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Ken Burns

The massive success of the PBS miniseries The Civil War and Baseball not only established Ken Burns as the premier documentary director of his time, but also made him a household name, which is almost unprecedented for a non-fiction filmmaker. This may account for some of the controversy surrounding Burns' recent Jazz. His most ambitious project to date provided an irresistible target, and dozens of prominent jazz enthusiasts and critics took aim at his admittedly subjective take on the music's rich history. Taken as a whole, Jazz is an engrossing and largely successful series that not only follows the birth and development of a musical form, but also uses that development to track the history of race relations in America. But some critiques of the series--specifically, its tendency to stress certain key figures at the expense or outright exclusion of others--are at least partially justified. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Burns about the marketing of the series and the mixed and frequently contentious response it received.

The Onion: Why 19 hours?

Ken Burns: It's actually 17 and a half. Someone asked me about "the 20 hours of Jazz" the other day. Frankly, we never stopped to count. It's not enough, in some ways. If you read some of the jazzerati, we've supposedly "forgotten" their people. We didn't forget them. It's an epic story. It's as important as the Civil War, in some ways, and baseball. We found that what's caught up in jazz's wake is not just the remarkable music and the amazing human beings who made it, but the whole story of America in the 20th century, from race to World Wars to the Depression to sex to drug abuse. Even little things about the way we dress, the cars we drive, and what Times Square looked like. So it's a kind of epic opportunity to explore American character through the only art form that we've invented.

O: That, and the blues.

KB: Well, you know what? We distinguish in the film, and to ourselves, between "the blues" the form, and "the blues" the musical idiom. Blues, the form, is the underground aquifer that's fed all the streams of American music, including jazz. Including country, for crying out loud. There's blues music, which is itself a kind of folk, pop, commercial music, but only one of the forms that the blues helped to sponsor has turned into an art form known around the world, and that's jazz. And [that's] why it offers such an intensely interesting way into all the questions we have about who we are.

O: I think that take might account for some of the criticism you've received. To be honest, I think some of it is fair, because your story starts to slow down around the '60s...

KB: Actually, around 1975. We did that quite consciously, because we're engaged in history, and history is about stories that are over. And, of course, the last 25 years are a story that's ongoing. From the very beginning, in all of my films that have a manifestation to the present, we sort of put on the brakes, thin out the narrative and our narrative control, and, in the case of Jazz, just celebrate all the diversity that's going on. But it's quite conscious. Whenever I speak to the jazzerati, the jazz Nazis who want this to be an encyclopedia—and of course it can't be—I just ask them quite simply, who among the current players is as important as Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane? And there's dead silence. You won't know that unless we get another 25 years and look back, and I promise I'll come back to Jazz and we can open it all up again. But we have a music that used to be 70 percent of the music in our country, and it's now down to 1.9 percent. And a lot of that is because most Americans feel, and have told me on the road, that they feel they need an advanced degree or some esoteric knowledge to understand jazz. And of course they don't at all. Armstrong himself said, "There ain't but two kinds of music in this world, good music and bad music, and good music is what you tap your foot to." I made a film that celebrates the past of the history of jazz, but it's not suggesting this music is over. In fact, history is all about the present asking questions of the past, so that we have a sense of where we are now and where we might be going. I mean, I see history as a kind of medicine, and I'm seeing, as books are flying out of the stores and music is dominating the Billboard jazz chart, that there's a huge untapped curiosity about jazz that the series is going to help. And all the resistance that people have felt over the years, in no small measure due to the jazzerati, who want to keep it close to the vest and assume that anything popular is bad, is being to wear thin and break down. And that can only beget good for jazz, as well as the blues, its sister, and other forms of "legitimate" American music.

O: I think a lot of critics are overlooking the service Jazz does for the music.

KB: Well, that's it. Quite frankly, I left more generals and battles out of The Civil War, or baseball games and baseball heroes out of Baseball, than I did people in Jazz. It's funny, because two years after The Civil War, the Civil War nuts sort of rose up and said, "Oh, you forgot the Battle of Wilson's Creek, and this person." Two weeks after the Baseball series came out, you had every sports pundit's nit-pick—that's ESPN, if you catch the initials—going over what got left out or forgotten. Two years ago, before I was even done, two years before I finished Jazz, I was fielding these angry, furious, vitriolic e-mails, saying, "I can't believe you forgot Dizzy Gillespie!" We've got 10 sections on Dizzy Gillespie, what are you talking about? And now there's a feeling, I think among those in the jazz community that didn't get interviewed and can't be this year's [Civil War historian] Shelby Foote, that we left stuff out. But frankly, we didn't want to have an encyclopedia, or a reading of the telephone book. We wanted to have a broad, sweeping narrative that tells several stories well rather than try to tell lots of stories not well. So, at the end of the series, you're going to know 30 or 40 people pretty intimately, and hear about another 150 people, but those jazzerati who know 1,000 people are going to go, "Aha! Gotcha!"

