Jazz Institute of Chicago

JAZZ: Episode 8, Risk

JAZZ: Episode 8, Risk
a jazz documentary by Ken Burns

reviewed by Walt Davis

As part of the Doubletake Documentary Film Fest held in Durham, NC on April 6-9, Ken Burns gave a sneak preview of one two-hour segment of his upcoming documentary, Jazz, scheduled to air on PBS in January, 2001. This episode is titled "Risk" and covers the years 1945-55. JIC website editor Paul Baker read a review I had posted to a jazz newsgroup, and asked me to revise it for publication here.

One problem in that transition is that my opinions and biases are well-known on that newsgroup but not, I trust, to you. So I feel it's important to introduce myself, so you have some idea where I'm coming from and can adjust your "filters" accordingly.

I've been a jazz fan for about 15 years and my primary interest these days is creative improvised music (or avant-garde jazz if you prefer). Don't worry, I love Ellington too. As I've gotten deeper into the music, knowing its fans, doing a radio show, and becoming active in presenting the music, I've become increasingly convinced that jazz, both its institutions and its fans, overly revere jazz's storied history.

That history is fascinating and an understanding of history is important for putting the music into context. But over time I've become frustrated by the far too common attitude that nothing important has happened since, say, 1965; frustrated by meeting people who don't know who Jason Moran is—much less 8 Bold Souls; frustrated by serving on a jazz committee with a supposed avant-garde fan (and jazz dj) who, when I suggested Matthew Shipp, responded with "who?" and when I replied, "He's the pianist for David S. Ware," responded, "Who?" I worry that our fascination with jazz's history has become an obsession and a detriment to jazz's present and future.

So as you can imagine, I'm not the biggest fan of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. I have nothing against the music presented (I'm the proud owner of four or five Marsalis CD's) and I applaud their educational efforts, but the stylistic limitations of what's presented and the attitudes that are sometimes expressed annoy me. (To be fair, they seem to be loosening up a bit, including some limited avant-garde programming.) Given Wynton Marsalis's strong ties to PBS, I feared that the Marsalis/Crouch/Murray take on jazz and its history would play too large a part in the documentary.

I have mixed feelings about Ken Burns as well. I loved the Civil War series. I loathed the Baseball series. I won't go into many of the details now of what I liked and disliked about those projects, but I had mixed feelings when I heard he was undertaking a jazz documentary. I imagined similar problems as much of Baseball had—too much emphasis on the great players, too much emphasis on the major leagues (did you know that there were over 400 minor league baseball teams in the US shortly after WWII?) and especially New York, too much emphasis on baseball/jazz as a metaphor for America, too much droning on in historical reverence.

So you can tell I wasn't going in expecting great things (from my perspective). On the other hand, I had some hope. Shortly after starting the project, one of their researchers posted a request to [newsgroup] rec.music.bluenote and I outlined my concerns. They sent me a very nice, prompt, receptive response. Besides, I'm a pessimist—I go in expecting the worst and am often pleasantly surprised.

But not this time. It was worse than I feared.

Things got off to a bad start. Before showing the "Risk" episode, to set the stage they showed us the opening eight minutes of the first episode. "Swing," "blues," and "democracy" all appear in the opening monologue. Wynton Marsalis gets the first two talking head slots and Albert Murray gets the fourth.

There were some hints here that the early episodes may look a bit beyond the standard story—a pointed reference that jazz reflects "America's people—all of its people" and explicit references to the backgrounds of early musicians which are far more varied than the stereotype of poor and neglected (e.g., Ellington's and Miles' middle-class backgrounds). Still, the opening roll call of great jazz musicians included only the obvious—Morton, Armstrong, Ellington, Miles, Parker, Holiday, Goodman and I think that's it. So far things were tolerable, but not good.

(I should note that during his intro, Burns noted this was the history of "jazz in America"—and I detected a slight emphasis on "in America"—so he's covered himself for including nothing on European, Asian, Latin American, or African jazz musicians, which I assume to be the case.)

Burns spoke briefly after this segment while "Risk" was being loaded. He mentioned that this episode was centered around "that son of a Pullman chef from Kansas City [a quote from the first part], Charlie Parker." I found it a little odd that he thought it necessary to name Parker. But given that the entire episode we saw was clearly aimed at folks who know nothing of jazz (and after all this was a documentary film fest, not a jazz fest), it's consistent.

