The Bumble Bee's View of the Garden:
Opinions on Jazz and other topics
The Bumble Bee stops buzzing around to watch a bit of television.
OK, it is time for me to weigh in on the topic of Ken Burns' Jazz. Since I am going to join the chorus of critical voices in expressing my disappointments, I would like to begin with some positive comments. This is the first celebration of Jazz on national broadcast TV in some 40-plus years and it is hard to imagine that it will not whet the appetites of folks who have been unaware of our beloved art, even with the omissions and other problems described below . Ken Burns does what he does exceedingly well and I really enjoyed the episodes I was able to watch. Also his examination of the relationship between this art and American society in general was very though provoking; at least until he dropped the ball.
Much has been written, even at this early date, about the program's excessive attention to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. These giants are certainly worthy of detailed examination but to do so in the context of a 65 year history of an art that, as any valid art form, is the creation of a large community of musicians is both misleading and disrespectful of that community. There was, as far as I understand, little if any discussion of the lineage of drummers, for instance. Earl Hines, who is clearly the progenitor of modern piano styles, was mentioned only in passing. Discussion of regional influences, beyond New Orleans and New York was minimal if present at all. Two examples would be the continued influence of musicians from Chicago after the 1920s; another would be the role of Detroit in the post WW II period. These are just a few examples of omissions that I feel were unnecessary.
The greatest outrage, however, comes in the last episode, in which Jazz "dies" only to be revived by Winton Marsalis. Give me a break! I was there, as well as at least some of you who are reading this. True, with the immense popularity newer pop music forms in the mid-sixties Jazz was swept out of the national spotlight it had enjoyed for some time and many musicians were scuffling. However, all the major big bands kept going: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and, while he lived, Don Ellis. The major stars continued to tour: Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen McRae, and often they were developing a new generation of players. The organ room circuit, a largely Black community phenomenon, continued well into the eighties and was also a training ground for the upcoming generation of players.
Europe assumed a new importance and the quality of their players continued to develop. Japan also became a source not only of work, but of fine players. Jazz was finally accepted in the academic world in this period of time. The great trumpeter Clark Terry, along with an army of lesser-known musicians, put a great deal of time and energy into developing Jazz curricula in universities, and these colleges and universities have produced any successful Jazz musicians. Lionel Hampton was also active in this endeavor. Then there was the "loft movement" with its influx of new musicians and styles from the Midwest, which had gained even some commercial acceptance by the end of the 70s. And then there were the performers other than Miles Davis who played to the rock arenas, like Charles Lloyd, Larry Coryell, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawanul and John McGlaughlin. Jazz had taken a terrible hit, but it was far from dead.
In his book West Coast Jazz, Ted Gioia writes "Models from the social sciences, clumsily applied to jazz, imply that one paradigm replaces another, that the new replaces the old; but the growing realization among practitioners in the contemporary arts is that such models bear little resemblance to what is actually happening in modern music, painting, poetry, or jazz." It seems that the last twenty or so years have brought a new era in the arts. One in which a single stylistic trend no longer dominates the aesthetic of the majority of artists in a particular field. We have seen this trend developing in politics and religion as well. This is where I feel Mr. Burns "dropped the ball" in telling his story of Jazz and American Society.
As for Winton, he did manage to get national attention in the late 80s and early 90s when most Jazz musicians were obscured to the general public. But at the end of the day, he has managed only to establish a museum for the music of the past. Not that this is an unworthy task, but during this same time period so many others were exploring new possibilities in the music, and reaching audiences all over the nation and the world with their music. Musicians such as Betty Carter, Dave Holland, Jack DeJhonette, Bill Frisell, the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, collectively and individually, and many others. Jazz did not die in 1965.
Ken Burns said in interviews that he felt that we were too close in time to the last thirty-five years for him to be able to assess recent events. I think, however, that it was the sway of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch and, as some others suggest, Albert Murray, and their desperate efforts to establish some kind of Jazz Orthodoxy in the face of the phenomenon described by Ted Gioia, that has created such a distorted ending to this series, and the somewhat less distorted telling of the entire story required by that ending. It is unfortunate that this rare focus of public attention on Jazz should not have served to make people aware of the ongoing vitality of this musical art form in the face of the challenges of modern culture and the control of a music industry that has no time for truly creative work, regardless of the style. It is equally unfortunate that it did not bring more attention to those active in the present, but then maybe someone else will take the cue.
One last item. We are disappointed by the decision of WEVO to take Al Davis' weekend Jazz show off the air as part of their perceived need to go to an all talk format. I have been pleased to see the high quality of news and public affairs programing developed by National Public Radio and Public Radio International, but very upset by the move on many public radio stations to give up most or all of their locally produced shows to air nothing but the network offerings, sometimes two or three times a day.