Is Jazz Finally Over Ken Burns?

Last spring at Rutgers, I took a course entitled “Jazz and Film.”  In it, we discussed the historical relationship between the two American art forms, analyzing critical and popular responses along the way.

One of the most interesting classes came towards the end, when we dug into the widely watched PBS documentary Jazz by filmmaker Ken Burns.  I remember when the series came out on PBS — I was in high school at the time — but I didn’t watch it.  I remember my jazz band director expressing both fascination (with the detailed storytelling) and disappointment (with the over-reliance on Armstrong and the dismissal of jazz after 1960.)

Revisiting those controversies proved to be an enlightening exercise.  Eight years after the fact, the conversation spurred more impassioned discussion than anything else that we covered in class.  The debate even spilled over onto the Jazz MA program’s listserv, with many other students chiming in.  Generally, reactions fell into one of two camps: “Jazz” was good, because it exposed a lot of people to the music’s tradition; or “Jazz” was bad because it twisted and misrepresented the music’s history to conform to the Albert Murray/Wynton Marsalis political agenda. 

I tended toward the latter category in my response, even though I still haven’t seen much of the film itself.  I simply couldn’t get through the first episode having to watch Wynton scat self-indulgently and listen to the Voice Of God recount half-truths about the music’s origins.  Not to mention the fact that trombonists are almost completely ignored: my man Jack Teagarden, for example, is barely mentioned despite playing an important role in the success of the film’s hero, Louis Armstrong, in the late 1940s.

As a part of the discussion, we read a number of responses that were written upon the documentary’s release, including a fascinating analysis of the film’s reception by Steven Pond and a thoughtful response by Don Rose.  In Rose’s response, one observation in particular stood out:

The worst part is the film foreclosed anyone else from undertaking [a history of jazz] for at least another decade.

To me, this was the most problematic aspect of “Jazz”: that the film represented hotly debated opinions as facts, and then used the PBS publicity/branding machine to monopolize the discussion of why jazz matters today.  As I wrote then,

Ken Burns’s Jazz ultimately does a disservice to the jazz community because it presents such an inaccurate, flawed, rigid, politically biased framework over which jazz discussion now MUST take place for at least the next few years. The vitality and diversity of the critical response to Jazz shows the way forward in jazz discourse, but the monolithic presence of the documentary holds it back.

When the NEA published its much ballyhooed survey, I noticed that the last survey was administered in 2002, right after “Jazz” had been released.  Even with the massive institutional support behind it, with every jazz fan talking about it, and with millions of people tuned in, the survey found that the level of participation in jazz events still had declined slightly since 1992.  As the effects of the publicity blitz wore off, and the economic took its toll on its promotion machine, audiences declined dramatically.

This, of course, leads us to the more recent debate that has been raging across the jazz internet: the “Can Jazz Be Saved?” Debate.  Most of the blowback from Terry Teachout’s article came last month, but thoughtful responses are still trickling in.  This is the first time that I’ve seen something besides “Jazz” stir up this level of passion, vitriol, thoughtful reflection and polarized opinion throughout the jazz community.  So, as much as I disagree with Teachout’s article, I think it just might be a good thing for jazz as a whole.

The overwhelming response also suggests that the paradigm for discussion and coverage of jazz is finally coming out from underneath Ken Burns’s sizable shadow.  Ironically, public broadcasting again appears to have a hand in the transition.  A Blog Supreme is probably the first jazz blog aggregator out there with the backing of a brand as powerful as NPR, and one of the country’s last jazz radio stations, WBGO, recently launched its first new music show, The Checkout.  An independently financed aggregator, commentary and review site,, has only been up and running for about two years.  Also, the ease and accessibility of blogging software like WordPress has enabled many well-spoken musicians, writers and fans to post their own thoughts.

The proliferation of these tools is, I believe, finally loosening the overwhelming influence that institutional behemoths like PBS and JALC have on today’s jazz discourse.  This, I have always believed, is a good thing.  Last spring, I concluded:

The way forward for jazz and its community of musicians, collectors, fans and scholars lies precisely in the decentralized methods of discourse that are developing online — not in the attempts by Wynton Marsalis, Jamey Aebersold and others to codify it under larger social institutions.  This variety of opinion and response will never be able to coalesce into a successful counterstatement against the documentary, but I don’t think we’ll need one. With time, the misdirected buzz created by Ken Burns’s Jazz will fade into the background and the appropriate diversity and vitality of jazz discourse will continue along without it.

