FIRESIDE CHAT WITH KEN BURNS
hate the word "controversy." It is a word that the media seems to relish,
but that is because writers are lazy and it is easy to label something
as "controversial." But where would we be without "controversy?" Would
a "controversial" Chris Columbus have set sail around a world that was
thought of to be flat? Would a "controversial" Charlie Parker and company
advance jazz with the invention of bebop? Now having said that - some
facts; first, Ken Burns is not a good filmmaker. He is a great filmmaker.
Second, with jazz music limited to selling less than one percent of all
retail music sales, jazz needs all the help it can get. Since making the
award winning The Civil War and Baseball, Burns has bookended the trilogy
with his latest documentary, Jazz, in what he deems as the three things
uniquely American. Burns sat down with the Roadshow after years of researching,
editing, filming, interviewing, and scouring though countless hours of
footage. Jazz, a ten part series to be broadcast on PBS during the month
of January in the new year, is sure to spark a firestorm of "controversy."
So what? Jazz needs a good kick in the ass anyway. I am truly honored
to present unto you a wonderful American filmmaker, Ken Burns, unedited
and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Do you have children?
KEN BURNS: I do indeed. I have an eighteen-year-old daughter and a fourteen-year-old
FJ: How do you explain to them why you chose to feature Jazz to bookend
your American trilogy?
KEN BURNS: Well, I have made all my films for my children with the exception
of my first film because my oldest daughter wasn't born when I was making
the film about the Brooklyn Bridge. It is all a variation on an American
story, about who we are. And I think at the end of the day, I have made
a film about jazz that tries to look through jazz to see what it tells
us about who we are as a people. I think that jazz is a spectacularly
accurate model of democracy and a kind of look into our redemptive future
FJ: How long did it take to complete Jazz?
KEN BURNS: More than six years, Fred.
FJ: In the six years of researching this music, gather footage, filming,
and countless hours of editing, what have you learned about America and
the art form that is inherent to this land?
KEN BURNS: I think it is safe to say, Fred, that jazz is a very accurate,
curiously accurate accompaniment to twentieth century America. So the
film I've made is not just about the music, but about World Wars and the
devastating Depression and the soundtrack that got America through. It's
about sex, the way men and women talk to each other. It's about drugs
and the terrible cost of addiction. It's about civil rights. It's about
the growth and decay of cities. It's about spectacular genius and really
protean figures, who if they were on a political level, would rank with
everyone on Mount Rushmore. So I think that in almost every moment, between
every line, in the interval of every note, is information about the country
because jazz is so wonderfully reflective. In much the same way, I felt
that the Civil War and Baseball were that permits me to band these three
sort of epic series as a trilogy of American life. I think it happens
in so many hundreds of millions of ways, Fred, like a layer on a pearl,
you can't specifically identify the irritant, the moment of the irritant,
but at the end of the day, you know you have a pearl.
FJ: I have viewed both your films on the Civil War and baseball, and when
I got wind that you were embarking on a film about jazz, I could not think
of a more thorough filmmaker that this country could entrust with capturing
this music. With all the credentials and fanfare that the name Ken Burns
brings, there is a level of expectation as well. Was that a concern for
KEN BURNS: No, because I think my expectations for myself are much more
severe and much more direct. You can't work on a film for six years without
being your own toughest critic. So you can't really be distracted by the
expectations based on your previous performance. Having said that, Fred,
I am as proud, if not prouder of this film than anything I have every
done. I think it represents, for me, a quantum leap in my abilities as
a filmmaker. For example, I had to take what is normally background, soundtrack,
and make it foreground and make it middle ground and make it background
and make it, at times, hyper-ground as individual tunes are dissected
and parsed and autopsies performed on them. That was thrilling. I had
to think about ways to speak about my country while dealing with musicians
who were doing songs that weren't specifically, or tunes specifically
about events. I had to make connections and forge connections with a lot
of disparate information. I've never had a more difficult and I've never
had a more satisfying six years of work.
FJ: I am first and foremost a fan and as a fan I am quite grateful for
the light that your work will cast on this music, which has disappeared
from American culture altogether.
KEN BURNS: It has, Fred. The flame is not out, but it is flickering.
FJ: There have been many criticisms of your film already.
