directed by Ken Burns
(PBS Paramount, 2001)

Let me ask you a question: Would it have been any better if Jazz was two hours long instead of nearly 20, and if Wynton Marsalis hadn't been involved?

These seem to be two major objections to Ken Burns' epic series about one of the greatest forms of American music. Burns admits to knowing little about jazz when he began this documentary -- but since he didn't write it, it hardly seems fair to fault him for the shortcomings of the script. As it is, I think both Burns and his writer did a pretty good job. Yes, only the major players in jazz are covered -- but so what? If Burns had taken time to profile every great or semi-great jazz artist who ever played in a nightclub or a recording session, we'd be talking about a 50-hour movie! Let's get real here, folks. As to the complaints about Marsalis ... I frankly don't understand them. His love of the music is obvious and his enthusiasm seems genuine to me. The man obviously knows his stuff; he's a brilliant musician in his own right and has championed jazz at times when jazz has seemed to have few champions. To say there is no soul in what he's saying, or that he lacks knowledge seems entirely unfair, even a touch cruel. He may be a bit of an exclusionary purist at times, but at least he respects the form.

As regards the talking heads (of which there may indeed be a few too many) talking over classic songs of the genre, I wish there had been a little less of that. "Sing Sing Sing" is one of my all-time favorite swing tunes, and I would have loved to have heard it in its entirety here. Still and all, this is a documentary, and overdoses of commentary are to be expected if not embraced. I can live with it as long as it doesn't get too annoying ... and some of the commentary here -- such as the first-hand accounts of great artists like Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton and Dave Brubeck and writers like Nat Hentoff, Studs Terkel and Stanley Crouch -- is priceless.

Overall, this series is not perfection -- but hell, what is in this world? Maybe if Hentoff had written it, there would be more about some of the lesser-known but equally respect-worthy jazzmen, and maybe more attention would have been paid to the post-1961-to-present time period, which is admittedly lacking in Burns' film; indeed, it's the weakest point of Jazz, much as the final episode of Baseball was weak in its attempt to cram almost 40 years of history into two hours).

In my mind, it's a wonder a film like this, with all its admitted flaws, was made at all. If nothing else, it can serve as a primer (and a darned good one) for those who don'e know much about this amazing body of music -- and perhaps it can win even more people over to loving jazz. I know for my part it's made me pull out all my old John Coltrane, Miles, Monk, et al, and give them several good listens ... and if Jazz can accomplish that, then I think it's probably done its job pretty well.

review by
Jay Whelan

25 September 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new