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Ken Burns’ Jazz

Inside the creation of a landmark documentary series

Ken Burns
Ken Burns (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Jeff Jones, Ken Burns and Ron Goldstein
Jeff Jones, Senior Vice President, Sony Music/Legacy Recordings; Ken Burns; and Ron Goldstein, President, The Verve Music Group
Sonny Rollins in Ken Burns' Jazz
From Ken Burns' Jazz: Sonny Rollins and a new avant-garde movement appear in Episode 9 ("The Adventure, 1956-1961") (photo: Lee Tanner)
Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane in Ken Burns' Jazz
From Ken Burns' Jazz: Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on stage at Birdland with a young John Coltrane (with sax) and Tommy Potter on bass from Episode 7 ("Dedicated to Chaos, 1940-1945") (photo courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection)
The Original Superior Orchestra in Ken Burns' Jazz
From Ken Burns' Jazz: The Original Superior Orchestra (New Orleans, ca, 1908) specializes in variations on ragtime, appearing in Episode 1 ("Gumbo, Beginnings-1917") (photo courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum)
Benny Goodman in Ken Burns' Jazz
From Ken Burns' Jazz: Benny Goodman, "The King of Swing," at the Savoy Ballroom from Episode 5 ("Swing: Pure Pleasure, 1935-1937")(photo courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection)
Ken Burns
Ken Burns (photo: Jimmy Katz)
A scene from Ken Burns' Jazz
A scene from Ken Burns' Jazz (used by permission from Florentine Films)

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Ken Burns’ Jazz and its rebroadcast on PBS, we offer this feature on Burns from our December 2000 issue.

Jazz, the Ken Burns documentary that begins its run Monday, January 8, on PBS stations across the country, is destined to define and perhaps to redefine its subject. There have been other moments in the music’s history when an overview of jazz history and jazz aesthetics has provided a significant summation, most notably the publication of Marshall Stearns’ The Story of Jazz in 1956 and Martin Williams’ The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz in 1973. No book or recorded anthology can have the impact of a nationally televised series, however, particularly one directed and coproduced by documentary master Ken Burns.

“More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source,” historian Stephen Ambrose has noted, and the statistics agree. Burns’ The Civil War, the highest rated series in the history of public television, drew 40 million viewers when it first appeared in 1990, and has become a key source in classrooms and via video cassette sales in the ensuing decade. Baseball, which Burns now views as the second part of a trilogy about American life that Jazz completes, had an audience of 45 million when it debuted in 1996. Whether or not the 10 episodes and nearly 19 hours of Jazz enjoy similar ratings success, there is little doubt that the series will have an enormous impact on the accepted view of its subject among the general public.

This is a tall order for a filmmaker who readily admits to being a jazz novice. “This is not about what we know,” emphasizes Burns. “Up to the last day of production, it is about what we’re learning. The only subject I thought I knew was baseball, and I quickly realized that I knew very little. As someone whose language is film, I’ve found that the best approach is to go in and learn, and to be a medium for the larger audience. And around the middle of filming Baseball, I began to see that jazz was my soundtrack, our soundtrack. I only watch each of my films once after they’re done, and I literally decided to do Jazz during the one time I watched Baseball.”

Burns and his team at Florentine Films have been working on the series since 1994, and they have taken great pains to learn their subject. The 23 advisers listed in the press material represent a wide range of views that are amplified on-screen by nearly five dozen interview subjects and 27 narrators. “Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins are the primary talking heads,” Burns says, citing two of the jazz world’s most articulate personalities who, to put it mildly, have had differences of opinion in the past. Yet Burns says, “I think they will agree on everything they say in the series.”

That may be asking too much, though it is hardly as challenging as telling a century-long audio story in a visual medium. If someone were to ask me to tell them the story of jazz, my response would be, “Sit down, and let me play you some recordings.” That can be done in a film—and it is done brilliantly in my favorite segment of those I saw, as violinist Matt Glaser talked viewers through Louis Armstrong’s “Up a Lazy River”—but it can hardly be the dominant mode of a 10-part television series. No one may know this better than Burns, who emphasizes that “Jazz is not a performance film or a teaching film. It’s a narrative that has to operate on a lot of levels, with the music as both background and foreground.”

