No other act of commemoration in the popular media confers as much authority as the infectious gravitas of a film by Ken Burns. Over the past two decades, Burns has made more than a dozen documentaries on American subjects, such as the Civil War (1990), baseball (1994), Lewis and Clark (1997), and women’s suffrage (1999). Two of those films, The Civil War and Baseball, were monumental in scale and effect—each broadcast on public television in more than a dozen parts—and were hits on TV and best sellers on videocassette, as well as in the form of book tie-ins prepared by Burns and the historian Geoffrey C. Ward. Largely owing to the success of Burns’s documentary, the Civil War became something close to a popular craze in the Nineties, and tens of thousands of new enthusiasts joined the ranks of those who were already costuming themselves as Confederates and Federals in reenactments of historic battles. My teenage son, Jake, joined the 14th Brooklyn and helped defeat the faux Rebs at Antietam. This month, Burns’s third epic documentary, Jazz, begins its run on PBS, broadcast in two-hour episodes for four weeks. The book version was published in time for holiday gift-giving, and ancillary CDs—a five-disc boxed set, a “best-of” CD, and twenty-two discs devoted to individual musicians profiled in the film—were rolled out simultaneously. How long will it be before my son and his friends are reenacting the 1937 cutting contest between the Benny Goodman and Chick Webb orchestras at the Savoy?

Burns has evidently seen jazz as a great subject for some time, although he has acknowledged in interviews that he knew little about the music when he began working on his film in earnest a few years ago. In an early sequence of Baseball, Burns seemed to signal his future intentions with a quote from the scholar and writer Gerald Early: “When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” (Early, an incisive thinker whose presence in Jazz gives the film much of its focus and spirit, has obviously had a substantial influence on Burns; he is the filmmaker’s new Shelby Foote.)

In the music and the culture of jazz, Burns recognized the opportunity to explore some of his favorite themes: American identity, individuality, race, and democracy. “I think that the essence of jazz…is at the heart of who we are as a people,” Burns told the journalist Larry Blumenfeld. “It’s this notion of the tension between the individual and the collective, you know, the solo and the ensemble. It’s this notion of race. It’s very much, to me, the rarefied, purified idea of democracy.” Here we have themes rich and sweeping enough for a nineteen-hour film—and for something equally important to a filmmaker working on Burns’s scale: a grant proposal. (Jazz was funded by endowments from General Motors, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, among many others.) If the pitch is the art form in Hollywood, in Joan Didion’s indelible phrase, the grant proposal is its counterpart in nonfiction film, and it takes grand themes that illuminate the American experience to persuade foundations to deem expensive projects like this worth funding. From the schematic linearity of its structure to the hortative tone of its narration, the grant permeates each sequence as the blues infuses every composition by Duke Ellington.

Burns is on to something, of course. As jazz musicians and fans have known since the music’s emergence in the early years of the last century—and as some in high-brow circles recognized as early as 1919—jazz has always been a potently sophisticated form of expression.1 Largely improvised, simultaneously cooperative and competitive, a celebration of the primacy of the individual voice, sensual, cerebral, deeply steeped in African-American life, jazz is one of America’s major contributions to world culture. There is no need for exaggeration such as Burns’s claim that jazz is “the only art form created by Americans.” (Apart from the issue of whether jazz is a form or a style like baroque or twelve-tone music, Americans also created tap dance, country-and-western music, Abstract Expressionism, the comic strip, and more.) Nor does Burns do the music and its creators justice by presenting much of the film as a series of arguments in support of his theses about American identity and such, with little space in twenty hours’ time for dissent, ambiguity, or irony (Gerald Early notwithstanding). Clearly he could still learn a thing or two about expression from African-American culture.

The film preceded the book, as Burns explains in his introduction to the latter; accordingly, both are structured cinematically as series of vignettes telling the life stories of the most influential and prominent musicians in jazz history. Although Burns and Ward are credited as coauthors of the book, Burns evidently contributed the organizing principles and thematic guidelines, and little writing beyond the introduction; generously, one could take this arrangement as an homage to the jazz bandleaders’ tradition of “cutting in,” whereby Benny Goodman attached his name to Edgar Sampson’s “Don’t Be That Way” and Cootie Williams split the copyright to Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” when they recorded the songs. Jazz, film and book, proceeds from the Great Man school of history.


