I Saw A Miniseries!
There isn’t a topic I wouldn’t enjoy Ken Burns giving his attention to. In an age where homogenization and also, contrarily, a powerful need to establish identity, coexist to create volatile schizophrenia in our culture, it’s a pleasure to have a paramount and in depth historical review of where aspects of our shared identity were birthed. How artists developed their styles, building always on what came before and adding twists and soulful developments of their own.
Burns uses Louis Armstrong as a kind of stable, ingenious rubric that acts as a kind of electric current running through the disparate chemicals of the art of Jazz as it spread like mercury, shining and scattering, into in the coming decades. By the time Armstrong is jokingly responding to Dizzy Gillespie’s disparagement of his “white man’s entertainer” persona (Burns addresses it) we’re well on our way to seeing Jazz as the massive art-force that would influence everything from visuals to language to the novels and poetry of the Beats.
Personally, I’ve never spent a lot of time with much of the music before the rock era of the late fifties and early sixties. So much of it, especially the vocal stuff, is so trite and silly. It’s difficult for me to listen to “Jeepers Creepers where’d you get those peepers”, “It ain’t got a thing if it ain’t got that swing”, or other twee, popular lyrics, amounting to so little I’d ever want to express. My personal Jazz loves are more along the lines of late Coltrane, Sun Ra, and of course Miles’s monumental Jazz fusion efforts. The staid pretty and melodic, sing-song style of music in general has never much held my attention, and happily, Ken Burns spends very little time with the best known of Jazz. Of course, he touches on the WWII era Benny Goodman, but we aren’t drilled to death on the familiar, and soon enough a discussion of how the musicians switched from performing the standards to presenting the improvisational music they played to entertain one another is revealed to my terrific gratification. When we’re having Wynton Marsalis give us examples of the changes in the sounds and playing methods between the doomed Bird (and not just Parker, but many others) and everything that happened before him (though, of course, it’s always a contrivance of American (maybe everyone’s) storytelling to establish the mad genius recreating the art– Burns can’t help a bit of hero worship in this process either) even the least interested in the music have the style expressed perfectly–taught to us like we’re six. Of course, Charlie Parker–a youthful giant of the art– could not be better made for the job of tortured soul who reinvented saxophone and music and his short life, much conjectured about, same with Coltrane later, is both thrilling in its performances, and miserable in its results. The one CD I have from before the rock era is of Parker in a 1950 concert (a terrible recording, but thrilling in its nearly anthropological study-Kerouac could have been there). Jazz had the best instrumentalists, the best of the improvisationalists, they knew their instruments, they lived their instruments and could take you and those instruments to mind-bending places.
Speaking of some of the rougher edges of these stories, I read not long ago a damning indictment of heroin’s influence on our arts and culture. Of course it was heroin and booze that took so many of these tremendous artists. Instead of giving heroin this place of inspiration and exploration, the idea was to suggest that it was a death knell, and that we should wonder how much more we could have had from these geniuses had they lived. Burns for his part does not glorify the drug lifestyle, instead he concentrates on Miles firing Coltrane for his drug use. He lists a pile of young brilliant artists who died too young as a result of the drugs.
One of the more gratifying aspects of Jazz’s story rests in the fact that it so often transcended race. Promoters and managers and other commercial interests fought against Jazz’s tendency to integrate. Jazz bands were often integrated and often gave women lead roles in shows. Stories of racism rock the foundations of our very decency with horror, and it is sweet to be reminded that many of our ancestors were just as we are, fighting against the closed-mindedness of so many dull, hate-filled people. It’s fine to get this news occasionally, to hear about the fact of our more general embrace of people through the arts and culture. Burns doesn’t shy away from the horrors of racism either, but he also tells the stories of white band leaders demanding hotel rooms for the black stars of his bands. Jazz was a force of overcoming fear and hate for all of us. And it’s good to remember that rational, reasonable people have always been part of the world. Such just don’t often get the headline.
While the best parts of the series for me are 8-10 when the music I’m most excited by is brought to the forefront, episode ten is a bit of a mess as a wrap up. The deaths of our heroes are always hard to take. Duke Ellington–we’re reminded of his pre-eminence, grace, and brilliance as not just a composer, but a perfect gentleman throughout the series–can bring tears to your eyes with offhanded remarks about dreaming and how tomorrow is bringing his favorite music.
This is running free on Prime and much like a sweet liberal arts course you can eat dinner with.