Evansing the Score: The Politics of Exclusion in Ken Burns’ Jazz

A quick stroll down the shopping malls of cyberspace is enough to confirm that at the moment we are not enduring a dearth of jazz history books. Like mayflies in permanent hatch they seem to be in a state of constant renewal, as one disappears several more come along to take its place. But the latest entry into a very crowded field, Jazz: A History of America’s Music, is not simply another jazz history. It is the book that accompanies the Ken Burns film documentary Jazz.

Already The New York Times has reported advance sales total 200,000. Clearly plenty of people will be shaping their understanding of jazz, many for the first time, not only from the TV series but from this book tie-in, co-written by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward. It presents jazz as a sepia-toned history rather than a living, still-vital art form, echoing themes expressed by Albert Murray in his book Stomping the Blues. Indeed, there is an interview with Murray in the book, where he speaks of how “art has to do with security against chaos,” (so effectively dismissing free jazz).

Murray’s vision of jazz sets in place a set of values that attempt to define jazz in terms of past verities. A “blues” sensibility and swing become central tenants in deciding what is and what is not jazz, as does restoring its primal relationship to dance. That senior creative consultant Wynton Marsalis and advisory board member Stanley Crouch buy into Murray’s vision is well known; Jazz even says so.

As Francis Davis points out in a prescient review of the television series in Atlantic Monthly, in Jazz “What we are getting the party line.” Marsalis, he points out is, “Against anyone whose music, improvised or not, he suspects of being tainted by European influences and deficient in the blues.’ Thus Bill Evans, the most influential pianist since Bud Powell, is effectively excised from the ledger since to Marsalis and Crouch he smacks of Debussy. “Evans single-handedly synthesized the first 60 years of jazz, from 1900-60 plus 260 years of classical music. He was America’s Chopin,” says Jack Reilly, former chairman of jazz studies at the New England Conservatory and now adjunct professor at Rowan University.

And although Gil Evans is mentioned, it is only elliptically, and like Bill, it is through his role with Miles Davis. Yet it is difficult to see how the Evanses true role in jazz could possibly emerge, given the invective Crouch has heaped on them in the past. In particular his essay “Sketches of Pain” for The New Republic refers to the famous Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions as “essentially lightweight”; Jazz asserts it “didn’t represent the birth of anything.” Dismissing the experimentation that emerged from Gil Evans’ much admired writing for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, Crouch says “[Davis] was not above the academic temptation of Western music.”

Of Davis’s seminal albums Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain, Crouch lambastes Gil for his “pastel versions of European colors” that amount to no more than “high level television music” that are ‘given what value they have…by the Afro American dimension that was never far from Davis’ embouchure, breath, fingering.” Jazz simply implies these albums are very lightweight fare, “With Miles Davis playing softly on the turntable almost anyone could ‘get over with a kiss’.”

In a book swimming with metaphors, Gil and especially Bill become metaphors themselves, since, as Gene Lees has pointed out, the fact that any “white musician could have a major influence on jazz simply does not fit the political agenda,” or indeed the kind of revisionism now under way. “The book is nothing more than an important political extension of Marsalis’ ‘Our Music’ agenda,” says Reilly. “It’s blatant slight-of-hand jive under the rubric of Ken Burns’ Jazz. At worst it will reignite racial tensions and undo whatever progress we’ve made since the ’60s.”

Jazz is good in showing the relationship of a nascent jazz to the African-American experience and how the music was shaped by it into the ’60s, at which point the book tries to put the genie back into the bottle, and return the music to an elite company of great jazz giants to establish the music’s timelessness, an American classical music that transcends the present.

While few, if any, would dissent from the view that jazz is indeed America’s classical music, surely it is right to look at the terms in which it is being appropriated, creating an orthodoxy where a “third line” of participants are deemed to lack “idiomatic authenticity” and where the role of many jazz musicians is increasingly becoming those of custodians of a music within clearly prescribed parameters who express impatience and intolerance with the contemporary, even denying its place in the narrative of jazz history.

Orthodoxies create insiders and outsiders, and the kind of jazz orthodoxy that now seems to be looming looks likely to create more outsiders than insiders. Even worse, we are on dangerous ground indeed if jazz becomes a battleground to right the wrongs of racial injustices down the ages. The joy of jazz is that it is a truly democratic music, and what is now in the wind seems anything but that.

Originally published in April 2001

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