KEN BURNS: Oh, yeah, please, I want to address it. I'm not at all frightened
of it. I know and anticipate what it is and you don't work on something
for six years and be blind to the myriad of other approaches. Fire away,
FJ: Jazz is a ten episode series that will air in January on PBS. The
first nine episodes are devoted to the first half life of jazz, why devote
such space and time to the first half life of this music?
KEN BURNS: Well, first of all, I am dealing with the history. It would
be really fair to say, if you look at the whole film and all the ten episodes,
that if you go through all nine, I mean the first episode is actually
a hundred years long. You get to the point where jazz is formed and the
tenth episode is very much marching in the same deliberate way, up until
about 1974 and then it really cuts loose and there is one very simple
reason. This is a history and the stories from 1975 on are not finished
and there is no resolve. I could spend fifty hours on the last twenty-five
years of jazz and still not do it justice, so what I would rather do is
to create an impressionistic pallet for those last hours of the film that
details the myriad, we've honored all the myriad of ways to go, but to
be encyclopedic and to be a phone book is to destroy the very thing I
am trying to exult. I do not know, nor would I suggest do you know, who
playing today is of equal stature to Armstrong, to Ellington, Parker,
Davis, or Coltrane. We will not know whether those individuals exist until
we are thirty of forty years out. Their stories are still on going. Their
narratives are still unfolding. So early on, within a week or two of beginning
this series, I knew that we would only, as I did in the Baseball series,
basically stop the narrative about 1970. You need as a historian, essential
triangulation from your subject and the only way you get that triangulation
is through time.
FJ: In documenting this music, how did you go about choosing which musicians
would be featured and which musicians would be left on the editing room
floor? What gives Thelonious Monk more space than Herbie Nichols, Erroll
Garner, or Sun Ra?
KEN BURNS: Well, I think it has to do, very, very carefully is the first
and not glib answer to your question, Fred, we worked with more than two
dozen scholars and people knowledgeable in jazz from every point of view
so we weren't influenced by the tyranny of any one particular viewpoint.
As we went through, we were trying to tell stories about the people who
are the seminal giants of jazz for their contributions. It seemed almost
unanimous that after Ellington, as the greatest composer, not only in
jazz, but in American history, Thelonious Monk deserved our careful attention
because he was so interesting and his compositions were so brilliant and
because his own quirky idiosyncrasies made it impossible for him to enjoy
the kind of celebrity and popularity that, let's say, an Ellington did.
You bring up Erroll Garner. Did you ever see the movie, Amadeus?
FJ: I have.
KEN BURNS: Remember the wonderful phrase "too many notes?" Well, that
means that at the end of the day when you are editing, the final master
is Aristotle and his poetics. You might have a terrific episode, but if
people are falling out because there are just too many elements in it,
you have to begin to get rid of things. When a documentary filmmaker,
working in the style that I do, suggests that there has been a shooting
ratio of forty hours to every one hour of finished film. That doesn't
mean that the other thirty-nine are bad. In fact, we had a spectacularly
wonderful section on Erroll Garner. That in the course of its position
and placement, I spent months trying to save because I think that Erroll
Garner is on the level of someone like Thelonious Monk, but because he
has given me so much pleasure in my life. But like scenes in The Civil
War and like scenes in Baseball, I finally had to agree that that had
to go out in favor of scenes that were of more narrative importance and
I think at the end of the day, more important in jazz heritage. Erroll
Garner is immensely popular and terrific, but I don't see him as much
of a groundbreaker as Ellington or Thelonious Monk. I'm not dissing. We
did not make the final, the comprehensive Jazz. Nobody said it was the
definitive anywhere in our film and in the claims about it. We are merely
trying to tell a narrative, to tell a lot of interesting stories, and
tell enough of them well that it will draw this audience, which has moved
away from jazz, back to jazz. I found it, even for my own thing, that
even in areas of music that I wasn't initially too attracted to, I would
find that by being attracted to the stories, the music got into my heart
and that is a very important thing for the jazz community to try to realize.