The narrative nature of the project is always paramount in Burns’ approach. “If you’re going to talk to a lot of people, you’ve got to talk in stories,” he insists. “You can’t just list every single New Orleans musician; you can tell Louis Armstrong’s story, and how Freddie Keppard refused to record, and how that decision allowed Nick LaRoca to be the first recorded jazz trumpeter.”

One major problem is the visual record that has been left behind. Given the introduction of sound film in the late 1920s, virtually every important figure in jazz history save Buddy Bolden might have been captured for posterity; yet disinterest (not to mention racism) led to scant or nonexistent documentation of many early pioneers, and the elevation of jazz to the status of a decidedly nonvisual art form in later decades (especially compared to more theatrical pop music) often ensured that even the giants of the past half-century take up little space in the video archives. For all of the times he performed “Body and Soul,” for example, not one of Coleman Hawkins’ solos on his signature ballad was filmed, and many of the less widely known masterpieces that are part of jazz’s story have similarly escaped the movie camera.

That said, Burns might be the ideal jazz chronicler. He has proven second to none in his use of still photographs and readings from primary sources, and is well aware of the techniques at his disposal. “Making things move in a film doesn’t always have to do with kinesthetic motion,” he argues. “I once described myself as an emotional archaeologist, and I want to make things move emotionally.” Initial feedback tells him that Jazz will succeed on these terms. “When we screen for ‘warm bodies’—and that ignorant yet curious person is my audience—they are tapping their toes from beginning to end.”

Yet what test audiences saw in early versions of Jazz, which was already at what Burns called its “eighth pass-through” 20 months before its formal debut, may be very different from what ultimately appears on PBS. The demands of network television, even public television, have already moved the series from its initial launch date of September 2000 to January 2001, and various time constraints have made the length of individual episodes subject to further changes. There is also the matter of acquiring rights to both video and audio material, which required a series of individual negotiations that left the Florentine staff uncertain at various points in production as to just what would be available for use. “Rights, for both music and still photos, are a huge part of our budget,” Burns confirms. He might have added that, even with the necessary funds, negotiating those rights is a huge part of the production effort.

After all of the raw materials have been assembled, Burns and his staff will decide what to leave in and what to leave out. “You can’t be an encyclopedia,” he says, “so you choose your battles and do the subjects you do choose really well. Omission was my biggest fear. For every shot that is in the final film, there are another 40 in this building that won’t get in. We make a lot of maple syrup in New Hampshire, and it takes 40 gallons of raw sap to make a gallon of syrup.

“Since we are making this for a broad national audience, we have painfully left out tons of stuff. But we want to convince someone in Dubuque that jazz is the Rosetta Stone of American culture. So nobody is missing who you didn’t have to know well—and by the end of the series, you know them all really well.”

That remains to be seen, given the way Jazz apportions the jazz story. Episodes four through six cover a 10-year period (1929-39), while 1961 to the present is stuffed within episode 10. Complaints are bound to be lodged and, perhaps, will be justified. Not having seen any of the finished episodes, I can’t be sure. After sitting through a four-hour editing session, though, I was impressed by the determination of Burns and his staff to get the story right while still ensuring the viewer-friendliness that any mass-media project demands.

Florentine Films is located in an old but spacious house in the center of Walpole, New Hampshire, about two-and-a-half hours north of Boston. The morning I visited was described as typical, with Burns and five others gathered in the editing room around a monitor. There were two associate producers, Sarah Botstein (scripts) and Victoria Gohl (still photo research); Erik Ewers, a longtime Florentine editor responsible for episodes four (“The True Welcome, 1929-35”) and seven (“Dedicated to Chaos, 1940-5”) and his assistant, Dave Mast; and Matt McGrail, an apprentice editor who is responsible for sound. “We have 30 on the team in all,” Burns explains. “Three are in New York, but in this building we have five editors, five assistants, five producers, five apprentices and a slew of interns.

