NEW YORK, 8 January 2001
- The tony lobby of Avery Fisher Hall in the Lincoln Center for the
Performing Arts was alive with pre-concert buzz. It was a gala, a
benefit titled "Swing That Music," presented by Jazz at
Lincoln Center, to be followed by a dinner-dance - for donors who came
up with $1,000 or more - at the nearby New York State Theater
Sidney Poitier was "Honorary Gala Chair";
Ed Bradley, the CBS News correspondent and a board member of Jazz at
Lincoln Center, presented awards to the philanthropists Jack and Susan
Rudin "for leadership"; to the saxophonist Illinois Jacquet "for
artistic excellence" and to others for various things. Featured
performers included Jacquet, the New Orleans rocker Dr. John, the
opera singer Jessye Norman and the Broadway star Andre DeShields
singing songs associated with Louis Armstrong. All accompanied by
Wynton Marsalis leading the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
the lobby, the audience was well dressed, coiffed and heeled. Off to
one side, the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 10-episode
documentary Jazz is scheduled to be aired by the Public
Broadcasting Service tonight, was answering a question about how all
of this can exist alongside a system where even good players perform
for something like 75 percent of a meager door. "The jazz
community reminds me of Pigpen in Peanuts," he said: "Always
surrounded by a cloud of dust. The rest of it is poverty. Sure, it's
always been that way. You bet. But I completely disagree that it has
to be that way."
Burns talks well and fast, with
unblinking eye contact and - like any good politician- has the
discipline to stay on-message, does not mind repeating himself and is
not too shy to blow his own horn: "Before I made my Civil War
film, there were about five bookstores that had Civil War sections and
afterwards there were maybe five that didn't." He also made a
film about baseball - each had more than 40 million viewers. Jazz
completes "an America trilogy," he says.
people told me 'I'm not really into military history' and I'd say, 'I
made this film for you.' Now I say the same thing when people tell me,
'I'm not into jazz.'"
"But I don't see it as just
about jazz," he added. "I see it about race, about two world
wars, about the Depression. It tells me about sex, about drugs, about
cities, it tells me about my country."
"We are a
country that is based upon the revolutionary idea that all men are
created equal. The man who wrote that owned 200 human beings and never
considered freeing them. And these unfree people who lived in a 'free'
country gave birth to this music and shared it with everybody."
Burns has forged an alliance "between two big record
companies that normally don't get along" to publish a single box
with five CDs, a sort of "best of" with 22 of the most
important jazz artists. This is the first truly best of. "Normally
you just get the best of one label. I used the power of
Verve/Universal and Columbia/ Sony to get other labels to come along.
So anybody can now go and get a hugely great jazz collection. Ninety
four songs out of the 497 that are in the films. Budget price."
In stores since November, this box is called Ken Burns
Jazz - The Story of America's Music. There is also a sort of
best-of best-of single CD called "The Best of Ken Burns Jazz."
The promotional copy includes the following: "It's the Jazz Event
of the Year! Ken Burns personally produced this special 20-song
advance CD, featuring music from his upcoming PBS Special, Jazz.
The Jazz releases will be supported by a massive promotion and
publicity campaign, with billions of impressions - everyone will be
talking about Jazz."
Talk about attitude. This
is a well made, if opinionated and insensitively hyped, documentary.
The talking heads are authoritative, it's well cut and you've not seen
many of the images before. But "hugely great," "the
best of," "the event of the year," "billions of
impressions" and "everyone will be talking about"
You wonder if jazz will forever be capitalized or
quote-marked or both and prefaced by "Ken Burns" from now
on. Burns calls Wynton Marsalis "the star of this film" and
with "sole corporate underwriter" General Motors, they
appear to be hijacking the history of the art form.
way Burns sees it: "I've been working on it day and night for six
years. This is the golden opportunity to see what we can do to renew
our music. Our art. The only art form Americans have invented."
Burns' Jazz the best thing to happen to the music in years? Or a threat to
the integrity of the music? We've started a discussion of "Jazz" over at
the forums and want to know what you have to say. Tell us what you think of the show-- or what you think
of Mike Z.!
has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for
the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The
Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and
the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.