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All That Ken Burns 

Jazz ain’t got that swing

Wednesday, Jan 10 2001
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Ken Burns’ Jazz is here, and perhaps you have already been caught in its enormous net. Just this morning, waiting at Starbucks for my 2 percent latte half gainer with a double twist, I found stacked on the counter copies of a Jazz ”Viewer‘s Guide,“ which was really just a record catalog cooked up by Starbucks subsidiary Hear Music; the soundtrack CD was for sale there, marvelous to relate, and going round and round on the corporate hi-fi to boot. Amazon.com, meanwhile, that agora of cyberspatial desire, has erected a virtual ”Ken Burns Jazz Store“ to sell you not only the CDs -- the five-volume not-even-complete soundtrack, the single-disc ”best-of“ and various volumes of the Ken Burns Jazz Collection, with individual discs dedicated to Monk, Dizzy, Prez and Pops, among others -- but also the now-standard accompanying coffee-table book (written, as usual, by Burns and collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward), the audio version of the book, and the handsomely boxed set of videotapes for you to cherish and watch again and again with your family andor friends, or just by your lonely self (cue: muted trumpet). Operators are standing by.

Burns has himself become a kind of American institution, a reliable brand name. The Civil War was the Star Wars of public television, breaking ratings records and creating the high-visibility PBS blockbuster documentary miniseries (nary a year goes by without one), with its attendant products, long shelf life and money-attracting prestige. For many, Burns’ Jazz will be the last, if not first, word on the matter. And certainly no one else is going to make a 19-hour film about jazz anytime soon. (No one else could raise the cash, or get the air time.) Like The Civil War and Baseball, the first two films in the ”American trilogy“ it completes, Jazz makes its case for authority by sheer weight, though, given the length and breadth and messiness of the subject, it is necessarily something less than authoritative, notwithstanding the participation of (all things considered, a relatively small group of) diverse authorities, including musicians Wynton Marsalis and Charlie Haden and critics Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins. The filmmaker picks and chooses, and for every story told another goes untold. I loved Baseball, but knowing next to nothing about baseball, I was willing to buy Burns‘ version of it wholesale. I know something about jazz, and so as a viewer am cursed by my own familiarity and opinions. Not that it’s all my fault.

It‘s a strangely paradoxical work: an unsatisfying cornucopia, interesting but wearying, lengthy but oversimplified, slow and yet somehow hurried; strangest of all, even after hours and hours of it, one feels one hasn’t heard much music (partly because people are talking over it the whole time). Thematically, Jazz is very much of a piece with Baseball and The Civil War, being a story of black people and white people and the barriers that have been raised and broken down between them and sometimes raised again. Burns‘ interest in the subject isn’t entirely or even primarily musical -- he was not a jazz fan before starting the project -- as much as it is social-historical; as in previous productions, he tells his story with statistics (he never met a superlative he didn‘t like) and big personalities, tracking a number of key players (Armstrong -- who is cast here as the font of all jazz -- Ellington, Goodman, Holiday, Parker) from episode to episode, setting them against facts and figures and piles of scraps of more and less relevant contemporary news and stock footage. (The series is a history of Times Square billboards as much as anything.) There is a wealth of home movies, often in color, opening a rare and effective window onto the gone world; there are a lot of scenes of people dancing, not always from the right era.

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The bigger problem, over the long, long haul, is the Burns House Style, which translates seriousness and respect into poky pacing and a tone often inappropriately elegiac, even funereal; the narration is thick with portent even when none is called for. Because Burns is foremost a storyteller, he sometimes sees drama where there isn’t any: That Lester Young spent his last days listening to ”other people‘s music . . . never his own“ is meant to strike us as tragic, but musicians do not as a rule sit around listening to their old recordings. (If he had been sitting around listening to his own music, that would have been sad. Or if he hadn’t listened to any music at all.) Jazz is best when it gets, you know, jazzy -- when musicians are actually seen making music (not often enough), or when a talking head begins to rhapsodize. The talkiest of the talking heads is trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who is a historian by temperament, and whatever one thinks of his backward-looking music, he has a way with words, a beautifully metaphorical mind and an uncanny ability to become whatever band he‘s talking about. (His wonderful 1995 PBS series, Marsalis on Music, in which he steps into Leonard Bernstein’s pedagogical shoes to show young people what makes music music, is available on video, and I do recommend it.) There are sins of omission for every taste, from dozens of influential individual musicians mentioned not at all or merely in passing, to a scanting of the West Coast, to the lack of interest in pretty much anything after 1970; Burns has said that anything more recent is too fresh to be considered ”history,“ and in any case, once Louis Armstrong is dead, the film‘s narrative arc is done. An imperfect work, but worth a close look and listen nevertheless.

For my part, when I hear the words ”American Trilogy,“ I reach for my copy of Aloha From Hawaii -- Via Satellite. Elvis! In the world according to Jazz, Elvis is the enemy, but in the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is -- Special Edition, world-premiering this month on Turner Classic Movies, he‘s just the King of Rock & Roll® (as the TCM press kit has it) -- or perhaps more correctly the Sun King of Rock & Roll, what with his big-collared, plunging-necklined, rhinestoned jumpsuits. ”If the songs don’t go over,“ he says before opening at the International Hotel, ”we can do a medley of costumes.“ It is 1970, and the then-35-year-old Presley, recently returned to live performance, is back in Vegas. Cary Grant‘s there. Norm Crosby’s there. At the time, as I dimly recall it, this didn‘t look like rock & roll at all, it looked corny and sounded fat and old and MOR, but Elvis after all was constitutionally conservative (which is why, finally, he could be so popular); that he had ever looked like a rebel had more to do with his being sexy white trash with a shaky leg than with having a taste for revolution. The sincerity and depth of his late period have become clearer with time.

Produced by Rick Schmidlin, who was also in charge of reconstructionsrevisions of von Stroheim’s Greed and Welles‘ Touch of Evil, the Special Edition is not an elaboration of the 1970 original film so much as a wholesale recut; 45 percent of the picture is new (though this version is in fact slightly shorter), and the emphasis is on the music rather than on, as before, the event, the fans, the hoopla. As a concert film, it’s no Stop Making Sense, but for the student of Elvis, and of the fashions and hairstyles of 1970, it‘s pretty damn fascinating, and the music’s mostly good. (He runs through the old chestnuts as fast as he can, but gives the new material, even the bad new material, his fist-clenched, full-chested, sweaty-browed, modified-karate-crouch all.) Examples abound as well of the famed Presley wit: scaring a backup singer onstage, interpolating the line ”shove it up your nose“ into ”Suspicious Minds.“ The minutiae of his life being widely known does not make Elvis any less a mysterious presence -- it‘s a case of not being able to see the person for the tabloids -- and one searches such a film as this for clues to the Real Him. About all we learn, or are reminded of, is that he liked to sing, which is maybe all we need to know. Lucky he was good at it.

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