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Ken Burns' Jazz: Marketing Music, Race and American History for Television

By Mike Zwerin

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 Promenade.

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.

In 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.

"Before, 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" indeed.

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.

But the 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."

Is Ken 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.!

Mike Zwerin 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.

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