We’d all like to be Ken Burns. The guy is like a bounty hunter wandering the seemingly boundless passions of his own mind. Every six years or so he hits paydirt and brings in the uncapturable for a reward, and we’re hit with another multi-part documentary. Be it radio, the Civil War, baseball or now jazz, Burns’ interests are patches of an American quilt.
By shooting nearly 20 hours of film for his latest opus, Jazz (which premieres on PBS on Jan. 8), Burns has captured the cornerstone of American music in a manner that should thrill purists, appease the unappeasable on the fringes and possibly recapture some of the large-scale interest that jazz has lost over the years as the genre has spread it’s creative wings into a cornucopia of genres and sub-genres. Burns has also done the musically unthinkable: he’s managed to pull to rival record companies together.
For in addition to the massive companion coffee-table book, Ken Burns Jazz has spawned a single disc overview of the documentary’s contents, a five-disc box set that takes jazz from its earliest days up to the progressive, contemporary croon of Cassandra Wilson, and twenty-two single-disc “best of”‘s by the genre’s pioneers all of which bridge the catalogues of Columbia and Verve, two labels who have been producing jazz for the better part of a century.
So snuggle up under the quilt, grab a cup of cocoa and tune into another episode of who we are.
Did you schedule this documentary to coincide with the Armstrong and Ellington’s centennials?
Totally coincidental. I’ve sort of been lucky that way in my professional life. It’s funny, I’ve hit the zeitgeist accidentally. My very first film took five years to complete; it was on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. By the time it was done, it was that centennial. And then the Civil War came out ten years ago, just when everyone’s interest in the Civil War peaked. And I feel it here, in my bones, jazz has in recent times been something most people feel you have to have an advanced degree in, you know, the jazzarati are the ones who appreciate it. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s an incredibly accessible and utterly joyous utterly American music out of which all the forms that now reign supreme came out of.
So how did you go about attacking this project?
We tried to go back and celebrate all the different forms, to celebrate the history of jazz. I use [these films] as an opportunity to find out who we are, to study the mechanics of this country. I’m very interested in Elvis Presley. Whether that’s next or not, I don’t know, but I’ll get back to it, because music is one of these powerful things.
Jackie Robinson came across as the hero of Baseball. Do you feel Jazz has a similar hero?
Without a doubt [Louis] Armstrong. I was like most people, I didn’t know much about jazz. I ran a record store in the late Sixties, so I knew a lot about records and jazz, but it wasn’t my favorite thing. But the thing that was most surprising and most satisfying was getting to know Louis Armstrong. Just how important he is to music in the twentieth century. There’s no one more important. There’s nobody in the twentieth century, in pop or any form that isn’t beholden to his styling.
Ellington also comes across as more than just a jazz performer.
Equal to Armstrong in this series is our dissection of how Ellington used his band. We go back to it again and again in the different eras of his life. He’s still the greatest composer. My goodness, I mean Ellington has 2,000 compositions. It’s unheard of. It’s like trying to deal with Satchel Paige and Cy Young as winners. Some guy feels proud to have 100 wins and Cy Young has more than 500.
The accompanying music is quite vast.
There is in some cases that tyranny of choice. The most challenging because there’s just tons of material and there’s what to leave in and what to leave out. We wanted to aim it at as broad a base as possible and that’s challenging. But tell me another time when two of the three largest record producers got together. These are mortal competitors. And we got them to basically call a truce and to put out a set of records that is historic. The most significant thing is this coming together of music. Say you get interested in Armstrong and you go to Tower Records. You find that there are 450 Armstrong CDs and fifty of them say “Best Of’. But none of them are “best of,” because they don’t cross labels. What we were able to do with this partnership is to use the force and prestige of these two offices to basically create this CD of twenty swinging songs that’s just dipping your toe into jazz. Then we have the five CD set that’s just a great representation of all of the music in the series and then we have twenty-two best of artists priced inexpensively that are literally the best of those artists that cross their labels. Miles [Davis], for instance, was at Prestige as well as Columbia.
