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What is it about Ken Burns?

Discussion in 'Off Topic [DB]' started by Steve Killingsworth, Jun 7, 2004.


  1. I recently began reading the companion book to Ken Burns' documentary on the history of jazz. The book (at least what I have read so far) is really interesting. However, from numerous but vague comments that occasionally pop up on other threads, this film doesn't seem to be held in very high regard by jazz purists.

    Being a historian/educator I am very familiar with Burns' best known project about the Civil War. While it was interesting, well made, and exposed millions to viewers to the war for the first time, it did distort some facts. For example, the film gives the impression that the war was solely about ending/preserving slavery, but most historians feel that the big issue was states' rights (with the slavery issue being a major part of that larger disagreement).

    So, is there a similar problem with the jazz docmentary? I have not personally seen the film but am just curious.
     
  2. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    I think it was FEW QUALMS I first heard refer to Burns as "Kenton Burnsalis". An exceptionally droll way of summing it up, I think.

    I quite enjoyed Ken Burns' jazz documentaries because how could I not enjoy all that info about a music I love? There's something cold about the work, though. It's full of well-researched detail and has received the benefit of a very thoughtful design (the division of the work into themes and sections, etc.), but to me it doesn't show any evidence of Ken Burns loving this music in any kind of personal way. The work then becomes waaaaaay too much of Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins "telling us what to think" about jazz. (To stave off flaming: I have a lot of respect for both those guys, but if we're gonna spend hours and hours and hours with these films then we've got time to hear a little more diversity, thanks...)

    And, of course, the standard gripe is that it ignores or gives short shrift to everything that happened after Kinda Blue -- anything out or fused doesn't exist in Burns' jazz history.

    Insiders and True Lovers look at Burns and see a dilletante being lead by the nose and reporting back a flawed history of jazz. I think they have some points but those folks have to imagine a time when they knew squat about jazz. Would they have benefited from the Burns stuff? Abso-squatting-lutely is what I says.
     
  3. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    The Ken Burns series remains a fire-starter online several years after it aired. It was VERY well-produced and covers the music up through, shall we say, 1959 very thoroughly.

    What people were up in arms about was that THIS was THE chance for the music we love to reach a broad audience. Instead, Burns told the television-watching audience that great jazz is dead. In the process, he made it real easy for folks to conclude that live jazz is not great.

    And that's the short, incomplete version.

    Interestingly, a search here for "Ken Burns Series" shows that EB players were talking it up and DB players much have been posting elsewhere. Hmm . . . .
     
  4. Fair comments from Damon & Sam - I enjoyed the series, and have since gone back to certain bits (vol. 10 especially) again and again. I think that Ken Burns needs to do a "here's what happened then…" set (one which preferably does not feature demos by His Holiness "Pope" Wynton…), and which does contain all the bits left out of the first series!

    - Wil
     
  5. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    Ken Burns deserves a mortal, but slow-killing wound.
     
  6. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    Well, I'm not sure I would personally agree that hearing a group of folks today playing jazz generates no fulfillment for music listeners, but I would agree, in general, that jazz music reached a peak decades ago that remains to be surpassed from a musical-enrichment point of view.

    And I'd take Black Codes in a heartbeat over just about any other jazz album recorded in the last 20 years, unless I needed to find an electric jazz guitar recording to impress my Limp Bizkit peer group. :bassist:
     
  7. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    20 years should just about cover all of Wynton's attempts...
     
  8. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    Then you're agreeing with Burns and we disagree very strongly. I think that:

    a) There is truly great jazz being made right at this very moment. Players like Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Mark Turner, Tony Malaby, Chick Corea & Origin, Herbie Hancock's last touring quartet, Greg Osby . . . the list of truly essential jazz artists making NEW music NOW goes on and on.

    b) Burns essentially dismisses everything after Kind of Blue and Live at the Vanguard. (Yes, there is a longer, more accurate way to describe Burns' position but this is not the time or place.) Burns and his spokesmen envision a roster of essential jazz which excludes the second half of Miles' career and the entire output of Hancock, Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Woody Shaw . . .

    c) I am going to over-generalize to say that many of us who grew up with direct exposure to the jazz masters in performance are saddened to see the music move from exploration to repertory. For decades, jazz leaders were not playing repertory, they were moving forward and exploring. For a long while in the mid-80s and 90s it got to be hard to find an audience for exploratory jazz. Burns' documentary was a golden -- perhaps unique -- opportunity to influence non-jazz fans to enjoy and check out live, exploratory jazz music, and that chance was squandered.

    Everybody's entitled to their opinion. I just pulled Black Codes out of the basement two nights ago, and it's a fine album. It has taken Wynton Marsalis twenty years to return to a focus on the present. What would it have meant if jazz' most prominent living spokesman had spent twenty years telling people to check out what was happening right at the moment?
     
  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I agree with Sam - there is a huge amount of interesting Jazz that has been made since 1970 - even if you don't like all of it, the sheer volume of the catalogue means there must be something for you, that you would like, that you haven't heard...?

