to complete his american tril-ogy, Ken Burns --- the social historian behind the award-winning documentaries The Civil War and Baseball --- spent the last six years condensing the story of jazz music into a 19-hour television series that begins airing Monday (January 8) on PBS. As the first-ever attempt at a comprehensive cinematic examination of the improvisational art, it's a landmark event, and is drawing as many delirious accolades as derisive attacks from jazz critics who love nothing more than a good controversy.
Central to the heated debate is the music --- specifically, which musicians' work is featured prominently and who's been overlooked. Burns has a story to tell, and his history-as-biography approach, exploring the lives of a few key personalities A&E-style, has proven extremely successful in a prime-time TV series context.
To account for a century's worth of creativity in 10 short episodes, he obviously had to leave some things out. That's where the problems arise.
It must be understood that Burns is not an expert on the subject of jazz, or even an avid listener. In the preface of the accompanying coffee-table book, Jazz: A History Of America's Music (Knopf), co-authored with screenwriter Geoffrey C. Ward, Burns confesses that he owned "perhaps two jazz records" when the project began.
Consequently, the input of his hired advisers --- including Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Gary Giddins, Gunther Schuller and, notably, blinkered traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, who served as the project's senior creative consultant --- became very significant in setting the slant, from the New Orleans creation myth onward.
The biases of the advisory staff become readily apparent when the 497 song fragments used in the course of the documentary are reduced to the 94 tunes on the five-disc Ken Burns Jazz: The Story Of America's Music companion boxed set.
Since Marsalis has never made a secret of his distaste for free jazz and fusion, it's hardly surprising that while the innovations of the 20s and 30s are treated to a disc apiece, everything that's happened in the past 40 years is quickly dismissed on the fifth disc.
It's not merely a couple of avant-garde squawkers who are ignored, but entire sub-genres of spiritual jazz, latin jazz, organ combo jazz and soul jazz are completely overlooked. Sun Ra? Bill Evans? Pharoah Sanders? Anthony Braxton? Eric Dolphy? Keith Jarrett? Cal Tjader? Randy Weston? George Russell? Roy Ayers? Machito? Jimmy Smith? The Art Ensemble of Chicago? They're not represented.
The way Burns and company have narrowed the project's scope does more than distort history. It erases valuable points of access for the younger, sample-savvy audience that the series was designed to reach.
And the oversights aren't confined to the post-bop era. While there's no question that Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis all warrant deeper examination, it doesn't seem prudent to feature five Holiday performances while the no less magnificent Ella Fitzgerald shows up in only an unremarkable early crack at A-Tisket A-Tasket.
Meanwhile, not a peep is heard from influential vocalists Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks, Nina Simone and Little Jimmy Scott, or from colourful entertainers like Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard.
The enormous holes aren't really filled by the 22 single-disc individual artist compilations being released simultaneously. Although the term "definitive" appears on the tray cards, the song selections often show off the catalogue holdings of the labels involved rather than showcase the artists' finest achievements.
And these collections just offer a little more detail on the musicians already covered by the box. We still hear nothing from the big bands of Benny Carter, Earl Hines, Lionel Hampton and Andy Kirk, and none of Kirk's star attractions, Mary Lou Williams, Don Byas and Howard McGhee.
There are easily 22 CDs in the material Marsalis' er' Burns neglected to include by guitarists from Charlie Christian and Eddie Lang through Oscar Aleman, Tiny Grimes, Les Paul, Barney Kessel, Oscar Moore, T-Bone Walker, Tal Farlow, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Lenny Breau and Pat Martino right up to John McLaughlin, Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock and Pat Metheny.
Considering the two-record background of the man behind this twisted sliver of history, the omissions, though troubling, are understandable.
KEN BURNS JAZZ The Story Of America's Music (Sony/Universal). Rating: NN The 10-part television series airs on WNED at 9 pm January 8, 9, 10, 15, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29 and 31; also released on VHS and DVD.