Ken Burns, Scrimshaw Fetishist

02.04.2001 | TELEVISION

As the last chapter of Ken Burns's "Jazz" wound down into its overwrought conclusion on PBS, I prayed to the heavens for a revolver so I could do an Elvis on my TV. My destructive wishes were not inspired by Wynton Marsalis's eight billionth extended metaphor (Play "Marsalis: The Home Game", kids! It's kinda like Mad Libs; insert adjective and noun--"You see, jazz is like a happy clown..."). Instead, it was the episode's condescension towards avant-garde and fusion, which it disowned faster than bastard red-headed offspring.

Advance word on the series's tone had led me to believe that this would be the case, but I was still not prepared for the one-two punch of hostility towards and glossing over of anything that wasn't strictly traditionalist jazz. Among those sorely underrepresented or ignored completely were Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Weather Report, Keith Jarret, and Max Roach. Charles Mingus, whose compositional breadth and depth was rivaled by none, received approximately three minutes by my count. When it was reported that the Art Ensemble of Chicago once played to only three people in its home town, there seemed to be a shameful amount of glee in the narrator's voice.

Burns's main beef with the experiments of the 60s and beyond is that they were not commercial, and did not appreciably expand jazz's listener base. If the selling of records is the only mark of success in jazz, then let us all prostrate ourselves before the venal throne of Kenny G. Was jazz to fiddle idly over "Salt Peanuts" while Watts burned? Particularly unsettling is the vague feeling you get that Burns seems surprised by the 1960s in general, and specifically, what all those black people were so angry about back then.

Most annoying of all, however, was the documentary's repetition of an old canard about Miles Davis. It is assumed in certain musical circles that the only reason Davis ever decided to go electric was so he could play places like the Fillmore and sell more records, and "Jazz" placed itself squarely in this camp. This theory not only betrays a complete ignorance of the electric music Miles Davis made, but also a complete ignorance of Davis as a personality.

First, let us define selling out: compromising artistic integrity for the sake of financial gain. I can only assume that artistic integrity, by Burns's standards, means playing "So What" for the rest of your life. If Davis was trying to sell out when he went electric (picking up on shades of Dylan-style purism here?), he sure as hell didn't try very hard. The music Davis produced in this period is about as commercial as firewood in July. It is dense, thick, swirling sheets of sonic miasma that ask a lot of your ears' stamina. If you want to sell out, you do not make albums like "On The Corner" or "Live-Evil," which are no crowd-pleasing toe tappers.

Let's just clear the record folks: Miles Davis went electric because he wanted to; because he thought there were things he could learn musically from Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and others. The mere thought that anyone but Miles Davis could tell Miles Davis what to do is ridiculous, a point he made abundantly clear during his lifetime. Since Burns did not see fit to interview anyone involved with Davis during the late 60s/early 70s, the casual viewer would have to assume that he was mishandled by cigar-chomping record execs bleating, "See if you can throw some more acid rock in there, Miles! That'll play in Peoria!"

Homer Simpson said that rock achieved scientific perfection in 1976. Burns obviously believes that the same thing happened to jazz in 1959, and any attempts at expanding on this vocabulary beyond bebop were silly and misguided. Had Burns cared to notice, he could have pointed out the similarities between hip-hop and electronic music and the kind of music Davis and others pioneered. Rap has much more in common with "Get Up With It" than "Round About Midnight". The whole rave/techno/house/drum n' bass/whatever scene, consciously or subconsciously, comes from these roots as well.

If Burns really wanted jazz to appeal to a new generation of fans, he might have tried to make these connections more apparent. He didn't. He barely acknowledged this era of musical experimentation ever occurred, let alone attempted to show any parallels that exist today. As a result, Ken Burns has relegated jazz to the status of scrimshaw: A once treasured and widely practiced art, fallen into disuse, barely mentioned in modern times, now displayed under museum glass, unable to touch or be touched.

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