Well, folks, it looks like we might not have to wait the full decade for this to happen, as Don Rose feared.  The LA Times recently featured a lengthy article about Burns and his critics in which they report that he has moved onto a new project, National Parks.  Thankfully, Burns is going to pick on someone else now; he is sure to galvanize a new community into loud criticism and impassioned defense of his work.  Fortunately for jazz, this coincides with the encouraging development of a much more nuanced (and jazz-like) conversation online.  Patrick Jarenwattananon’s Jazz Now efforts at A Blog Supreme are just the beginning (shameless plug: watch for my post there this week!)  History will show that Ken Burns’s “Jazz” represents the last great old-fashioned institutional effort on behalf of jazz; now, I am very excited to see what happens as a new paradigm takes hold in the community.

Unfortunately, Ken Burns’s “Jazz” isn’t completely out of the picture; this will probably never be the case.  It appears to persist most stubbornly in college jazz history curricula — its pleasant and seemingly comprehensive approach lends itself well to a shallow survey of jazz history.  My roommate, in fact, a junior at Montclair State University, reported to me that this exactly what’s happening in his Jazz History course this semester.  His teacher justified the use of the film by saying that it’s the “best resource available” for teaching jazz history.  And this guy lives within 10 miles of the Institute of Jazz Studies.  PLEASE.  But that’s a discussion for another day — for now, please post in the comments if you share my optimism for the current trends in jazz journalism — and whether or not you agree that Ken Burns’s departure from the discourse is good for jazz.

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
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30 Responses to Is Jazz Finally Over Ken Burns?

  1. Jason Parker says:

    Great post, Alex! I read that LA Times article just yesterday and was struck by the fact that even after all this time his documentary still elicits such strong emotion.

    I remember watching when “Jazz” was on TV. It was right around the time I picked my horn up again after a 10 year layoff. I was immersing myself in the Seattle Jazz scene and trying to soak up as much as I could in an effort to fill in the gaps my time away from the music left. I was excited that here was a film that purported to be the be-all, end-all of jazz history tomes.

    As much as I was put off by the amount of footage of Marsalis, Murray and Crouch (lawfirm??), I did appreciate the historical footage and the fact that I was being shown clips and told stories I hadn’t heard before. But when it was over, I was left feeling like I had taken an ancient history course that left off just as things were getting interesting. I had to check the TV Guide to be sure that there weren’t 10 more episodes, which there easily could have been.

    While I was left wanting more, I was never in the camp that felt the film did a great disservice to the jazz community. Like the Teachout article, it got people talking and thinking and debating about jazz, which is only ever a good thing. Any press is good press, right?

    So I say bring it on. All of it. Revisionist history, doom-and-gloom predictions, ridiculous thoughts on jazz education, etc. As so you rightly put it, that stuff will not hold up under the new microscope that is the internet for more than a minute without the rest of us chiming in, but it will get us to chime in! I’m thrilled to see the jazz community coming together around things like the Teachout article. I’ve met so many wonderful advocates for the music as a result and have a renewed faith that there are people in all corners of the world doing good for the survival and growth of this music that we all love.

    Thanks for being one of those people!

  2. Thank you, Alex, for your thoughts on Ken Burns’ “Jazz” series—I agree with everything you say. I was tangentially involved in this series, having supplied some stills, but that also gave me a glimpse of Burns’ very unprofessional approach to what he mislabels as “documentary.” When Burns identified Louis Armstrong on photo showing Lil Hardin and guests at her first wedding, I pointed out to Shola Lynch that Louis hadn’t even arrived in Chicago at that time. She informed Burns and he decided to use the photo anyway, focusing on and identifying the unknown man as Louis. A minor thing, I admit, but it shows his modus operandi and his warped priorities.