He also made an odd comment along the lines of how pleasantly surprised they were to discover what an important role Armstrong plays throughout the music's history, that he's the most important figure in 20th century music ("I didn't say jazz, I said music"—how bold of you Ken). I'd have thought that someone setting out to make a jazz documentary would already know this, not discover it during the process.

So "Risk" gets underway. Of the two hours, Parker is the focal point of at least one hour. Monk gets about 10 minutes (presumably he'll show up a bit more in later episodes). Billie Holiday gets 10 minutes, heroin about 15. Miles, including a segment on the Birth of the Cool sessions, gets about 10 minutes. JATP gets a couple minutes, focussing on Norman Granz as a force for integration but without a mention of, say, Illinois Jacquet. Louis Jordan gets a nod.

"Cool" or "West Coast" jazz gets about five minutes, all centered around Dave Brubeck who, just to make sure we all understand what's really important, spends most of his time talking about Ellington and how embarrassed he was to make the cover of Time before Duke did.

Bud Powell "who some called the Charlie Parker of the piano" gets 30 seconds. Gerry Mulligan is mentioned briefly a couple of times (his quartet with Chet Baker gets mentioned by Giddins at the beginning of the cool jazz segment—without noting how innovative it was to not have a piano). Stan Getz is mentioned twice, I think. Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron, Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, Chet Baker, Anita O'Day, Max Roach(!) and others are mentioned only during the lament for those who lost their lives or significant chunks of their careers to drugs.

Kenny Clarke is mentioned only during the couple of minutes on the MJQ (John Lewis is mentioned in passing a few times). There's no Lennie Tristano, though the famous Metronome All-Stars photo opens the episode. Nothing on the Four Brothers, though they do point out that half the Herman band did time for drugs at one time or another. Nothing on the challenges faced by swing musicians trying to adapt to bop.

There's nothing of importance on Ellington—nothing about the later Carnegie Hall concerts, leaving the Bluebird label, the early '50s recordings, etc. Except for Charlie Parker getting stranded in L.A. (Moose the Mooche practically gets top billing) and the brief West Coast jazz segment, nothing—and I mean nothing—happens outside New York.

Of course, if you have two hours to cover a decade dominated by Parker, you're gonna make some tough choices. My point is that the story they tell is the standard jazz story, the "mythology" that every jazz fan learns within the first couple of years of becoming a fan. Parker is the troubled self-destructive soul, whose appetites rage out of control, who led the triple life of jazz genius, junkie, and family man (though we get few details).

In this story, bop was born whole at Minton's, Parker's favorite composer was Stravinsky, Armstrong smoked lots of marijuana, etc. You can sum up 1945–55 in two words: Bird and heroin. I learned zilch—there wasn't a story I hadn't heard before, no insight into Parker's personality that went past the surface. As one acquaintance of mine put it afterward: "It's like Time-Life would have done it."

The episode is titled "Risk", but other than drug addiction, it's completely unclear what risks these musicians were taking. There's brief mention of negative critical reaction, but no examples of it. There's no segment on the negative reaction among many musicians. We're even spared Armstrong's "Chinese music" and Eddie Condon's "they flatten their fifths, we drink ours" comments. The only thing we know they risked was popularity, yet the film seems unsure whether this risk should have been taken.

Particularly troubling is that Dizzy is largely ignored. Not totally ignored of course, but he plays not second fiddle, but third or fourth fiddle to Bird. They almost make it sound like he abandoned Parker in L.A. out of spite. The only non-Bird performance clip he gets is one in which he's dancing in front of his big band (he never gets trumpet to lips). They acknowledge him as the one who "popularized" bop, and although they note his incorporation of Afro-Cuban music, other than a photo of Chano Pozo and the music "Manteca" playing in the background, they don't discuss how important that innovation was.

This was disappointing for someone like me who considers performances like "Night in Tunisia," "Manteca," and "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" to be among the finest in history. There's not anything truly demeaning to Dizzy, but there's a fair amount that sounds like damning with faint praise to me. Of course, if your take on a decade is all about one man, you've got to downplay everyone else. (And of course just because it sounded like faint praise to me doesn't mean that's how they intended it.)