O: One of the major criticisms levied against Jazz says that you center too much on jazz's popular ascent in the early part of the 20th century. But we do live in a time when some people don't know that The Beatles was once a popular act, let alone Louis Armstrong. What accounts for the decline in jazz's popularity that you cited?

KB: There's a combination of factors. An art form doesn't need to be popular in order to be vital and interesting. One need only jump over into the area of painting to understand that, at almost exactly the time bebop came in, abstract expressionism came into painting, and the audience fell away. Harry Truman called it "scrambled eggs," you know? Nobody could get it, yet it left a devout, loyal following of people. And so did bebop. After the swing era began to die down, the swing bands like Louis Jordan took the simplest, most crowd-pleasing aspect of that music and invented R&B. Later on, soul grew out of jazz singing with Ray Charles, and rock 'n' roll grew up. Jazz really became focused as an art music in an interesting way, morphing into all these different categories and tributaries, like hard bop and cool and modal and free and avant-garde and fusion, all of which we deal with in the series—and, I think, deal with quite eloquently and quite fairly. Nonetheless, it was not as popular as the swing music had been, and the earlier New Orleans sound had been.

O: It's tough to pinpoint when the change occurred, especially when things were happening so fast in the '50s and '60s. It was probably with figures like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus, who often turned their backs on their audiences, that marked the decline of jazz as a popular form. But it's impossible to know if that's because the attention span of the music-buying public moved on to, say, rock 'n' roll, or if the music actually turned them off.

KB: I think it's a combination of all of those things, and I think that's a really good way of putting it. As jazz itself became more experimental and more introspective, a lot of people who had related to jazz because, like all young people, they wanted some excuse to show their behind, to get up and dance and move, a very sexual kind of expression, they gravitated to something else. And then, of course, the attendant battles that grew up among the jazz musicians and critics about each one of those forms helped, like the comic-book character Pigpen in Peanuts, to obscure and create this cloud of dust around jazz that made everybody think, "Oh, I can't get with it, I need some sort of esoteric knowledge, and I just don't have it, so I'm just going to keep listening to my pop music in whatever form it is." But I think we know that at the heart of all pop music is the granddaddy of all forms, the legitimate art form: jazz. What I tried to do in this film is break through that and engage the best people in the jazz community. The best of the jazzerati, if you will; I hope that's not a contradiction in terms. And then direct the film over their heads to a broad national audience that is essentially ignorant of it, but, I think, curious. Everywhere I go, I wish you had been around, we had standing ovations in every city. San Diego, L.A., Washington, Miami, New York, Seattle...

O: What were you showing them?

KB: We were showing a variety of clips, different things every single time. Samplings from every episode, or, depending on the time, two or three episodes, whatever it takes. And then talking to them about the sort of things you and I are talking about. And they're so excited! I'm hoping that these folks that purport to love jazz more than anybody, who are self-proclaimed custodians of it, will realize that [Jazz] wasn't intended to be an encyclopedia, but to help bring back the form. I'm just fearful that they are of that ilk, that anything popular can't be good. And there's no small amount of jealousy. I won't name names, but there have been a couple of critics who we went and saw a few years ago, just to see if we would interview them. And we made certain decisions not to, based on how they came across or how they talked or whatever, in favor of others. Two of them have already written scathing things about the series, not recognizing the fact that some of the major newspaper outlets in the country have called this one of the greatest documentaries ever. The New York Post said it is the greatest American documentary ever made, period. Yow.

O: What rankles some people is that you'll have someone like Wynton Marsalis used throughout, and to some he epitomizes the reactionary, conservative, traditionalist view, yet you don't talk to a living legend like Ornette Coleman.

KB: Well, we actually tried to and couldn't. I don't want to go too much into it, because... Ornette sometimes seems to come from another part of the universe. That's his great gift. I'm not sure he would have sold his case very well. The people that Wynton strikes as reactionary are a very small part of the population, and if you look at the way Wynton is used, he's celebrating jazz, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, Gary Giddins, who is no friend of Wynton Marsalis—there's no love lost there—is on more than Wynton in this film. And there are people like Gene Lees, and Dick Sudhalter, and James Lincoln Collier. They are all people that I couldn't convene in one room without a fistfight breaking out. That's good, because Wynton's first bite is, "Jazz is where you negotiate your agendas." So the more people told me not to put Wynton in because he's a bad person, the more I went, "Hmm, so why is he so passionate? Why did he make the Count Basie band come alive as a one-man band? How come he's so poignant about race? How come he does this so well if he's so bad?" And then Gary would come on and help to explain something in a good way, and there would be another faction of people saying, "I can't believe you used Gary Giddins. You know who you should have interviewed? Me." [Laughs.] And I go, hmm. I once was bitching about this to a reporter and he said, "Oh, yeah, the ol' Trotskyites." Like there's a Politburo of jazz, and you've got to subscribe to what they say. I guess that's being unfair to Trotsky, isn't it? It's more the Stalinist brigade: If you don't fit into their orthodoxy, then you must be evil. But no one can deny Wynton doing the entire Count Basie orchestra. It's worth the entire price of admission. He's Sweets Edison. He's Walter Page. He's Joe Jones. He's Lester Young. He's the Count himself. It is hilarious, and anybody who thinks this is evidence of some reactionary cabal, along with Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, you just have to laugh and say, "Get a life."