    I was extremely bothered by the recital of drug users’ names, some of which constituted their only mention; the many omissions were, of course, as inexcusable as they were inexplicable; and the babble from Crouch and Wynton was downright embarrassing (Burns seems to have developed a repertory company of talking heads who pop up in his films to comment on subjects about which they often know nothing). The series was flawed in so many areas that one could go on and on citing examples, but, ultimately, what bothers me most is the waste of money. Because if the Burns film and the excessive hype it received (did Columbia not make his name synonymous with jazz?), we will probably never see anything resembling that kind of funding granted to a conscientious filmmaker who places the music and its creators above his or her own imagined importance.

    • arodjazz says:

      Thanks for your responses, Jason and Chris — despite the film’s flaws, I remain optimistic about the new era we are moving into as far as jazz is concerned. Even though Chris is right that no filmmaker will ever receive the funding, hype, and bully pulpit that Burns received from his documentary, I don’t think we’re going to need it for jazz to continue to thrive. To concentrate so much power in one place is very un-jazz-like, if you ask me — these sort of decentralized conversations happening online, I believe, will do a much better job of conveying the relevance of jazz in today’s world. It’s not just “museum music” (to borrow a phrase from Jason) — it has a life today that is in conversation with that history.

  3. James says:

    Hate to step into something mid conversation, and maybe I’ll be accused of sipping the Murray/Marsalis kool aid, but could you please expound a bit on their “political agenda.” I’ve read most of Murray’s work and have no issues with Marsalis per se, so I guess I’m trying to find what the issues are with you.

    As for Burns, I can’t get mad at a non-jazz guy doing something to make other non jazz folk groove to the music. Was his documentary perfect? No, and it’s filled with tons of holes. But even with those imperfections, what is the problem with someone actually telling a general audience it needs to get this music? As jazz fans does our search for the perfect keep us away from the good?

    Just questions.


    • arodjazz says:

      Hi James — welcome to the conversation! I worried that by asking the question “are we over Ken Burns?” that I would merely be reopening the tireless debate about the merits of the film. More important than debating the merits of “Jazz”, I believe, is debating where we go from here now that Burns has moved on.
      As to how I define the “Marsalis/Murray political agenda,” I would say the following: first of all, they promote the idea that jazz is a music of the past, and that modern representations ought to seek to replicate the aesthetic traditions of the bebop generation. Thus, fusion and avant-garde jazz, along with many other innovative and thoughtful jazz creations of the past half-century, are dismissed (the AACM) or derided (Cecil Taylor). Also, the Marsalis/Murray agenda subscribes to the “Great Man” theory of history (read the Pond article referenced in paragraph 5 for more discussion of that issue.) Obviously, the issues at play are much more complicated than that — they have been discussed ad nauseum for the past eight years (again, I refer you to the Pond article for the most thorough breakdown of the film’s overall reception.)
      The point of my article was not so much to diss “Jazz”, but to point out that — with the heated and wide-ranging debate that “Can Jazz Be Saved” has generated — we might well have moved beyond the debate over the merits or drawbacks of “Jazz.” Whatever your opinion of the film, I believe that it matters much less now (and will matter even less a year from now) as we move onto more productive conversations about the music’s relevance in today’s world. Judging by the reaction so far, though, maybe I’m wrong that the influence of “Jazz” has waned as a frame for debate about the music today.

      • James says:

        Thanks for the response. Those are all fair critiques of Murray/Marsalis, but I also think that even with those blinders on, they add something important to the tradition and extension of the music. But like I said. I could be into their kool-aid a bit much. LOL Thanks for the reading suggestions.
        We do agree that debating one documuntary on a music we love isn’t going to get us anyway. And I can’t lie. I sort of stayed away from the conversation because while I understood some of the points, I never got why people were upset about one intro to the music.
        That said, it seems to me the Teachout article says much about where the music is headed. And that’s not a good thing. How do you get youngsters to listen to the music. I have no idea. Maybe it’s time for Sonny Rollins and or Joshua Redman to play a riff or two on a Beyonce album. Could the music have to be entertaining to young ears for it to be picked up by the young?