    And OK, I keep returning to a lot of Blue Note albums from the 60s when I sit down to listen to a CD - but there is nothing to compare with the experience of going to a small club and hearing great Jazz musicians improvise and play together LIVE, in front of you!! :)

    The big shame is that the Ken Burns thing (has/)will probably sell a lot of back catalogue, where all the money will go to the big record businesses and none of that will go to musicians playing today....:(
     
  10. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    Very beautifully and pithily put. This is a point that can not be overstated: The music that has now become "repertory" was created in the spirit of moving forward and exploring... And while jazz pundits and educators insist on hammering on and on about learning to recreate the sound of the classics, they miss entirely the spirit of the classics by encouraging their imitation and recreation. It seems to me that if you really respect and admire something, it would be better to promote and propagate its essence and spirit rather than recreate imitations of its superficial (i.e. - acoustic, harmonic, etc...) form.

    All IMO, of course.
     
  11. Does/can it ever get to the point where there is nothing left to explore from the audience perspective without fundamentally changing the music?

    Take for example bluegrass. It began in the late 1930s and has underwent several major changes/innovations in structure, sound, and musicianship. Many listeners may not be able to distinguish between the sound of a contemporary group like Mountain Heart and Bill Monroe (who for all intents and purposed founded bluegrass) but musicians will notice major differences. However, the music still has a bluegrass sound and feel.

    There are other artists now such as Nickel Creek or perhaps Bela Fleck who have taken the music into an entirely different area. To many listeners, they may play familiar instruments but what they play is definitely not bluegrass.

    At what point does bluegrass/jazz/etc. become something totally different? Could this be why Burns chose to stop where he did--because to his ears "modern" jazz is not jazz? I would also be curious if Burns is really into the music or just chose the subject because of a passing fancy.
     
  12. mje

    mje

    Aug 1, 2002
    Southeast Michigan
    What Sam said.

    Burns embarked on this project knowing absolutely nothing about jazz, and quickly latched on to Wynton- who seems, when he talks, to be echoing what Stanley Crouch told him- as the absolute last word on jazz.

    On the plus side, there is a ton of great footage, and the film really did help remind people of the importance of Louis Armstrong in creating American jazz. It also did a great job of describing the early roots of Jazz in classical and military march band music.

    On the negative side, as Sam notes, it ignored everything after the 1960s except for Wynton "The Savior of Jazz" Marsalis, completely ignored the European scene, and downplayed or ignored the contributions of seminal players like Bill Evans, who was noted only for his contributions to "Kind of Blue", and Scott LaFaro. The "West Coast School" was condescended to as a kind of jazz lite. And so on.

    The omissions weren't only of white musicians, of course. A friend of mine- a long-time music Educator here in Detroit with roots in both the classical and jazz worlds, complained "How could he have completely ignored W.C. Handy?" Indeed.
     
  13. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    As with anything else, overall change will happen more slowly, in general anyhow, as the craft ages-in and matures. Huge changes can and will come in spurts. Parrallel this with national cultures or technology.

    Another thing that is overlooked as well is that at the time that a lot of what is now considered essential was happening it was considered by the pundits to be desroying the very music it was. Bird, Chet Baker and John Coltrane are three that got broiled by the critics in their day that stick out in my mind. Do a little research and see if you can find some period critiques on these names...
     
  14. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    Ya know, there was this little old thing called rock 'n roll -- together with the new mass markets created by the baby boomers who loved it -- that eclipsed jazz as a popular music. There was nothing wrong with jazz music -- we all know that. But that environmental / economic fact is resented by some folks who love jazz (we shouldn't forget that.) They translate that resentment into blame: "there's something wrong with jazz, and here are the people what done it"....

    For history-making potential, I think that first half of 20th century American music has got legs and then some. The songs, the recordings have "magical era" running through and through. Jazz hasn't got any real terrible long term troubles because it is that music's voice or accent.

    There was a Golden Era, I think, but it's gone and things will never be the same. (Burns said much the same thing with his baseball series, the sentimental nostalgia-monger.) Let's get on with the rest of eternity already; jazz is definitely coming along for the ride. Have faith.
     
  15. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    I personally believe it would have meant that Wynton and Branford would be enjoying a whole lot less popularity right now, though they would have likely displayed the same incredible musicianship anyway and may have still grabbed grammys. But, of course, I don't really know.

    I think this assertion is completely unfair. When did being able to move forward and explore require the abandonment of repertoire? When Wynton, for example, demonstrates his understanding of Louis Armstrong lines with his trumpet, I think that he is saying exactly the opposite, that musical ideas from the 30's matter. And because I think they are good ideas that deserve to be heard too, I agree wholeheartedly.

    For me, jazz was for a long time simply a synonym for unmitigated (read: unintelligible) musical self-expression until the Marsalis brothers came in. I think jazz is all the better for it, to have super talented guys like the Marsalis brothers assert that there is a history of music out there that deserves to be heard, studied and supported rather than ignored for being old-fashioned...but my position isn't really about defining what jazz is or isn't. I certainly won't stop anyone from listening to whatever category of jazz exists now.