“We shoot and edit on film, not tape,” he continues. “The historic footage is shot off a TV set. And I’m the narrator until the end of production.” That said, what was described as the “crude storyboard” for episode four was passed around, Botstein sat at a computer and took down all edits to the script, and everyone’s attention turned to the screen.

Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, two Lindy Hoppers from the Savoy Ballroom, set the initial tone, then yielded to stills of Fats Waller as Burns read the narration. “We need a shot of Waller’s hands,” Ewers noted at one point. A section in which commentary from Giddins introduces Waller performing “The Joint Is Jumpin'” bothers Burns, primarily because the song is first announced by one of the segment titles that punctuate the entire series. “Ditch the title,” he directs, “it’s going to give the song away.”

Gohl has another problem. “We’ve got one description too many when we make the point that Waller was big,” she notes. “But let’s keep the payoff line that he always seemed to be having the most fun.”

“And let’s change the line about selling his songs for $50 to ‘Because they paid him so little,'” Burns adds. “Also, let’s zoom sooner on the list of Waller tunes. The zoom seems to be following the narrative, rather than leading it.”

Next, the group tackles one of several segments on the series’ primary presence. “With all of our advisers, we’re still trying to get the story of Louis Armstrong’s problems with managers straight,” Burns laments, and he gives Botstein yet another revision of the relevant script. Then the story unfolds on video, with commentary from Glaser, James Lincoln Collier, Jon Hendricks, Stanley Crouch, Marsalis, Giddins, Buck O’Neil (one of the most memorable presences from Baseball) and Arvell Shaw. Armstrong’s recording of “Black and Blue” plays as various stills with “Whites Only” signs and other vestiges of segregation are seen; then Professor Charles L. Black, one of the lawyers in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case, recalls hearing Armstrong live in 1931. Actors Philip Bosco and Bruce Davison read relevant narrations.

We have come to the section on Armstrong’s managers, which begins with Studs Terkel reading an item from a 1931 issue of Variety. The group debates whether to use a Giddins interview clip or expositive narration in the script to explain why Armstrong stayed out of New York in the period. They view the Giddins clip and decide to use all but one sentence. Burns is still unhappy with a particular wide shot, and suggests that it be ditched. “But that is the Suburban Gardens at the time Armstrong played there,” Ewers argues, and—for the time being—the wide shot remains.

A break allows Burns to take me on a mini-tour of the Florentine offices. We see the closet where he rerecords the narration at the end of each editing session, the coding machine and the kine (as in kinescope) office where stock footage is filmed off a video screen. Sandra Christie is in the editing room, working on episodes two (“The Gift, 1917-24”) and four; Sarah Hill, who edits episodes five (“Swing: Pure Pleasure, 1935-7”) and 10 (“A Masterpiece by Midnight, 1961-present”), is meeting in another room with her assistant. We say hello to associate producer Lynch, who Burns describes as “our stills maven”; Lewis Erskine, the editor in charge of episodes three (“Our Language, 1924-8”) and nine (“The Adventure, 1956-60”); and supervising editor and episode one (“Gumbo, Beginnings-1917”) honcho Paul Barnes, who Burns calls “the other half of my heartbeat” in a nod to his ongoing jazz education.

Back in the editing studio, McGrail is doing sound mixing in the back of the room while the others are discussing how to get the section on Armstrong’s 1931 return to New Orleans to move faster. There is concern with the video montage that is accompanied by Armstrong singing “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” and how the “radioactive” nature of some of the visuals may be reinforced by the lyrics. “We don’t want to subscribe to the sentimentality,” Burns urges. “We want to add the humanity, like Armstrong did.” So some of the images are moved, and the cover of the original sheet music is replaced with a pan of the lyrics.

There is more to the 1931 segment than Armstrong, including the death of Buddy Bolden and Sidney Bechet’s return from Paris to New York. “I’d like to see Potter’s Field, where Bolden is buried,” Gohl suggests. “I have a live shot, and it’s a sad place,” Burns responds. Ewers has spotted one problem—the name of Bolden’s hospital is not exactly the same name that was used in an earlier episode—and Gohl persuades the others that one shot of a bass player would be more appropriate for a section on the 1950s and must be removed.