O: Is it true that you had only a couple of jazz LPs before you started this project?

KB: You know, that's snowballed into this thing. My father played jazz when I was growing up, all the time. I worked in a record store in Ann Arbor from 1968 to 1971, and I ran the record store for part of 1971 before I went off to college. I knew all that stuff, but I was a kid, child of rock 'n' roll and R&B. So I finally went back, because people kept saying that I only had two jazz records, and I found six or seven of the most bizarre and eclectic things, from A Love Supreme to Getz/Gilberto bossa nova to Shelly Manne and Andre Previn doing My Fair Lady to Glenn Miller. I don't know what it was I inherited from my dad, and now I can't find the rest of my collection. But I didn't know anything about the Civil War going in, anyway. [Laughs.] It's not about telling people what I know. It's about sharing with them the process of discovery, and if the response to the film is any indication, it's pretty exciting what's happening.

O: How did you go about assembling the tie-in compilations? Some would call a single-disc distillation of jazz to be somewhat audacious, if not perverse.

KB: This is what I thought. I got two of the four largest record companies in the world to do something they have never, ever done. I got Universal, which owns the Verve music group, and I got Sony, which owns Columbia and the Legacy reissue group, and I said, "Listen, you guys are cutthroat competitors, but just forget about it, because when I go to the store and look for the 'best of,' it never is." It's only one label, and usually one period in the life of that artist. They said okay, and for the last two years, we decided to put together a single overview CD, which is 20 tunes I picked, which would sell in Target and Wal-Mart, for crying out loud, to someone who says, "I have no interest in jazz." I wanted it to be swinging, hot, moving, and just do it. I selected them myself, and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do artistically in my life. And then I wrote the liner notes. It's like putting your toe in the water of jazz. I was going to make it two records, but then I said, "It's got to be one." I got stuck at about 104 minutes, and I still had to cut about 25 minutes. So I got it down. It really swings. And then we did a five-CD set, which is a really accurate distillation of the 498 tunes that are in the film—I think 94 are in the five-CD set. And it's really artfully put together. And then, perhaps best of all, these 22 budget-priced best-ofs, that are about the best you can get. I had this record executive call me up the other day and say, "You son of a bitch, I'm sitting here holding your Ellington, and I had to go out and get seven albums to equal the stuff that you've got on this one. Congratulations, goodbye, I hate you." It was great. He's a friend of mine from another label that we didn't use.

O: Some could argue that some of the so-called stranger jazz, be it by Davis or Coleman, or Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, is what keeps jazz interesting for younger listeners, but there's not as much coverage of that material.

KB: There's not as much because their stories, particularly some of the people you mentioned, are still unfolding. So it's really not our promise to have a be-all and end-all on Cecil Taylor, who we think we've got a terrific section on.

O: You did a really good job attaching the story of jazz to a social framework.

KB: That's the more important thing. I actually have bigger fish to fry than jazz, in some ways. All of the films I've done have really tried to use the subject as a way in to who we are. So jazz is about World War, and Depression, and sex and drugs and race and cities. Even little tiny things, like how we dress and how we drive, and the roads we drive on. I had a reporter, a while ago, come up to me and say, "I love this film. I thought all black people in the '20s and '30s wore overalls, and now I know they not only wore overalls, but had chauffeur-driven limousines and tuxedos and fur coats. Thank you very much." And that alone is worth doing a film: if you can change a perspective on race, altering this horrible fault line that we created for ourselves when the man who wrote our creed, proclaiming all men were created equal, owned 200 other human beings and never saw fit in his lifetime to free them. It's wonderfully, poetically just, that the only art form Americans have created was born in the main part in a community that had a historical memory of being unfree in a free land. That's terrific. That's kind of stop-the-presses irony.

O: Some people might claim that your project is too obvious, or doesn't dig deep enough, but you can never overestimate how much people know about it. It might be America's music, but how many Americans know that?

KB: You have to bring them to the subject. And we never said this was the end-all and be-all. My goodness, in the 10 years since The Civil War has been out, there have been so many other films and other series and other books and other things that have traded on the introduction that that series gave to people. Same with Baseball. There have been lots of very successful films on Hank Greenberg and Henry Aaron that have basically been born in the enthusiasm a serious look at the history of baseball created six years ago. So I hope that the jazzerati will stop whimpering and start encouraging the productions. Let's do the things on the people who need more attention. This is not the final word. This is like, in some ways, the first word.