TV Series: Ken Burn’s Jazz (2001) – Beautiful documentary but based on flawed premises

hm_jazz_headI have been reading a LOT about jazz lately (see my articles on Monk, Miles, Giddens, etc). Through this reading, I bumped into the existence of the world’s record holding for sheer length (19+ hours) documentary by Ken Burns that aired on PBS back in 2001. It is a comprehensive look at jazz up to about 1961. The footage is classic Ken Burns with loads of black&white photos and videos of New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and especially New York and Harlem. There are officially 10 episodes (the British export has two additional episodes) each of approximately 2h (the one dedicated to Louis Armstrong was just 1h) and it requires a significant investment on the viewer’s part to get through all this footage. The commentary is interesting and interspersed with interviews of critics, musicians, impresarios, and others that either lived in this world or wrote about it. It spends about 6h getting to the 30s and then 6h just swing before spending just 2h on bop and 2h on post bop and then the last 2h on all jazz from 1961 to 2001. While it was deep and moving in addressing the topics of racism (albeit repetitive because unless I am mistaken, they twice show Miles getting beaten up in Manhattan), they clearly took a position from a storytelling point of view that “real jazz” ended with Coltrane’s death and just before Miles’ electric period. This is also borne out by a few other facts: the primary interviewees are Wynton Marsalis (a purist and historically in conflict with Miles) and Stanley Crouch (a jazz critic known for being very iconoclast (see the video commentary here). Some greats such as the late Jackie McLean are interviewed but jazz gods like Herbie Hancock are missing (as is his fusion of jazz and pop in the 70s and 80s), Pat Metheny (and his amazing collaborations with the late Charlie Haden among others), Jaco Pastorius/Joe Zawinaul and their huge contributions via Weather Report. There just seems to be SO much more that this documentary could have covered but refused to and this frustrated me quite a bit.

As a huge fan of jazz, this is a unique and incredibly valuable document for our native American music form up to the 50s but I feel its editorial biases corrupt the message in the last 3 episodes to the point of being distracting to those of us who do not believe jazz died after In a Silent Way. Has anyone else out there watched all of these documentaries?

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About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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