There are too kinds of people that approach a non-fiction book. Those
people who pick it up and read it and sort of surrender themselves to
the author's narrative and then there are others who go immediately to
the index and look up themselves or their friends or the people they think
should be there and if they are not, they sort of write it off. There
could be nothing worse than the jazz community to sort of harrumph thinking
that this should be an encyclopedia. If this was an encyclopedia, it would
be seen by a few hundred people. If it was a narrative in the scope of
The Civil War and Baseball, which I think it is, it has the possibility
to be seen by tens of millions of people and that can only be good for
jazz because those people will not be left our for long. After The Civil
War series, there were only a handful of bookstores in America that had
Civil War sections. Now, there are only a handful that don't. That means
that people know what was left out and could go see. I suffer for what
is left out, but I have made the very best film I could.
FJ: How much of an importance was placed on free and avant-garde coined
variations of this music?
KEN BURNS: I think we placed a tremendous importance on the film, particularly
in the ninth and tenth episodes. If you think about it, Fred, bebop is
avant-garde to those people playing swing. So we were constantly dealing
with avant-garde throughout the film. Let us also remember that the earliest
of jazz was also avant-garde in relation to everything that had gone before
it. So we are dealing with a form that in itself is avant-garde. And we
know that there is a great deal of controversy attending to it and we
were particularly happy to engage that. Some of my most favorite sequences,
by the way, are on Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Miles Davis, after
initially moving away from avant-garde, but reproving it and criticizing
it, embraced it so wholeheartedly. Cecil Taylor is incredibly important
and also to acknowledge that there is a great deal of argument about it.
I think we've done a good job of it and as I say, I think it is the stories
of Cecil Taylor and the narrative aspects, the biographical aspects, the
story aspect of Coleman and Cecil Taylor, for example, in our film that
I think are like Trojan horses. You might have approached them going,
"Ugh," but by the end of it, you understand where they are coming from
and the music still swings.
FJ: Both Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are in great health and still
creating and advancing the music, why did you not get the stories from
the horse's mouth and interview them?
KEN BURNS: Well, it is not for lack of trying, Fred. We were rebuffed
a few times and I then realized as I have throughout my career and I have
been making these historical documentary films for more than twenty-five
years, that sometimes having an interview by somebody else is better.
I couldn't get Charlie Parker either by the way. Louis Armstrong and Duke
Ellington, I would have loved to have. But I did talk to Jackie McLean
and Stan Levey, who make Charlie Parker come alive in unbelievable ways,
as does Jon Hendricks and other people who knew him. So too are our Ornette
Coleman section, I think is even more helpful to Ornette, given the fact
that it is narrated by Charlie Haden, who actually used to play on the
stage of the Grand Ole Opry. That gets your attention and then lets you
in and it makes Ornette that much more accessible for the little old lady
in Dubuque who needs to be reminded that Ornette Coleman is part of an
American narrative as central to her life, although she doesn't know it
yet, as Abraham Lincoln. That is what I am trying to do, so you make a
lot of decisions and sometimes, Fred, and I won't tell you anybody else,
but there were many jazz greats living who are not in the film as interview
subjects because they wanted an outrageous amount of money and I don't
do that. I am a journalist. You are not paying me for right now and nor
would I expect to pay Al Murray or Stanley Crouch or Gary Giddins. So
they are not in it, but it doesn't mean that they weren't themselves mentioned
as part of their contribution to the history of the film.
FJ: How much of a prominent role did you give Charles Mingus in Jazz?
KEN BURNS: (Laughing) I love Mingus, Fred. In some ways, as I was answering
your question about Thelonious Monk, I'm going, "But what about Mingus?
What about Mingus?" He is terrific and we have in our tenth episode, I
think a real terrific thing on Mingus. He is so, he is like mercury or
maybe like the soap in the bathtub. Every time you think you have got
him, he squirts off to another part of the bathtub. And so there is a
kind of unknowability in one aspect about Mingus, but I really love where
he stands in our film as part of a new, angry, willing to involve and
engage politics and protest in his art, a perfect reflection of the early
Sixties and if you think about an episode that begins with Dexter Gordon's
exile to Europe because he can't find work as a straight ahead bebop saxophone
player and then Armstrong's triumph over The Beatles with "Hello, Dolly,"
a kind of throwback to an earlier era and the only time in our history,
besides the swing era, when a jazz was a number one single. You then have
emerging out of that kind of, not fluff, but earlier remembrance, Mingus,
Archie Shepp, Abbey Lincoln, and the Art Ensemble and other people that
we treat in this section we call "Freedom Now."