    As far as jazz being dead, well, as long as there is rhythm, harmony, and humans with free will and imagination, I think we've got a long way to go to reach that point, Ken Burns documentary or no Ken Burns documentary.
     
  16. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Let me make sure I'm hearing this right: You're saying that my "assertion" that what is now old was once new is unfair, and also claiming that I said somewhere that moving forward and exploring requires abandonment of repertoire? Are we both speaking English?

    What I said was that you can worship the "thing in and of itself" (the classic recordings, the classic music, etc...), or you can worship the SPIRIT that made the "thing" come to life. There's a world of difference between the two. For instance, not many would contest the notion that Ingrid Bergman was a strikingly beautiful woman with immense onscreen charisma. Some would argue that she, along with other actresses of her generation, raised the bar for female beauty and vitality of character in her films (call me sexist, but I am one of these). She was, briefly put, a classic - and so was much of her work. Those who wish to practice the art she so lovingly practiced would do well to familiarize themselves with her best work, and learn from one of the masters.

    That said, it should be noted that it would be foolish to take the position that in order to be a beautiful woman, one must look like Ingrid Bergman, or that in order to portray a strong yet vulnerable woman onscreen one must act like Ingrid Bergman. A person could easily do/be both without any knowledge of Ms. Bergman's work. To take the analogy further, it would be equally foolish to assume that, were it possible to transform a person through plastic surgery to be an exact physical replica of Ms. Bergman, the person in question would necessarily be nearly as "beautiful", or have even a fraction of her screen presence. The reason for this is that what made her special was not her bone structure, or her eyes, or any other physical manifestation of her body, but rather the spirit and soul inside of her that commanded and drove these things.

    At this point you may well be wondering, "what the hell does this have to do with Wynton Marsalis and Louis Armstrong"? It comes down to this: Listening to Louis Armstrong is great, as is listening to Bird and Dizzy and Miles, etc....but what really made these men giants was not what they did (i.e. - specifically, the songs they played, or the language they used, etc...), but rather the way in which they did it (i.e. - the spirit and joy they brought to their music)...and that spirit is timeless. It is ALWAYS "exploring and moving forward", no matter what particular piece of music is involved. My complaint is that modern jazz education calls the repertoire itself "jazz" when the repertoire is actually the open casket of jazz - memorable for the life that animated it, not for the lifeless wax dummy surrounded by the flowers. I'm simply saying that it's better to celebrate the spirit that made the music rather than the clothes it wore at any given time.
     
  17. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    Sorry to be crass , but you're using your head for a suppository and I fear you my suffocate. Shut your mouth, open your ears and do some studying on what it is that your being offered here. Your knowledge if 'jazz' (whatever the hell that really is...) is sophomoric and incomplete. You are a product of the effect that infuriates so many. Long live Wynton, Stanley and the whole gang. If you don't get your attitude together you'll just be another notch on their bed-post.
     
  18. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I am incredulous that anybody has actually said this!! :eek:

    OK - great players - but they are entirely peripheral to the development of Jazz and if anything have held it back, as people have been saying...:meh:

    My personal opinion is that everybody would have been better off, if Wynton had confined himself to being a virtuoso trumpeter in the classical field - where recreating repertoire is a core discipline and very worthwhile in terms of preserving the great legacy of Bach, for example...?
     
  19. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    Obviously, Johnny, you're certainly welcome to your opinion. I'm happy to go 'round with you on this merry-go-round.

    Johnny, I think you're wrong. There is a whole strain of modern jazz which is harmonically very deep and yet has aspects which are easily accessible to most folks. Follow the Kind of Blue sextet into say, Herbie Hancock's earlier work, into Woody Shaw and Bobbie Hutcherson's writing, and then into, say, Chico Freeman on Destiny's Dance. And for the sake of argument, let's put the Marsalis Brothers' Black Codes as another step down that path. And onto the Breckers' acoustic work, Dave Holland's Quintet, Chick Corea's Origin and beyond.

    If Wynton or some hypothetical equally-charismatic figure had said, "Hey look at this, people," then exploratory, accessible, melodic modern jazz would have become more popular without any musical compromise. Instead, we gained the full benefit of a re-examination of Duke Ellington, causing millions of people to conclude that jazz was great and is dead.


    Yeah! Your students are lucky people, man.

    Johnny, the great jazz artists never ignored the past. Bird studied Lester Young. Coltrane studied Bird and played with Hawkins. Wayne Shorter saw them all, etc. That's right, deep, hard study. But up until the Jazz Revivalist movement of the mid-80s you would get hooted off the stage if you played somebody else's ****. The music developed by making sure that even though you had to know the past, you had to look ahead. And that's what Chris and I are lamenting.
     
  20. Okay, now I'm confused. There is obviously a strong sentiment that Burns' film implied that jazz is dead or at least stuck in a time warp ending about 40 years ago. Yet here you seem to agree with that idea. Could you clarify please?