      • arodjazz says:

        I don’t think Teachout has any idea where the music is headed. His article is incredibly ignorant to the actual trends happening in the music today; furthermore, when confronted about it (as Vijay Iyer did on Soundcheck) he defensively stuck to his data rather than offering ideas on how to move forward. Not only that, but Teachout IGNORES an incredibly important conclusion from the NEA survey: “most Americans who enjoy artwork and performances on the Internet do so frequently.” To quote Iyer, “the question is not one of accessibility, but one of access.” Ken Burns may have briefly opened the window of access (only to jazz before 1965, of course) but the growing online infrastructure presents an opportunity for the entire music — past and present — to get its due.

  4. Michael says:

    Hey guys–I guess I will be the only one to wholeheartedly defend ‘JAZZ!’ What if we look at the film as a sort of introductory course for folks who know nothing about jazz or know little about jazz? Suppose you were a young music buff who had lots or Rock and Roll and soul/R and B but owned no jazz or owned Kind of Blue and that was it. If you watched the documentary you saw a bunch of great musicians and heard a bunch of great music–great Jazz!! And then suppose you went to the library and borrowed and burned a copy of Birth of the Cool and Monk’s Live at the IT Club becasue you heard the music in the documentary–heard it for the first time and loved it! Well I was that guy–I owned Kind of Blue and no other jazz. Now I listen to Miguel Zenon and David Binney and am hungry for more, new tasty jazz. But, my friends, that start of jazz habit and hunger was THAT DOCUMENTARY!

    Isn’t that worth something…? Isn’t that worth a lot?

    • arodjazz says:

      Hi Michael — you are absolutely not the only person out there who has wholeheartedly defended “Jazz” — many, many people share your opinion. I managed to become a rabid jazz fan without the documentary, and I believe that, as a result, our views of the issue are much different. As I mentioned in my response to James, though, my point was not to reopen the tired debate about the film’s merits and flaws, but to gauge whether or not the recent Teachout fallout suggests a new frame for the jazz discourse. Judging by the comments so far, it appears that we may not be there yet, as my mere mention of the film as a flash-point for controversy is reigniting many of the same arguments that surfaced in 2001.

    • 58Trojan23 says:

      It was nothing but a politically motivated documentary. He and his cronies made it sound as though Armstrong was the best ever. REALLY?!? Also, he made it sound as thought the saxophone was the only instrument in jazz.

  5. Alan Kurtz says:

    Alex, your repeated disclaimers in response to the comments on this blog are disingenuous. “My point,” you write, “was not to reopen the tired debate about the film’s merits and flaws, but to gauge whether or not the recent Teachout fallout suggests a new frame for the jazz discourse.” Yet you entitle this blog: “Is Jazz Finally Over Ken Burns?” Your first 500 words discuss Ken Burns’ documentary; you don’t even mention Teachout until the tenth paragraph. Claiming in retrospect that your subject was not Burns but Teachout is silly. In any case, it’s disappointing that you, as an academic, blog on this subject while admitting that “I still haven’t seen much of the film itself.” Honestly, is that the approach they’re teaching at Rutgers these days? Are lit majors encouraged to expostulate on Tolstoy without bothering to study his work? It reminds me of Woody Allen’s classic joke: “I took a speed-reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” Alex, you criticize Ken Burns for his “shallow survey of jazz history,” yet your knowledge of Burns’ film is even shallower. Maybe you should’ve let your roommate write this particular blog.

    • arodjazz says:

      Welcome back to Lubricity, Alan! I can’t say that I’ve missed your grumpy, distracting personal attacks on my credibility or seriousness as a jazz scholar. My references to the Burns controversy are not disingenuous — even in the Internet Age, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect my readers to read all the way to the end of my post before submitting a comment. Also, I don’t profess to know the answer to the question that I pose in the title (hence the question mark;) the ensuing discussion has shed some light on the answer (leaning towards “no.”) My subject was not neither Burns nor Teachout, but jazz itself (which is, in fact, the subject of the title — “Ken Burns” is the object.)
      Your second criticism — that I am unqualified to comment on the film’s impact because I haven’t seen all of it — is also misguided. First of all, my intention was not to issue a commanding opinion-as-fact (as the film did) but to open a discussion about its impact today. I clearly delineated my opinion and point of view and have not discouraged dissenters in the comments. The open-ended conversation is much more interesting to me than whatever my opinion happens to be; in this regard, I find this post to be a success. Furthermore, my understanding of the film’s impact is more in line with Pond’s article (again, I highly encourage you to read it) which calls itself a “reception study” or “reception analysis.” This piece was intended to be a blog version of that: an unofficial “reception study” of the music’s effect eight years later. To borrow your analogy, a sociologist with a Ph.D in 19th century Russia could postulate a theory on the work’s popular reception and critical response without necessarily having to cite details from the novel.
      I’ll stop there, because I feel that your personal and provocative negativity has not served to move this conversation forward. If you have any further response, please e-mail me directly. Thank you.

  6. chriske3 says:

    Nice post Alex. You hit on the most salient points, I think, especially regarding the fact that Burns’ effort essentially preempts another similar project for who knows how long. I can only offer so much informed criticism of the doc, however, since, like you, I could stand only so much of Wynton’s unctuousness without barfing.

  7. Michael, it’s great that “Jazz” turned your ears to the music. I am sure you are but one of countless jazz listeners who came to it through the Burns series. So, the argument that the series served a good purpose is a valid one, which I can go along with. That said, would it have been any less effective if the facts were straight? If half of its history had not been ignored? Given the enormous budget and generous airtime, is there any excuse for not at least making every effort to get it right? I don’t think so. Complaints over his fluffing over so many important contributors to the music were arrogantly waved off and attributed to limited time. Could we perhaps have cut down on the train footage to make room for extraordinary artists? Of course we could, but Burns did indeed have an agenda. It was not to make the definitive documentary of America’s most important music, it was to make a film that entertained those whose knowledge of that music was as limited as his own.

    I agree that the time to delve in detail into the series’ flaws is over, but history will repeat itself if we keep quiet about it.

    If you give someone money to buy you a bottle of 1943 Mouton Rothschild and they return with a hip flask of Ripple, you have to wonder if you hadn’t given that errand to the wrong person.

  8. Elvis’ practice of shooting televisions came to make great sense to me during the initial broadcast of Ken Burns’ Jazz (KBJ).
    One evening at that time, as I was taking a break from writing a remembrance of my fellow photographer Milt Hinton, who had recently passed, all of a sudden I heard Milt’s voice, telling a story I’d heard him tell several times over the years. Lo and behold, there he was, as large as life, on public television, sounding like no one else but himself. It was a delightful if also rather surreal time-warp surprise, all too soon and all too rudely interrupted when the talking head changed from Hinton to Wynton.
    It’s hard to say which was worse about KBJ: Marsalis’ seemingly endless bloviations, or Burns’ willingness to omit anything of substance about the evolution of the music after about 1960.
    Let us hope that whoever next takes up the torch on this will be less susceptible than Burns to buying revisionist hokum in such massive quantities.

