Ken Burns’ Jazz Interesting, But Long

3 08 2012

I’ve been wanting to watch the Jazz documentary by Ken Burns for quite some time, and I finally got around to it. It is a broad, sweeping narrative covering the roots of Jazz back in the 1890’s, and touches on the root form, Blues, as well as forms such as Ragtime that influenced Jazz. I learned a lot about Jazz, but I found the series lacking in some ways. Granted, it is a huge topic to cover, given it has more than a century of history. But unlike Burn’s previous work, The Civil War, I found the series to be all over the place.


While I understand that the story of Jazz is not only long, it has both breadth and depth. However, what I found a little frustrating was how each segment would jump around in time. First, we’re talking about events in 1939. Then suddenly we’re back in 1932, and moving forward again. You really had to concentrate, which can be hard when each episode is anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours long. That’s a long time to try to hold all these threads together.

It almost felt as if Burns was trying to make up for some of the criticism in The Civil War. I love The Civil War series. It was innovative in many ways, and it provides a great overview of the war, with some focus on key events. But it isn’t “perfect”. It does touch on most topics very, very lightly. It tends to focus too much on the popular “Lost Cause” point of view, even though that is not a universal position amongst Civil War historians. I get that the point is to try to tell a story, but it does suffer from being slightly biased towards the Lost Cause. However, the biggest issue for some with The Civil War is that Burns didn’t spend enough time on details of the war.

It is as if Burns is trying to correct that with Jazz, by delving deeply into the personalities and various events over the history of Jazz. With so many threads in the music’s story, and so many of them happening all at once, it can be hard to tell a purely linear story without it becoming an incoherent mess in other ways. But that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have had some guide posts to let us know we have jumped backwards in the story for a bit. Even something as simple as increased use of subtitles indicating both place and date would have helped.

Superlatives and Holes

The series also seems to revel in superlatives. Every event, be it a performance, the issue of composition or arrangement, or a record, is billed as the “greatest” or “most important” ever, and “nothing was the same since”. Except that, to the untrained ear, a lot of things sure seem the same. There must have been two dozen performances or recordings that were “the most influential” for the music. That bothers me, because logically it doesn’t make sense. If something is “the most”, then nothing else can be equal or superior to it. Again, I get that Burns isn’t just recounting history, but telling a story. However, the superlatives over 20 hours of documentary get a bit tiresome after a while.

The show also focused largely on the people and performances, and completely ignored the technology, and only touched lightly on the business and the impact of other music forms. For example, we learn virtually nothing about some of the key instruments in jazz, specifically the trumpet and the saxophone. I would have liked to have understood the background of each, particularly the sax, in more detail. Another area that seemed overlooked was the development of recording technology. We get one glimpse, where the early recording methods were giant horns to pick up music and performances were recorded on wax discs (acting as the master mould for the final record). But there is little mention of the improvements that occurred over time to improve the fidelity of the music and add the studio as a tool for creativity.

There is also no mention of the arrival of the LP in 1948, which eliminated the multi-disc “album” that was required by artists to release more than 2 songs at a time. The LP, which spins at 33 1/3rd instead of 78 RPM, allowed for longer tracks (up to 20 minutes per side) vs. the 3 or so minutes allowed on the 78. The LP would have brought prices down a little (less material cost) and increased convenience for music listeners. It would have given more creative options to the artists. The microgroove and microstylus that came with it made for better, richer sound. The series mentions nothing at all about this.

Impact of Rock, Pop and R&B

Another hole is the impact of rock and pop on Jazz. Yes, it is mentioned occasionally, but it is really only hinted at (when it is mentioned how hard it is for Jazz musicians to find work, without really explaining why). The reality is that the rise of Rock ‘n Roll, as well as R&B to some extent, took Jazz from the centre of the music world and pushed it to the margins. Rock didn’t kill Jazz off completely, but it took Jazz from being the single biggest music form in the US, and made it a niche genre. Consider that the best selling albums and records in Jazz typically sold in the single-digit millions of copies, and even that (at least according to the series) was comparatively rare. In contrast, a rock or pop album or record that sees even modest airtime or promotion can sell a million copies. The RIAA has handed out relatively few Gold Records (and even fewer Platinum) for Jazz over the decades, in comparison to rock and pop, which see Gold being a fairly common event.

Even more telling is that the top-selling albums lists (like this one on Wikipedia) is dominated by some form of rock, pop or R&B. Among the dozens of albums listed, there is a single Jazz album, and it is a recent Norah Jones release. None of the historical works have made the list.

Okay, I get that the series the history of Jazz. But to go on and on about how hard it is for artists and groups to find work starting in the late 1950’s, but not say explicitly why each time, makes it sound like there was some kind of “music depression” on. It was as if no artist was going to find work, no matter the genre, and that everyone in the music business was struggling. That simply wasn’t true. Jazz became like other older forms of music: it became a niche, a hobby, something for small groups of enthusiasts to enjoy. It fell into the same category that Blues, classical music, ragtime and other older forms fell into. It wasn’t mainstream anymore.

More on the LP and HiFi

The other area that impacted the ability for Jazz performers to get live gigs was the fact that, with better sound reproduction on home systems, people didn’t need to go to a live performance to hear good-quality music played. They could hear it on their hi-fi stereos at home. Much like the movie industry today, home entertainment equipment changed how people consume the media. The days of people seeing a movie in the theatre multiple times is largely gone. Movies don’t stay in theatres for months at a time like they used to. It’s 2-3 weeks for most, and then out, because the DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix and iTunes release is only a month or so away.

The same thing happened to music. It became less and less a requirement to see a performer live, because the sound reproduction available to consumers was so vastly improved. When you have to listen to music on inconsistent clockwork turntables with big, steel needles feeding an unamplified brass horn, seeing a group live is important to understand what they really sound like. With hi-fidelity stereo, and recordings made with magnetic tape with far more “bandwidth”, the sound available at home can get much closer to the real sound.

But this works against Jazz because of the improvisational nature of the music. For most “real” Jazz, the multitrack recording studio doesn’t work as well, because you can’t just lay down each track for each voice and instrument. A part of most forms of Jazz is the improvisation, where the performers are all working together to make a piece of music. That means that no 2 performances of the same tune are the same, or are even close to the same. Jazz is a form of music that was really made to be consumed live, but with changes in tastes and a growing population (spread over a large area), that approach limits the “scalability”.

Again, the series make little or no mention of these developments on the economics of Jazz: how hard or easy it is to find work, because live performances are less important. While Jazz was on the decline, the music industry was booming, and grew at a tremendous pace starting in the 1950’s with the rise of rock ‘n roll. Again, a single brief mention about how Jazz fits into the overall economic picture appears late in one of the last 2 episodes. But the Jazz industry was devastated when rock took over popular music.

Still Worth Watching

I will say that Jazz by Ken Burns is most certainly worth watching. There is still a huge amount of history there, and it at least gives viewers a “framework” around which they can dig deeper if they so choose. I wouldn’t call it a definitive work on the topic of Jazz, but it is an enlightening and entertaining one.




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