Jazz Institute of Chicago

Ken Burns' "JAZZ"

Ken Burns' "JAZZ"
reviewed by Tom Cunniffe

Ken Burns appeared at a sparsely attended lecture at Denver's Paramount Theatre on May 5. As expected, he brought along excerpts from his upcoming PBS documentary, "JAZZ". I can't totally condemn this documentary—after all, as Burns says, it should do wonders for increasing the audience for this music—however, I must admit some misgivings about the project as a whole.

First of all, let's remind ourselves of what we really expect from this documentary. Anyone thinking that this would be a film catering to die-hard historians and fans must be delusional or at least unrealistic. So, if the documentary's purpose is to introduce new people to this music, it will undoubtedly succeed. The major players are explored, the relevance to world events is covered, the music is explained in layman's terms and—most importantly—the passion for this music practically leaps off the screen. There's also a book and CD set to accompany the series.

I suppose we should also expect that many of the jazz legends would pop up again. While I doubt that Burns will fall into the trap of "up the river from New Orleans", I am disappointed that the legends weren't checked and revised to remove inconsistencies. For example, Burns showed a segment from the 1950's episode about Duke Ellington's artistic resurgence. We hear the familiar tale: Duke had lost many of his major sidemen, he was reduced to playing his standards at an ice show in Flushing, New York and that everything changed at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival with Paul Gonsalves' 27-chorus solo on "Diminuendo & Crescendo In Blue."

Now, first of all, there are some details missing: By 1956, Duke had regained his most valuable defector, Johnny Hodges. Also, there was a cover story for "Time" magazine in the works. Both of these factors were easily as important as the Newport appearance in Duke's regained popularity. For many fans, Hodges was a crucial part of the Ellington sound, and the "Time" cover (which had been planned to run prior to the Newport Festival, but shelved due to world events) succeeded in enlarging Duke's audience among non-jazz fans. While adding these details might make the story more complex, it would also make it more accurate.

Since Burns used this documentary to learn about the music himself, it comes as no surprise that he found pervasive (if not always completely accurate) historians like James Lincoln Collier, Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch to speak in his film. Another of Burns' clips showed the problem with this approach. The subject is Louis Armstrong's approach to and influence on American pop singing. Crouch appears, and in an effort to illustrate Louis' influence, he demonstrates the pre-Armstrong style of straight singing in a mock operatic (read: white) tone. Next Crouch sings a completely unrelated riff in the style of Armstrong, and says that after Louis, the music couldn't go back to the way it was. It's truly a funny little clip, and to a certain extent, it makes the point. However, it would have been so much better if archival film or recordings were used, and if Armstrong's predecessors were mentioned by name.

In about the same amount of time, a capsule history of early pop singing could be related, as follows. The first pop singer to gain major stardom was Al Jolson (show clip from "The Jazz Singer"). Jolson's background was in vaudeville theatres and acoustic recordings. Both venues required the singer to project his voice in order to be heard. Then in 1925, the microphone and electric recording came on the scene, and everything changed. Not only couldn't the singer project into a microphone, it was patently ridiculous to do so.

Enter Bing Crosby, then just starting his career as a vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Crosby discovered that he could sing very softly into the mike, which would sound as if he was whispering his song into his girlfriend's ear (insert clip from "The Big Broadcast").
Crosby's innovation, which he called "intimate singing" but was better known as "crooning", was highly influential to all singers of the day, including Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong, of course, took the innovation to another level. He used Crosby's technique of minimalized singing and combined it with his own genius of distilling a melody to its essence (clip—already present in Burns' film—of Louis singing "Dinah" in Copenhagen, 1933). At this point, Burns' other interviewees take up the subject of Armstrong's distilling of melodies.

I can't tell for sure whether Crosby is mentioned in any of "JAZZ"'s 20-hour length, but it seems not, since Crouch's statement seems to cover the point well enough for Burns' satisfaction.

The other big problem with Burns' film—and rightly noted in the review found at the Jazz Institute of Chicago's website—is the length of time spent on jazz before 1960. The last 40 years of jazz history—that's my lifetime, folks—is crammed into the final 2-hour episode. Now, whether or not you believe that any of the stylistic developments in jazz since 1960 have truly changed the overall history of the music, they still deserve to be explored in some depth (especially if you plan to follow the careers of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington through their deaths in the 1970s, as Burns apparently does).

How can Burns hope to do justice to the music of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor in such a short time? Not to mention: non-pop oriented fusion musicians like Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny and Peter Erskine; important avant-garde players like Jane Ira Bloom, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, and Dave Douglas; latter-day big band leaders like Toshiko Akiyoshi, Gil Evans, Thad Jones and Maria Schneider; and the recent explosion of women jazz musicians such as Jane Bunnett, Regina Carter, Michele Rosewoman and Eliane Elias?
What I saw at the Paramount looked very professional and attractively presented, and it will probably act as a sort of Encyclopedia Britanica of jazz history. Not everyone is there and it's not all handled in the best way, but it's a reasonable introduction to the music and hopefully it will inspire its audience to explore the music further. Maybe that's all we should expect from this project, but doesn't the subject deserve just a little more care?


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