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  10. Being a musician, I am, of course, biased but the good news is that I do believe jazz can be saved. The bad news is, I doubt that it will. The art of melodic improvisation flourished when it was part of the popular music of the ’20’s through the big band era. Kids who were buying records could relate to it physically through dancing. In order to awaken the public’s atrophied ears to our beloved art form, that connection would have to be reestablished. A golden opportunity was missed during the GAP commercial inspired mini swing craze of the mid to late ’90’s. It got young people swing dancing. The craze ended because, not suprisingly, people became bored with the music even though the players wore funny hats and twirled their instruments and made every effort to be visually entertaining. Why?
    Maybe we should be a little scientific about this. Not rocket science, mind you, because we are talking about entertainment here. Back in the ’70’s, when dance clubs still hired bands (before DJs took over completely) I had an epiphany of sorts while taking a guitar solo with my “funk” band. The dance floor was full but I realized that my solo could be good, bad, or mediocre and it really would not make much of a difference to the dancers. That was because they were dancing to the symmetrical back beats on 2 and 4 of the measure. As Dick Clark’s studio audiences on American Band Stand repeatedly informed us – it is a good beat and it is easy to dance to (sic).
    I once saw a film of the Benny Goodman band where the camera was looking down on a crowded dance floor from a balcony. As Goodman built his clarinet solo to a climax, you could see the dancers jumping higher into the air. They were driven by Gene Krupa’s quarter notes on the bass drum and loud, propulsive, asymmetrical hits on the snare, but people were essentially dancing to the improvised melody. The drumming of Joe Jones with the Basie band is another example of asymmetrical back beats. Unfortunately, none of the swing acts that achieved notoriety during the ’90’s (Big, Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer et al…) picked up on this. The shuffle got old real fast. Strong back beats propel the dancers but a steady 2 and 4 disengages them from the melody.
    Forget jazz and history and zoot suits for a minute and break it down to the sonic essentials of what makes people dance and there may be a glimmer of hope for a fusion with melodic improvisation. Whether people are dancing to Rihanna or Basie, we know that they like it around 120 beats per minute. What they are dancing to is the quarter note pulse. You can easily take any contemporary dance track, strip away everything but the bass drum, and superimpose Satin Doll. The only difference is that the rhythm of the modern (unimprovised) melodic content is usually defined with straight eighths and sixteenth notes instead of swing eighths.
    At this point, you may ask – “who cares?” Well, we do, obviously and the marketing and promotional geniuses have not been able to prevent America’s only original art form from going down the tubes. Could it be that the music itself needs to be dealt with? It didn’t mean a thing without that swing because that was the feeling that connected the dancer and the melodic improvisor. New music can be created with that feeling that connects with today’s dancers but it won’t swing for long unless the crutch of the symmetrical back beat is avoided.

    • Too bad this comment’s thread (and this subject) is so old. Maybe they should have a morgue for dead topics still hanging around the Internet — that way I wouldn’t stumble upon one that appeared to have been written yesterday.

      But so indeed it seems! If I may step in with the role of Chrononaut — injecting myself into this topic almost half a decade after it was actually being discussed — maybe a few things might seem clearer. To me, at least.

      The thing is, this topic has not only died, it has started to become fossilized. Where I read tones of hope and “maybes” — okay, even a little bit of interest! now I must respond with the news that five years or so on, it’s not jazz that’s struggling — it’s music itself.

      Dare I declare that music as humankind during the last 200 years have recognized it has come to a decaying, dead, soporific, (how many synonyms shall I seek?) and ignoble end?

      There is no more “music.” If I had been able to see the future 10 years ago, I would have been appalled, devastated, crushed, disbelieving; in how not just jazz, but rock, classical, pop, — just name that tune — have deteriorated into something resembling a very badly made gumbo out of someone’s nightmare kitchen.

      The “democratization” of music by Steve Jobs and iTunes — following on the heels of Napster and its ilk, now lorded over by the venerable YouTube — has made “music” a vaguely quaint word that does not begin to describe the morass that exists today.

      How should I begin? Name me one contemporary jazz musician of any note outside his/her particular niche/musical box. Repeat that sentence “n” number of times with the words “rock,” “pop,” prog rock,” “pop,” “punk” “disco” blah blah blah and what do we find? There is no music as anyone used to define it. All we have now is the music of yesteryear.

      Tribute bands proliferate. Even a Billy Joel doesn’t exist any more — no one like Michael Jackson that we can pinion to a wall and lambaste. They’re all just . . . GONE.

      There is no more jazz that I can think of. The only names that occur to me are all older than me. Same goes for rock, pop, punk, classical . . . you name it. We are, right now, in 2013, witnessing a quiet, insidious revolution: the death of an art form that’s been around for tens of thousands of years but has only been really recognized since recording devices were invented.

      I don’t think I’m being the curmudgeonly old dude who’s lamenting the glorious past. But I AM lamenting the bleak future.

      Ken Burns’s “Jazz” is now so irrelevant it in itself should be consigned to a museum.

      Please, please, someone tell me that I’m wrong.

