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Ken Burns @ Verve



I 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 daughter.

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 possibilities.

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 you?

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, Fred.

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 a living.

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 of work?

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 Fred.