Ken Burns on film and all that Jazz

By Ken Clarke

Artist CollageSince its inception in New Orleans during the 1890’s as a mixture of ragtime and blues, jazz music remains to this day a constantly evolving, unpredictable art form.

With 20 years of film-making under his belt, Ken Burns is the creator of several award-winning films. He is best known for his two previous epic documentaries, The Civil War (1990) and Baseball (1994). He has recently finished his most exhaustive work yet, the ten-part, 17 and a half hour documentary film JAZZ, which examines the American art form that shook the world. JAZZ has recently been aired on PBS and is available on DVD, video and in book form, not to mention in a five-CD box set that includes music from the film.

Burns talked to the Gauntlet recently on the making of his unprecedented documentary.

As we’re a university paper, could you tell us why people, young or old, should watch JAZZ?

I think this is a world class art form, and I think it’s an extremely revealing portrait of where America has been in the last 100 years, quite apart from its musical or biographical constituent parts. It’s about two World Wars and a depression. It’s about sex and the way men and women speak to each other through music. It’s about drug abuse and the terrible cost of addiction. It’s about great cities and race in America. JAZZ is an opportunity to explore America at its heart and soul. I made it for everybody who is curious about American history.

Was that your point of view when you started this, or did you keep in mind that there’s obviously a lot of jazz experts out there? Do you think they’ll be happy with it?

I didn’t have a point of view going in. I wanted to use the study of jazz, my immersion in jazz, as an opportunity to retell the story of the music and the themes that were caught up in the wake of it. I engaged the services of two dozen jazz experts who worked with us throughout the six years, and who are quite ecstatic and thrilled with the series. They come from every perspective in the jazz community. We had no ideological or aesthetic axe to grind. However, I didn’t make it for anybody in the jazz community per se. I made it for a broad audience, expecting, quite correctly, that lots of people within the jazz community would take umbrage to the people we had omitted and people that we had so-called neglected. But these are the choices one makes when you’re doing a story. If I had tried to honour everybody, I’d end up with the narrative drive of the Manhattan phone book.

Right. It’s such a huge undertaking, and there is an editing process.

Of course. Just as I assume you will not take a full transcript of everything I say to you, but will find out from your perspective what the salient central aspects are of our conversation. So too, over six years, and I’m sure you can appreciate the exponential difference, we too digested more than a thousand hours of film footage and re-photography of archives and interviews to come out with 17 and a half hours. I must say that if the biggest criticism of this film is what we’ve left out, and it’s 17 and a half hours, we must have done a hell of a good job.

What the most important lesson you learned in the making of JAZZ?

You know, it’s so great–too many documentary films are the expression of someone else’s already-arrived-at ends. And because it was a process of learning for us, we were just incredibly surprised everyday. Sometimes little tiny things, sometimes great things, like just the centrality of Louis Armstrong to this music. Who knew going in how important he was to American music? This film sort of postulates that he’s the most important person in American music in the 20th century. And I didn’t say jazz. He is to American music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright brothers are to travel. Fortunately, I’m able to prove this hyperbole in chapter after chapter. It’s very interesting that our jazz advisory board that sits two dozen people could not be convened all in one place because half of them hated each other. Jazz is a very tight knit, dysfunctional family. I thought I’d be bringing some incredibly contentious idea with the centrality of Armstrong, and it was like I said the sky was blue. Everyone agreed. No one disagreed. We sort of went about trying to prove it to a large audience. And I think we have, over and over again.

Do you personally listen to jazz any differently now?

Oh yeah! That’s all I listen to. In fact, I had very few jazz albums when I began this project, and now I can’t find all of the others from my substantial collection, because it’s taken over my life. It’s just great; I listen to it all the time!

What kind of music did you listen to before this project?

I was sort of an R&B, rock, soul and funk guy.

Now you’re one of the converted.

Now I’m a jazz guy, yeah! I do have a little bit of a beard, but I don’t have thick rimmed glasses, or a beret, or live in Greenwich Village, but I’m still a jazz guy.

Jazz and American history go hand in hand, but how do you see a Canadian pianist/vocalist like Diana Krall fitting into the overall grand scheme?

Well I don’t really know, and I’m not sure that I’m the one to judge. I’m very much into history, and our film comes up to about 1975, where we unhitch our narrative and have a much more impressionistic look in a very short period of time of the last 25 years. It’s very simply because I’m not in the position to make judgements about it. I’m in history, which is about stories that are over. The last 25 years and current scene are stories that are ongoing. When some of the “jazzerotti” give me hard time about that, I say “tell me who among today’s players are the equal to an Armstrong, an Ellington, a Charlie Parker, a Dizzy Gillespie, a Thelonius Monk, a Charles Mingus, a Miles Davis or a John Coltrane?” There’s total silence. They say “well, we’re going to need 25 years.” So I think maybe if we talk in 25 years, and I’m sure these people have set up an appointment, we can figure out where Diana belongs, where in the pantheon she would be placed. You know what I mean?

I see your point.

History is triangulation that can take place from time past. What we should just do now is enjoy her… and go and listen to as much jazz as possible so we can make the world better. In 25 years, we can all get together and figure out who was great.

Comparing JAZZ to The Civil War and Baseball, which was the most difficult to make and which was the most rewarding?

JAZZ was the most difficult and the most rewarding. It’s a little bit specious to say that. Up until this movie, I’ve always treated every one of my films as equal, including short, hour length films. In a sense I still believe that. But I have to tell you that there was nothing more challenging than this–trying to make what’s traditionally background, the music, the star of the film without relinquishing control of the narrative. To actually figure out how to wrestle a complex narrative to the ground and how to select what we needed to tell and how to tell it well. How to integrate the 498 pieces of music, thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of newsreel footage and all of the interviews together. So it made it the most satisfying as well, because it was the greatest challenge.

Plus you came out of it with a greater appreciation for the music.

Yeah, exactly. That’s the extra added bonus. You know, after Civil War, I wasn’t going around trying to collect mini balls from the battlefields, right? And though some people send me baseballs, from Baseball, I don’t value them in my collection. I have to tell you, one of my proudest possessions is the jazz collection I now have, which is second to none.

You must have met a lot of the current players who are out there now.

Yeah, I did. In fact, I made a point of studiously avoiding putting them in my film, besides celebrating the diversity with a handful of references at the end. But I went to lots of stuff and my tastes are very eclectic. I’m all over the place.

I’m glad you have a new found appreciation for jazz.

Oh man, it makes the criticisms all the more specious, because people have no idea how you make a film like this. The kind of choices and the idea that we would have forgotten something–we didn’t forget anything. We made conscious choices. Our cutting room floor is filled with dozens of scenes. Scenes of favourite musicians of mine, like Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson.

It must have been tough…

Oh yeah, terribly tough! Not cutting them out because you don’t like them, but cutting them out because you realize you can only tell so many stories.

Can we expect a Ken Burns film entitled BLUES?

It’s the only other thing that can possibly be called an American art form. Not blues music, but blues the form, is so responsible for all the forms of American music. But I would have to say probably not, though that would be a great subject.


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