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  12. Just a comment as much as people have inserted ther opinions pertaining to the Ken Burns documentary, why is is it that some 12 years later after the airing of the program hasn’t anyone offered something more effective or more to the point eloquent about a genre.
    The fact is no one was even remotely talking about this before or really since. My thought is just this use it as a motivation for the exposure it did receive and build on it. Short comings aside it was a great reference and we can strive to use it as a platform rather then destroy it because its believed by others not to involve every aspect one desires or craved because what in life actually does.

  13. Margaux O'Nolan says:

    I read the following excerpt in a piece by a guy named Patrick Walsh in scene4 magazine online and I think it’s spot-on:

    Technology plays a large part in musical transformations, the great sea changes of aesthetics, style, and approach. Before recorded music, genres lasted centuries. Baroque slowly gave way to Classical, Classical to Romanticism. Similarly, American musics moved at the pace of horse-drawn wagons and sail boats. In its infancy, Jazz was a curious marriage of Blues and Ragtime. Then transportation sped up and was democratized: Chicago was no longer a world away from New Orleans; New York was just a train ride from Kansas City. And along with fast trains and cheap tickets came the phonograph. And then the radio.

    Dramatic changes occurred in mere decades: Ragtime, Swing, Be-Bop. As in any art, any genre, innovation is the alpha and omega of the form. The rapid mingling of styles and influences that quick travel and recording/broadcast technology enabled led to rapid changes in Jazz. By their very nature, every innovative genius exhausts his or her artistic vein. Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis–each one blazed a trail . . . and then blew the bridges behind them. If you play or sing like Armstrong or Holiday or Coltrane today, you’re very talented–very talented at imitation.

    The end of Rock can be seen in the case of Jazz, Rock’s elder cousin. Today, Jazz accounts for 3% of all “record” sales. Jazz is dead too.

    He’s right. And I dearly, dearly love jazz but it’s run its creative course. Sure, it’s great fun to listen to and to play, but there’s no more innovating to be done in it. It’s like Classical or Baroque music. We enjoy the tradition and we preserve it with care, but no one is composing Baroque or Classical pieces.

    Margaux O’Nolan

    • arodjazz says:

      I don’t even know where to start with your quote there from Patrick Walsh . . . I mean, everyone’s entitled to their opinion but there is so much oversimplification there that it makes me hesitant to draw any conclusions from it. And certainly the things I’ve been listening to recently (in the queue right now is a great CD by Josh Nelson, “Exploring Mars”, for example) suggest that the musicians making jazz today have not run their creative course!

      So I encourage you to seek out some of the music that’s happening these days and see if it doesn’t change your mind . . .

  14. charles says:

    The Marsalis brothers destroyed that program. There was too much of their opinions. If the people have died bring in quotes and actors who have a texture in their speech. Compared to docu about the Civil War there is no comparison, film filled with readings and texture The use of local black voices does not mean they can’t sound like Armstrong in one of his movies.

  15. I find this blog fascinating because it helped me understand the emptiness that I feel when I review VHS copies of various episodes in the Ken Burns Documentary. (The fact that I am watching it on VHS seems to harmonize somehow with the perceived obsolescence of the Ken Burns Documentary, since most people consider VHS to be obsolete in 2015.) I wasn’t as frustrated as some by the contributions of Wynton Marsalis to the film, because I saw him as merely presenting his spin on events, seen through young idealistic eyes. Nevertheless, I was frustrated by the film’s implication that jazz music ended in the 1960’s and therefore I felt that the real story was that Ken Burns must have run out of money and tried hard to wrap things up on a shoestring. Nevertheless, as a jazz musician I feel that the series is somehow still detrimental to a proper understanding of how jazz grew and evolved due to its Neo-Classical ideology. As others have said, the Ken Burns film glorifies recreative musicians over creative ones, and perpetuates the false stereotype that to play real jazz, one has to be steeped in Ellington and Armstrong, and even play like them today. A more accurate understanding would probably grant Charlie Parker and Coltrane equal status and equal time as musical revolutionaries. And Coltrane opened so many doors during his lifetime that those doors remain open today for many jazz musicians. But the fact that Coltrane is only briefly mentioned in the Ken Burns film may be due to the fact that as Jazz becomes world music and becomes owned by non-Americans, it no longer fits the political objectives of the film. If so, a better treatment would hopefully show how Jazz is no longer strictly an American phenomenon, despite its origin in the United States.