As if to leave no doubt that jazz masters deserve the same reverence long accorded Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and other composers in the European tradition, Burns presents his subjects in the terms he would have found in a music textbook three or four decades ago. There is an artistic hierarchy, headed up in descending order by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker; in fact, Armstrong is directly compared to Bach repeatedly, and Ellington to Mozart at least once. (The Parker–Beethoven connection goes undeveloped, though it need not have. Stanley Crouch, the liveliest of the film’s many interview subjects, once linked the two as innovators in harmonic abstraction during a lecture at Tufts University.) The ranking being chronological as well as qualitative, a paternalistic narrative is implicit; each master left his innovations—swing time, tone color, abstraction—for the next to pick up and advance.

The first sequences of the film trace the emergence of jazz as a rigorous, inventive new social music developed by Negroes and Creoles in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. We are introduced to James Reese Europe, the black composer and conductor who performed his disciplined and formal music in Carnegie Hall in 1914; while his work was scarcely jazz by any familiar definition, Europe became a model for jazz orchestra leaders such as Duke Ellington.2 And we meet Jelly Roll Morton, the self-aggrandizing Creole pianist and composer who laid claim to inventing jazz, and the cornetist and bandleader Joe “King” Oliver, whose group was a training ground for both the pioneering clarinetist Sidney Bechet and the cornetist who would supplant Oliver in fame and influence, Louis Armstrong. Once introduced, Armstrong towers over the remaining nineteen or so hours of Jazz the way Bach looms over Western music history. Just as every classical musician still plays the scale Bach established in the eighteenth century, jazz artists, we learn, continue to employ variations of the harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary Armstrong codified and brought to a level of perfection.

Each of the ten episodes of the film series has at least one substantial segment on Armstrong: we marvel as he creates the first indisputable masterpieces of the jazz canon, the Hot Five recordings of 1925; we see him take up singing, inventing “scat” improvisation; we are even granted a kind of intimacy we have with no others in the film as we follow the vagaries of Armstrong’s love life until he finally finds domestic bliss in a middle-class home in Queens. (Ellington’s amours would have made much more interesting viewing.) There are penetrating segments on Armstrong’s schism with the founders of the bebop movement and on the charges of minstrelsy he unjustly suffered in his late years (with, once again, refreshingly frank and lucid commentary by Early). None of this is excessive: such is the depth of Armstrong’s genius and the breadth of his influence.

The film pushes matters only in tethering Armstrong to virtually every subsequent innovator in jazz history. The critic and biographer Gary Giddins, who gets more screen time than anyone else interviewed and serves as the film’s tempered voice of authority on all aspects of jazz, describes Charlie Parker’s landmark “KoKo” as “shocking, the way Louis Armstrong was shocking in the 1920s.” Nat Hentoff compares the thrill of discovering Thelonious Monk at Manhattan’s Five Spot to the imagined exhilaration of seeing Armstrong and the Hot Five in a Chicago nightclub (despite the fact that the Hot Five was a recording-studio ensemble and never performed in clubs). Sonny Rollins, Giddins explains, “has that ebullience that I associate with Louis Armstrong.” Even John Coltrane is characterized in relation to Armstrong, in his case by the fact that he appears to have nothing in common with him. The threads of that paternalistic narrative weaken under the strain.

The second Great Man in Burns’s account, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, is treated almost as hagiographically as Armstrong, though less accurately. The creator of some five thousand distinctive works of music (from blues riffs to orchestral suites, ballet and film scores, and Broadway musicals), Ellington is characterized as “an African Stravinsky” who “erased the color line between jazz and classical music.” Music “flow[ed] effortlessly from his pen,” we hear, as the narrator describes Ellington composing alone in his locomotive sleeper while the members of his orchestra slept. He wrote “Mood Indigo” “in fifteen minutes while waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner,” and his compositions were so fully wrought that “even the solos in ‘Reminiscing in Tempo’ were written.”


While Ellington did indeed compose incessantly, including when he was alone in his sleeper car, a core element of his genius—and an aspect of a creative process deeply indebted to the African tradition—is his extraordinary method of creating music collaboratively with his musicians. The main theme of “Mood Indigo” was actually an improvisation he had heard his clarinetist Barney Bigard play. Yes, Ellington composed the solo that trumpeter Cootie Williams performed on the recording of “Reminiscing in Tempo,” the masterpiece he wrote in memory of his mother. In fact precisely the reverse was not only more typical, but integral to Ellington’s music-making technique: his musicians’ improvised solos became part of their leader’s compositions. Ellington worked with the members of his orchestra cooperatively and motivated them to contribute ideas.