There are also numerous mentions of how boppers didn't like dancing, including at least four or five shots of "no dancing" signs in clubs. It's presented as if the musicians wanted it this way. Of course, it was the clubs who put up the signs, and that's because they were all tiny and if people danced, they'd only fit about ten people in there. But this is offered as the primary reason why jazz became unpopular (another bit straight from Marsalis/Crouch).

It's not that the music was unpopular because they played in small clubs that didn't allow dancing, it was played in small clubs because it was unpopular. Popularity determines size of venue, not the other way around.

In addition to Marsalis, Murray, and Crouch, other talking heads include Gary Giddins, Phil Schaap (much younger than I thought), Gerald Early, Jon Hendricks, Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Quincy Troupe, Chan Parker, Jackie McLean, and Stan Levey. I'm sure I've forgotten some.

The only inspired choice is the drummer Levey, who was on the scene and was Parker's roommate for a couple years. McLean is also a very good, though obvious, choice. Nothing wrong with the others, but it's not a very wide array of opinion. Where was Max Roach?

And now another big problem. This was episode 8 of 10. Eight episodes to get up to 1955. The 9th episode covers 1955-60 (or maybe it was '65) and the 10th covers everything after, including "things which grew out of jazz." A serious disservice to current jazz and obviously something close to completely ignoring the avant-garde. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm sure we'll hear about Albert Ayler's death and maybe Cecil Taylor will get a nod as the "Coltrane of the piano."

But beyond all that, even if you agree with the decisions Burns has made about what gets priority, judging by this episode, this is disappointing. It's the surface history of jazz, intended to hook neophytes with jazz's intriguing story and satisfy social conservatives by dressing it up in democracy and America.

Marsalis's prints are all over it. He's third in the credits, as "senior creative consultant." Just when I thought we might make it through the full two hours, "gutbucket" came swinging through the Monk segment. Whether you agree with the Marsalis/Crouch version of history or not, I'd hope you'd agree that a multi-million dollar, 20-hour documentary on jazz ought to find room for some additional opinions, especially since the Marsalis/Crouch version gets plenty of exposure already.

I now realize that this is the main problem with this documentary and some of Burns' other work. In the Civil War, you have two sides, different viewpoints which were expressed at the time, and you can contrast those positions while taking note of the common humanity which managed to show itself despite those contrary positions. Quite obviously, civil wars are reflective of society.

In Baseball, Burns simply reached too far, equating a simple, beautiful game with a complex, often ugly society, but with the additional problem that once you see baseball as a metaphor for America, you've got to fit everything into that box (or ignore it). That works just fine when you're talking about Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, but I challenge you to tell me how the Gashouse Gang symbolized America.
Burns makes the same assumption here—jazz is what Marsalis et. al. say it is: swing, blues, democracy, America. If that's taken as a given, then there's really only one story to tell, only certain individuals need be heard from.

Of course, there's a huge flaw in Marsalis's view which no one seems willing to tackle. On the one hand, jazz is the ultimate in musical democracy; on the other hand, it's dominated by a handful of giants which we must worship and the story of jazz is the story of those men. If jazz is democracy, equality, a "negotiation" (a word used twice within the first five minutes), then where are the other voices?

In the Civil War, we heard stories of low-level soldiers, civilians, abolitionists, slaves, generals, and all the rest. Here we get the story of Charlie Parker and almost nothing else. The notion of the unapproachable pantheon of jazz greats is antithetical to the notion of jazz as a music of open democracy. The story of jazz becomes even richer when you look beyond the obvious.

So the "great man" approach hinders the film as well. When they're reading off the list of the victims of heroin, the jazz fans in the audience are indeed saddened—but the neophytes to whom this is pitched will have absolutely no idea who any of these people are because they've been completely ignored.

Sure, they can tell from the context that these are supposed to be good musicians, but they won't have anything close to a real sense of what it means to have lost, for example, Tadd Dameron. Think about that—Tadd Dameron, considered by many to be the greatest original bop composer, merits no time in a documentary about bop.

It'll be interesting to see what role women play in this documentary. The only mention of a woman instrumentalist in "Risk" is a nod to Melba Liston as trombonist and arranger for Dizzy who "liked some of her arrangements as much as his own."

