making it up. But Jane Q. Public doesn't know that. As far as she's concerned, this man is the living spokesperson for jazz, and he's so cute too. [I notice that just about every talking head is framed so we see shoulders and chest. All shots of Wynton are closer, we rarely see below his tie knot or even out to the full width of his shoulders. He's become a disembodied head. You might as well put his head in a bell jar and give him little twitching antennae, cute ones, of course.]

And then there's the mythologizing about the blues, which I find a bit amusing. This mythologizing comes from the Albert Murray (& Ralph Ellison) line of thought, not the somewhat different line advanced by Baraka in his Blues People. Crouch has written some of the most scathing remarks about Baraka's take on jazz that I've ever read. What I find bemusing is that he's not critizing Baraka's mythologizing (for Baraka does mythologize) in favor of a more scholarly view, but simply in favor of a different myth.

This thing is infused with the whole myth of jazz as the ideal democracy -- a notion that's rather at odds with how, e.g. Duke Ellington or Miles Davis actually ran their bands. This is Albert Murray's riff -- he's even written about how the US Constitution is a blues document. As far as I can tell, this notion got started back in the 30s as part of our national effort to show our superiority to the Nazis. They're racist, but we've got jazz democracy here. There's no intellectual need to buy into this line of interpretation. But it's good mythology.

Finally, race. Here I think Burns has done a good job. It's an issue, it had everything to do with where this music came from and how it grew, and he presents this well, both in the images and in the commentary. Perhaps all the crap is the price we have to pay to get this treatment of race in jazz. In particular, I think the treatment of Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson was good and Marsalis's remarks on Goodman as the king of swing were fair.



Bill B

Emotional archeology

From a later note:

It seems to me that the key to Burns' method is in this statement, which comes from a review I found online ( "I like to describe myself as an emotional archaeologist. I didn't know anything about the Civil War, I then went and found out, same with Jazz. Rather than make my films an expression of an already arrived at conclusion, I try to make them an expression of our process of discovery and discovery is nearly always joyous, even when you are uncovering tragedy."

Well shit! I like to feel good too--because that's surely what he's after in this emotional archaeology, but that's not what history is about.And this nonsense about rejecting "an already arrived at conclusion" is just that, nonsense.Naivete is not the way to arrive at the truth (yeah, I still believe in it), but it's a sure way to get suckered by the first huckster who reads you and panders to what he finds in you.And that seems to be what's happened here, though I get the impression that Burns was all but predestined to drink-in the Murray/Crouch/Marsalis brand of jazzamerican sentimentality.
The mystery of swing

A last little bit from my notes:

Swing is often treated as a profound mystery. But there’s nothing profound about the way swing eludes language; so does the taste of MacDonald’s french fries. So all this swing mystification is just nonsense. Swing is ineffable because the physical world is ineffable. No more, no less.

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