An inspiring stimulus and a profoundly gifted editor, he kept his ears open during the countless thousands of solos his musicians played on the road, and he plucked the musical gems among them to refine and expand into fully formed compositions: from Otto Hardwick he found the basis of “Sophisticated Lady” and “Prelude to a Kiss”; from Cootie Williams, “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear from Me” (originally “Concerto for Cootie”); from Johnny Hodges, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light”; from his son Mercer, “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good).” (This process is mentioned briefly in the Jazz book but never suggested in the film, which points out only that Ellington wrote for his musicians, not necessarily with them.) Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s “writing-arranging companion” from 1939 until Strayhorn’s death in 1967, contributed “Take the ‘A’ Train” and dozens of other masterworks in the Ellington Orchestra repertoire.

These facts scarcely argue that Ellington was any less a composer than, say, Stravinsky; the resulting music holds up comparably. They demonstrate, however, that he was a radically different sort of composer—not another lone genius tapping his own resources (though Ellington composed rather well that way, too), but a brilliantly exploratory creator working largely in an inclusionary, communal tradition.

Burns’s distortion of the way Ellington composed his music is defensive and patronizing. To ignore the collaborative aspect of Ellington’s method is to demean the culture he devoted his life to celebrating, and to remake him in the mold of the Western classical icons is to propagate their sovereignty. Why do we need to think of Ellington as another Mozart or Stravinsky? He was the first Ellington, and that is quite enough.

There are subtle hints of racism and anti-Semitism in other profiles in the film. We keep hearing how ideas “seemed to flow effortlessly” from musicians such as Armstrong and Ellington, an echo of the discomforting notion that African-Americans are instinctual musicians. By contrast, we learn elsewhere that Artie Shaw rehearsed so strenuously that his lower lip bled and that Benny Goodman practiced religiously every day of his life. There is no suggestion that black artists have also labored to master their art. According to Burns, Goodman and Shaw (born Arthur Arshawsky), both Jews, seem to have taken up jazz largely for the glory and money in it, anyway. The film speaks of Goodman deciding to pursue music full time because he found himself making $15 per night, three times his father’s daily earnings at the Chicago stockyards. When Shaw first heard a saxophone player, the narrator tells us, “That did it—music would be his way to fame and fortune.” Goodman was “fiercely ambitious” and Shaw a “professional,” but neither of them, apparently, an artist worth discussing in aesthetic terms.

In its pride in jazz as a reflection of America, the film veers toward cultural xenophobia. Jazz began as and remains an American art—specifically, an African-American art, composed and performed predominantly by people of color evoking their lives in musical terms. It is elementally black music, although whites and others have always played it and have contributed to it, just as people of all backgrounds have composed and performed in the Western classical tradition.3 Since the second decade of jazz history, however, the musics of other cultures have increasingly exerted influence upon jazz, and jazz has infiltrated countries around the world.

The most notable form of this musical cross-fertilization is Latin jazz, which is all but ignored in Burns’s film and given passing nods in the book. This is not an easy error to make. The Puerto Rican valve trombonist, composer, and arranger Juan Tizol joined Duke Ellington in 1929 and appears prominently in still photos and movie footage of the Ellington Orchestra in Jazz: his collaboration with Ellington, “Caravan,” plays on the soundtrack. Tizol contributed a whole book of Latin-tinged compositions to the Ellington repertoire, including “Perdido,” “Moon Over Cuba,” “Conga Brava,” and “Jubilesta.” At the same time, the Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauzá was soloing in the Chick Webb orchestra, and the Anglo-Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill was doing arrangements infused with Latin rhythms for Benny Goodman. By the 1940s, the rhumba fad made Cuban big bands a rage in Manhattan, with Bauzá, the percussionist Machito, and others leading their own highly successful orchestras. (The big-band leaders Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz had jukebox hits with a pop version of work in this vein.)