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that this segment, which worships Parker while ignoring other musicians, has a segment on how the worship of fans and musicians wore on Parker and wasn't fair to other musicians.

For God's sake, they even take a swipe at Dean Benedetti! They don't name him, but they mention the "fans" that followed Parker from gig to gig, turning on their tape machines as he started to solo and turning them off when he stopped, ignoring the other musicians. A documentary filmmaker above all else ought to be grateful that someone bothered to preserve a huge chunk of Parker's live work—though I don't think we got to hear any of it.

And the Benedetti swipe made me realize how oddly they've treated recordings (as distinct from music) in this documentary. When Parker's on the West Coast, he "managed to produce a few recordings for a small label called Dial" and we get the story of the producer having to hold him up to the mike and a doctor giving him some pills to get him through it. There's no mention made that these are considered legendary recordings by Parker. They play "Loverman" through this.

Maybe they were being uncharacteristically subtle (relying on the music to convey its greatness), but there's no mention that this is one of his more famous solos. The strings recordings, on the other hand, are treated with the utmost respect, bringing in Branford Marsalis to defend Parker against charges of selling out.

In the Monk section, his Blue Note recordings aren't mentioned, while the "Brilliant Corners" cover is shown, noting it was recorded after emerging from the isolation arising from his cabaret card problems. I'd think a neophyte would come away from that thinking that Monk was completely ignored until 1955.

And there's no mention of the folks running the labels. Maybe they show up in the next episode, but Lion/Wolff, the Erteguns, Rudy Van Gelder, that small Dial label, and those obsessed fans running around with their tape recorders were responsible for giving us something to remember these great musicians by. They deserve some props, especially from an historical documentary filmmaker.

And I was disappointed with the lack of new footage and unfamiliar photos. I believe I've seen every one of these photos and film clips before and I'm not a jazz film/documentary/photography buff. It's like they've recycled Bravo's jazz documentaries. Take that cycle of documentaries, add "Straight No Chaser," the American Masters piece on Parker a couple years back, and you've got everything these 20 hours are likely to have, without as much of the "jazz is America" stuff.

Recently I saw a presentation on the jazz photos of W. Eugene Smith, a photographer who lived in a loft during the '50s, and made it a popular hangout for jazz musicians. Reportedly Sonny Clark was "house pianist" and Miles and Monk both hung out there for a time. Smith wired the whole house for sound. During the Smith presentation I saw his photos and heard some of the music he recorded. How come stuff like that didn't find its way into Burns' documentary? I didn't even notice any Miles Wolff photos (maybe they're in the next episode).

Which isn't to say they got nothing right. Burns is a good documentary filmmaker who can tell a story in a captivating way. Neophytes should find this very entertaining and of course those who think the last 40 years of jazz deserve no more than an hour or two won't mind their absence. And Burns has an uncanny knack for making still images come to life (this was true in Civil War and Baseball too).

Most importantly, they almost treat the music right. Pieces are allowed to play pretty much in full! Granted, you'll have talking heads yammering over most of a piece, but they don't play 30 seconds of a song then kill it when someone starts to talk, they just turn it down a bit. And the music sounds excellent. I'm no audiophile and am not particularly experienced with various releases of the material of this time, but the music is crystal clear and sharp. I've got to give them credit for that.

Of course it's unfair to judge 20 hours from a single two-hour episode. But when I think of how much this cost, of how many jazz concerts could have been produced, filmed/recorded, and put on PBS with that money, of how full a view of the jazz reality of today could have been given, I am sorely disappointed.

Don't get me wrong. This will spark interest in jazz, especially Armstrong, Ellington, and Parker, among those unfamiliar with it. But based on this episode, it will give those new fans absolutely no reason to look beyond jazz's history. This series ignores the last 40 years and tells only a small piece of the story up till then.

This episode, titled "Risk," takes no chances. It simply does not do justice to the art form.

[Ed. also see recent Denver post story.]
Walt Davis is a jazz fan, DJ at WXDU in Durham North Carolina, and heads up the Alliance for Improvised Music, a non-profit organization which presents creative improvised music. The opinions expressed are his and not necessarily those of the Alliance for Improvised Music or WXDU.

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