Similar concerns for accuracy and pacing fill the rest of the morning. Burns wants to relocate a James Maher interview during the section on John Hammond, and Gohl would like a better aerial view of New York’s East Side. Burns pronounces a segment on Benny Goodman, which includes interviews with Artie Shaw, Marsalis, Maher, Collier, Giddins, Ossie Davis and Jerry Jerome “just about perfect, except for a little flabbiness surrounding the Depression,” but Ewers feels that a shot of Goodman as a studio musician throws off the pace, Botstein suggests double-checking the dates given for Goodman’s Let’s Dance radio program, and McGrail wants to edit Marsalis’ singing of “King Porter” down so that it better dovetails with the recording on the soundtrack. Much work is done on the Goodman narrative, with added stress on his ambition; it goes more smoothly than the earlier, unresolved attempt to rewrite the section on Hammond and jazz during the Depression.

The editing session concludes with an Art Tatum segment that includes commentary by Hendricks, Jimmy Rowles, Giddins and Dave Brubeck, plus a kinescope of Tatum performing on an early network TV variety show. “We’ve got to lose Faye Emerson at the end of Tatum’s solo,” Burns notes, “and we’ve got to hold the close-up of Tatum longer before cutting to Hendricks.” The front of one Giddins quote is trimmed, and another is dropped.

“I look at this chapter as a mirror of the Fats Waller chapter,” Ewers offers.

“That,” says Burns, “is its blessing and its curse.”

After the editing session, Burns and I walk a few blocks to John Cooper’s restaurant, where I begin to sense the impact that the filmmaker has had on this small New England community. The local supermarket may be Walpole’s largest employer, as Burns claims, but it is doubtful that another eatery has honored it with the equivalent of the “Florentine Favorites” page that is found on the John Cooper’s menu. We are warmly greeted by the owners, who have no doubt played host to many Burns interviews in the past, and over an admittedly tasty Florentine special, we talk about Jazz and its challenges.

“Most people take six months to do a film, and come to edit every couple of weeks,” Burns explains. “I’m in there every day, although I may not see the episode we worked on today again for another two months. I’m also right next to the lens in all of the interviews, because I have to make eye contact. We have other projects in the works as well. We’re writing and shooting Mark Twain now, and it should be finished by the time Jazz airs.”

The success of his earlier films has clearly given Burns the confidence to enter this new territory. “You do have to reinvent the wheel, which is not so bad,” he argues. “We break each episode into chapters to sustain attention. The inner titles bring people along, and also allow a breathing in and out. And we try to thread people in early, like having Brubeck talk about Tatum before we get to Brubeck’s own story. The key, though, is the love for the subject, not the formula.”

He is prepared to be taken to task for what may be viewed as a deficiency of love for the last 40 years of jazz history. “We started with only seven episodes in mind and went up to 10,” he explains, “and the last episode is the hardest to tell. It’s in terrific shape, but you have to be so impressionistic. History requires triangulation, and we’re just too close to this history.”

In contrast, there will be little doubt regarding Burns’ affection for the man he sees as his main character. “The biggest revelation for me was Louis Armstrong,” he offers. “I’ve gotten to know Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson, and now I’ve gotten to know Louis.”

Burns is particularly upbeat when I visit, because of an impending announcement that General Motors has agreed to underwrite his projects for the next 10 years. “But General Motors has always been supportive,” he says of the company that is also financing an educational outreach program that will distribute curriculum materials to 75,000 American teachers. “They gave us 35% of the budget for Jazz on the basis of one conversation. The NEA, in contrast, gave us 6% of the budget after a year-long process that involved the submission of a proposal.”

As to whether Burns has fallen prey to one or another party line regarding the music, he comments that “Wynton said to me early on that jazz is about the negotiation of agendas, and I took that at face value. But I’m a kind of evangelist, and any evangelist will tell you that the scripture must prevail.”