  16. Marc says:

    Coming to this topic really late. PBS is re-running JAZZ right now. I just started searching for reaction to it. I’d heard the negative responses to it before.

    I watched JAZZ when it first aired. I wasn’t a big jazz person. I’d listened to a few CDs from the library. I caught the first episode & was hooked. I remember going out & buying a some Miles Davis CDs & reading various books. Over the years I’ve tried to sample a wide range of music & always like to try new artists.I have definite favorites in the Jazz genre. (Ellington, Davis, Armstrong, Evans, Desmond, JJ Johnson, Goodman, Parker, Faddis among others.) My library has a respectable collection so I’ve had a chance to try a bit of everything. The Burns documentary exposed me to music I’d otherwise never hear. No it didn’t make me a Cecil Taylor fan & I’m not an expert on more recent artists but I like to try people from all eras. I’m grateful I watched Jazz years ago.

    I get the complaints that Burns focused too much on the earlier works & not enough on recent music. Most documentaries do that. I’m an old movie fan & in every documentary I’ve watched the most interesting part is the early years. There may be groundbreaking work being done but the pioneering period always is the most exciting. That shouldn’t be seen as a slight on recent periods. Everything is more exciting near the beginning. Burns could have done an hour devoted to where the music is currently. That probably would have made people a bit happier. He focused on when jazz was most a part of everyday lives. There’s great work being done today but the audience is more smaller & more fragmented. Watch a documentary on the history of television & look at how much time is devoted to the early years.

    Ken Burns JAZZ isn’t perfect but it exposed people to the music & I’m sure most when ahead & researched further on their own.

  17. Sharon Howell says:

    Hi Alex, really enjoyed your article-in July of 2016! Although I completely understand and somewhat agree with your worries about KB’s Jazz it also bought people with a glancing knowledge of jazz but with an active working brain to blogs like yours and dissenting viewpoints. Thanks again for the education.

  18. Steve Veasey says:

    The old comment above that basically suggests that jazz needs to reconnect with people who like to dance is pretty much spot on. If the wailing and gnashing of teeth is about ‘why don’t more people like modern jazz’ rather than just dissing Burn’s documentary jazz musicians should look at themselves for the answer. When Swing music was the most popular musical form in America it was because non musicians could appreciate the rhythmic pulse and even (gasp!) the tunes,

    Once the musicans decided that technique and theoretical innovation was all that mattered, then it became music that only (pseudo?) intellectuals and other musicians could appreciate. There is a huge giveaway regarding this attitude in Burns’ documentary in the section on Sonny Rollins where some critic explains he was watching him play in a club on the Sunday night before Easter Monday ‘and literally fifteen seconds before midnight, in the middle of an intense solo he took time out to quote a few bars from ‘Easter Bonnet’ before returning seamlessly to his main theme. This cracked the piano player up completely’. Now the point is that 90% of the audience watching have no idea what the song ‘Easter Bonnet’ is yet the critic assumes that everybody gets his little inside musical joke, just like the piano player….Talk about elitism!

  19. Pingback: » Ken Burns: Student of History—or Left-Wing Gasbag?

  20. Pingback: Ken Burns: Liberal Propaganda Machine Entrenched In The Indoctrination Of Our Youth! |

  21. Simon F. says:

    My 30 year old teacher recommended this Ken Burns’ JAZZ documentary in 2018 (!!) to get to know the history and sounds of jazz. It wholeheartedly succeeded. But as a 21 year old aspiring jazz guitarist, I was really frustrated with the fact that the series stopped around 1961-1965 and ommited great guitarists like Wes Montgomary, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny (being guitar-biased ofcourse), while only briefly mentioning Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, both being ground-breaking innovators in the early years of jazz and in the European scene (Django). For me, the jazz I want to play started around 1960/1970 and is still going, but in order to innovate, you need to learn the history. Therefore, I liked the Ken Burns documentary. And it brought me to this interesting discussion, searching the internet for reviews of this series in 2019, almost two decades after the first release 🙂 very interesting post! Thanks Alex


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