Within America, meanwhile, swing was so pervasive a force that it wafted into unexpected pockets of the musical landscape, including the South and the West. There had been novelty hillbilly-jazz groups such as the Skillet Lickers of Georgia recording as early as 1925, and by the 1940s Western swing was a popular style; musicians such as Milton Brown, Bob Dunn, and Tex Williams were improvising to rural music set to swing time. Two of the best bands in the genre, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Spade Cooley and His Western Dance Gang, recorded extensively and competed for a reputation as the hardest-swinging band, much as Benny Goodman and Chick Webb had. They even had a Savoy-style cutting contest in Venice, California, in 1943. (Spade Cooley won, and his was the band with multiple stringed instruments and no horn section.)

There is virtually none of this in Jazz. (Machito’s name appears on a theater marquee in a couple of still photos, and the subject of “Caribbean rhythms” finally comes up during a discussion of Dizzy Gillespie’s explorations in Afro-Cuban music during the 1940s.) Why? Is jazz less authentic when it reflects Puerto Rican or Cuban experience? Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, and Benny Goodman thought not. Does jazz become something other in the hands of country musicians using stringed instruments? Perhaps. That would have been a provocative question for Gerald Early. Still, Latin jazz and Western swing happened; they are facts of music history. Ignoring them because they fail to accommodate the filmmaker’s agenda is something worse than bad history; it’s politics.

Most troublingly, Jazz (film and book) gives up on the music forty years too early. The film employs nine of its ten episodes, a full seventeen hours, to get to the 1960s, then it rock-skips over the last four decades in one episode and abruptly sinks. Entire movements such as “free jazz” and major artists of the past thirty years such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are all but dismissed in comparatively short, tentative segments. Neither of them gets the series’ full profile treatment: Ornette Coleman was born and raised…, like that. Instead, the narrator quotes Ellington musing over the arabesque web of styles that came to shroud jazz by the early 1970s: “I don’t know how such extremes as now exist can be contained under the heading of ‘jazz.'” The film’s narrator adds gravely, “The question was whether jazz, the most American of art forms, would survive at all.” The real question was whether jazz would survive as a mostly American art form or if a growing range of influences from around the globe—especially South America, Asia, and parts of Africa—might not transform it, as they indeed have in recent years. That, in Ken Burns’s schema, might be the same as death.

If jazz has lain so fallow for the past forty years, how have critics such as Gary Giddins and Whitney Balliett found so much to say about it? Balliett has written about jazz and nearly only jazz since 1954, three years after he graduated from Cornell, when he covered the first Newport Jazz Festival for the Saturday Review (while he was on the staff of The New Yorker). His sixteenth book, Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954–2000, casts doubt on any charge that jazz ended with the Kennedy administration; more than 750 of the book’s 858 pages of collected reviews, essays, and reported pieces were written since the 1960s.

Much of that work deals with musicians of earlier periods, reviewed in recordings (Bessie Smith), in later-life concerts (Teddy Wilson), or through tribute performances by other artists (the music of King Oliver as played by Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center). Still, with no apparent agenda beyond finding music he likes and writing as well as he can about it (meaning, in Balliett’s case, better than anyone else doing it, with the possible exception of Gary Giddins), Balliett found much to say about the venturesome work since the Seventies of Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Betty Carter, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Henry Threadgill, Michel Petrucciani, Tom Harrell, Joe Lovano, and Wynton Marsalis. “In its multifarious guises—swing, Dixieland, boogie-woogie, bebop, hard-bop, the ‘new thing,’ free jazz, abstract jazz, atonal jazz—it has rocketed throughout the world,” Balliett points out. “The music will persist as long as it radiates its unique emotional energy and catches us by surprise with an untoward phrase or sound.” Looking all around him as he gazes back and peers forward, Balliett sees hope for the future of jazz in the music’s essence: that is, not mimicry or regurgitation in the name of homage or classicism, but “the sound of surprise.”

In the first piece of writing he ever did on jazz, a review of an Ellington concert for the Cornell Daily Sun excerpted in Complete Works, Balliett noted that “twenty years’ leadership in the field of jazz has not faded the Duke, nor his great love of jazz.” The same is true of Balliett after more than forty years. I hope he gets around to a few of the more original musicians on the current scene, such as John Zorn, Michel Camilo, Nora York, and Dave Douglas. In the meantime, Collected Works stands alongside Gary Giddins’s similar book, Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1988) as an invaluably cogent and forthright, self-assuredly individualistic history of jazz. Someone should make a movie version.

This Issue

February 8, 2001