The various styles mesh suprisingly well.
Can you get Cecil Taylor to coexist with “Hello Dolly”? That’s really tough but there it is. And I think the jazz people, as much as they may complain about “Oh you left of my favorite this,” they’re gonna want it because it’s going to be one-stop shopping. They’re going to get some favorite stuff lined up in a row.
Did you come across any surprises along the way? New favorite performers?
[Charles] Mingus was a great delight to get to know, as was [Thelonious] Monk. I have to confess, I had never even heard of Clifford Brown, and my goodness what a wonderful story that is. I had a typical liberal sensibility that tends to suggest that those first white people who are successful have ripped off the black community. The Bix Biederbeckes, the Benny Goodmans and the Paul Whitemans, when in fact the exact opposite is true. These were people who risked everything because it was so socially unacceptable to find your teachers in the African American community. These are the vanguards of a country that’s eventually going to change kicking and screaming. And that these people are hardly rip-off artists but people who’ve had to acknowledge that African-Americans would be their teachers. You know that old argument, Paul Whiteman is the king of jazz . . . “white man,” isn’t it ironic? Whiteman always gave behind the scenes work to black musicians and arrangers. He took his men over to listen to Fletcher Henderson at Roseland and said that if Fletcher Henderson was a white man he’d be a millionaire.
What is your take on the argument of jazz as the original American art form?
It’s not African music, that’s very important. It’s not black music either. It came out of the African dash American, underline American, community. But it was shared generously with everybody. And jazz can be played by anybody who can swing. We call our first episode “Gumbo” a) because it originates in New Orleans, and b) because it has a lot of ingredients that make it. You could say that jazz has lots of elements from other places, but it’s completely eaten them up and spit them out in a completely new way. So you can look at jazz and say that it has complex African polyrhythms. It’s got slave songs, work songs, the call and response of the Baptist church. It has the influences of French and Italian opera. It’s got a fondness for brass instruments that were in New Orleans at the end of the Civil War. It’s got ragtime, it’s got minstrel. It’s got a lot of social things that come together like slavery, like emancipation, like the imposition of Jim Crow. And then it’s got the thing that every gumbo must have, the reaux, the flour-based base, and that’s the blues, which is this utterly American invention. Our genius is in improvisation: it’s in the Constitution, it’s in baseball, it’s in jazz. Here’s this art form where the whole idea is that I’m not going to play what’s on the paper, I’m going to play what I feel. You think rap is new? Let me play you some Charles Mingus. You think that R&B just jumped up out of a stump? Out of the fusing of jazz and church music you get soul and then the white version is rock & roll.
But once it ceased to be dance music, the masses left.
Jazz is about body response. I mean, it was born in whorehouses, it’s definitely about showing your behind. I guess we’re in an age where we measure everything by the opening weekend gross, so there is a sense of jazz being behind the eight ball. But if you take it say into the analogy of painting, then you see that bebop is a lot like the movement of abstract expressionism and then later avant-garde and free movements are like conceptual art, which has an equal number of vociferous critics, but it’s no less interesting. But Armstrong said, “There ain’t but two kinds of music, good and bad.”
Reminds me of a quote from the songwriter Townes Van Zandt. He said there were two kinds of songs, the blues and “Zip-a-dee-doo-da.”
What we all look for in our lives is some authenticity. We know that we live in a fairly synthetic environment. Most of the music we hear, the performances have been called in from various studios and overlayed and overdone and so too the movies that we see and the TV. Jazz still has to be done in person. Still has to be made in person in the moment. And that’s the saving grace of jazz, why it will endure. It may suffer periods and decades where it is overshadowed by other forms. But in the end you can’t help but go back to it because it tells us so much about it. So when he says “Zip-a-dee-do-da” or the blues he’s talking about pretending that there’s nothing wrong and acknowledging that there is something wrong.