FJ: Did it concern you that having a polarizing figure as Wynton Marsalis
as Senior Creative Consultant, brings division to the film? At the end
of the day, you are ultimately the filmmaker.
KEN BURNS: Yeah, that is exactly right, Fred. And so that is what happened.
I choose my influence. No, it was great to have Wynton's involvement.
He is passionate. He loves this music. He loves a lot of it. The film
is filled with people that passionately disagree with his particular philosophy.
The thing that people forget is that the whole academic community was
upset because Shelby Foote was in The Civil War. Why was that? Because
he didn't have the academic credentials that they did. He was interested
in telling a good story. That's what Wynton is there for. He is not there
in my film to promote his own ideology, whatever that may be. I'm frankly
not interested in it as in regard to my film. I'm interested in getting
a history out and history is really about facts. If he says that Monk
is green and seven feet tall, I can't use that sound bite, but if he says,
"Oh, man, Monk is one of my favorite composers. He's got this tune called
'Epistrophy' and it goes, bah-dah-dah-dah," and he is on the backbeat
and he makes "Epistrophy" come alive before your eyes, just as he did
two episodes before with the Count Basie band. This is an ecumenical genius
who is contributing to the film. Now, I don't know if he has wrangled
somebody's feathers years ago by saying this, that, or the other thing.
He doesn't say that in my film and when we finally get around, at the
end of our tenth episode, to introduce him as a figure in the history
of jazz, we end it by saying, "but no one person has ever been the center.
By its very nature, no one person can ever be the center of jazz," and
then go on to describe all these other people doing all these different
things that are in many cases, diametrically opposed to Wynton. I think
that if people are so terrified of Wynton as to prejudge my film without
seeing it, then that is their problem, not mine.
FJ: The name Ken Burns carries heavy weight amongst the financial elite,
GM jumped on board pretty early in underwriting Jazz.
KEN BURNS: Well, they have been my sole corporate underwriter since 1987
and they have been really wonderful. They unhesitatingly jumped into Jazz,
supported it wholeheartedly and then helped forge these unusual partnerships.
The one thing, Fred, that we haven't really talked about is the musical
accompaniment. Jazz is down to single digits, if not one single digit
in the music industry right?
FJ: All indicators point to its demise.
KEN BURNS: And all the different labels are squabbling and they won't
let people have this and what we have been able to put together with Sony
and Verve, representing two of the three largest music labels in the country
is unprecedented. We got a single CD overview in which I personally selected
and had complete editorial control over the sequence of the songs and
then wrote the liner notes. I've got a five-CD box, which is a really
hell of a good reflection of our thing and is getting unbelievable reviews
even from Don Heckman (LA Times Jazz Critic) today in the LA Times, who
gave it four stars. And best of all, we got twenty-two individual artists,
who permit a public curious about jazz, but unable to penetrate the wall
of fog that is sometimes there and the inability to discern once they
get to the record store what is good and what is not, stuff that crosses
all labels and presents us with the possibility of inviting more people
into our family and sharing the riches of this music and I think we should
all be shouting this good news at the top of our lungs because it is only
going to help everybody. It is not going to sell a few more copies of
Kind of Blue, which is the only thing that ever happens when good things
happen to jazz. Miles just sells more records. We want Sarah Vaughan to
sell more records. We want Sonny Rollins to sell more records. We want
everybody to sell more records. We want the new people to sell more records
that aren't treated in the film because they are what's happening. They
are the future. I read cover to cover every jazz publication that I could
and in the New York Times, every single day reading their jazz reviews
even though I didn't put them in the films for the reasons that I stated
before. I wanted to know what is going on. You can learn as much about
the history from reading about the present as you can vice versa, that
is learning about the present through history, which is what I do for
FJ: Jazz is a monumental accomplishment and celebrates your extraordinary
expertise as a filmmaker, but when all is said and done, essentially,
what would you like the viewing public to take away from your six years
KEN BURNS: I want them to tap their feet.
FJ: Simple as that?
KEN BURNS: That is it. I want them to tap their feet, Fred.
Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief. Comments? Email