Finally, on the subject of whether Jazz will be taken as the last word on jazz, Burns seems to have it right when he says that “while people call these films definitive, I just want them to last for a generation.” Yet even this may be claiming too much for a subject that, despite the wishes of some canon-building observers, continues to change under their feet. Jazz might even prove to contribute to that change—which will not be a bad thing, so long as there is room to evaluate and debate its conclusions. The danger is not that Jazz will represent one particular point of view, for there is nothing wrong with a strongly held opinion so long as other opinions also get a hearing. And the best thing that could come from Ken Burns’ latest bouquet to American culture is that other similar flowers will be encouraged to bloom.

Marketing Jazz

Regular readers of JazzTimes will no doubt take in Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary with the rapt attention that soap opera fanatics pay to As the World Turns or One Life to Live. That’s a given, simply a case of Burns preaching to the converted. But in assessing the bigger picture, the well-oiled Burns machine is ready to roll with missionary-like zeal in an attempt to bring its message of this music to the public at large.

In an ambitious marketing campaign underwritten by the General Motors Corporation, Jazz will saturate the sensibilities of millions of Americans through the entire month of January. “We have assembled an exciting group of partners to help us reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible,” says John Middlebrook, GM vice president and general manager of marketing.

Indeed, few will be untouched by this unprecedented and all-pervasive campaign:

Samples of music from the 10-part documentary will be played in all of the 3,000 Starbucks stores that dot the nation while banners promoting the film will greet its throngs of coffee-dependent customers. In addition, Starbucks will be selling a CD sampler from Jazz in all of its stores, with a percentage of the proceeds going to the United Negro College Fund.

The National Basketball Association will celebrate Burns’ documentary by running jazz-themed “I Love This Game” promotional announcements on cable and network television while also playing jazz music at halftime shows in NBA arenas. In addition, NBA players will also speak at Jazz-related events around the country.

Simultaneously, Knopf is publishing a coffee-table book in conjunction with the film. The price of Jazz: A History of America’s Music by Geoffrey W. Ward and Ken Burns is $65. In addition to supporting the promotion tour and screenings at colleges and public schools around the country, Knopf is also donating 1,000 copies of the book to the United Negro College Fund and its member schools.

An extensive outreach program will bring educational materials—posters, view guides, specially edited film compilation and accompanying CD—into thousands of middle schools around the nation. In total nearly six million students will be serviced by this program being underwritten by GM in conjunction with the Music Educators National Conference. GM, which has underwritten Burns’ two previous acclaimed documentaries, The Civil War and Baseball, is also underwriting a separate program for the United Negro College Fund that will involve screenings and tapes for UNCF member schools around the nation.

In another unprecedented move, two giants of the recording industry—Sony Music and Universal Music Group—have joined forces to support Burns’ documentary and bring greater awareness of jazz to a greater number of people. Sony’s Columbia/Legacy Recordings and Universal’s Verve Music Group have produced a series of one of the most comprehensive jazz collections ever assembled under one banner. Along with a five-CD box set of music drawn from the 10 episodes of Jazz, the joint project includes 22 definitive individual artist compilations of key figures in jazz. A single CD overview with selections handpicked by Burns himself is also being released to coincide with the documentary.

As Columbia/Legacy’s senior vice president Jeff Jones put it, “This project represents a fantastic opportunity to celebrate over 100 years of jazz history while at the same time helping a whole new generation of music fans to appreciate the beauty, power and importance of this uniquely American art form.” Adds Verve’s president Ron Goldstein, “When I thought about the importance of this project and what it would mean to jazz music, it was time to put aside bragging rights or ego. I can honestly say from the first meetings between our two staffs that the air of cooperation and mutual desire for Jazz has been exceptional.” Sony Music and Verve have also contributed 20,000 CDs to support the education program and promotion for the film in addition to donating CDs to each of the UNCF member schools.

So prepare for the deluge. Between Starbucks and NBA ads on TV, the flood of CDs in record stores and constant exposure in schools, Jazz is bound to be on people’s minds come January. And with this kind of aggressive push behind it, who knows? Maybe the net effect will be to kick jazz record sales up a few percentage points in the marketplace. Maybe into double figures, even. Originally Published