Four months after Ken Burns's massive ten-part documentary Jazz first aired on public television, the air still hasn't cleared. Jazz fans and jazz factions thrive on argument -- always have -- and Burns has provoked a real cutting session. Admirers say the nineteen-hour film is the most exciting, exacting and complete history of the great American art ever produced and that it has given rise to a new generation of jazz listeners. The most vocal critics charge that the filmmaker has reduced jazz to a static museum piece no longer capable of innovation and that the series' racial and cultural biases are a disservice to the music.
Whitney Balliett, longtime jazz critic for The New Yorker magazine, summarized the looming dispute with his usual aplomb: "I don't know if the Burns film will make people tap their feet or make them feel as if they were watching a film about ancient Egypt."
The evidence suggests it's done both -- along with kicking jazz recordings and books up to a higher volume at the cash registers. In Denver, 50,000 to 60,000 households -- huge numbers for PBS programming -- watched each episode, and viewership was equally strong on most of America's 300 public stations. Jazz even outscored Antiques Roadshow."This pretty much blew everything out of the water," says a spokesperson for KRMA/Channel 6. "It was our best-received programming in two years."
There's more. Verve Records reports that its five-CD boxed set based on the series sold 110,000 copies in three months, setting a new standard for jazz recordings, and the controversial $65 "companion" book written by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward (his collaborator on two earlier series hits, The Civil War and Baseball) has landed on 175,000 coffee tables since last November. Jazz books are usually modest (10,000 to 45,000) movers, and despite the growing popularity of jazz clubs and festivals, only 3 percent of CDs sold last year were categorized as "jazz" -- and that includes the inflated commercial appeal of pop-jazz anomalies like saxophonist Kenny G.
At the big Tower Records store in Cherry Creek (where jazz volume was already a respectable 15 percent), jazz CD sales have increased 20 to 25 percent since the series ran in January. In the midst of the first broadcast, store manager Pete Leon says, fifteen to thirty people a week asked for guidance from his staff about jazz records. "That's fallen off, but not sales. I'm curious to see what happens now. I'm hoping it really piqued a lot of people's interest and that we'll get some jazz fans for life."
The heroic pillars of Burns's history -- Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis -- have attracted the most interest among first-time jazz buyers, but there's been a noticeable ripple effect as knowledge of the music spreads. "We also saw a huge spike in Joe Pass, Grant Green, Jimmy Smith," reports Paul Epstein, owner of Twist & Shout, Denver's leading independent CD outlet. Known as sublime musicians to longtime jazz fans, these three barely got a mention in Jazz, but their disks are now leaping out of the bins. "Even Paul Whiteman sales went up," Epstein says. This fact will justifiably irk Burns-bashers. Grounded in the neo-conservative theories of the New Orleans-born trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center chieftain Wynton Marsalis -- and his philosophical companions, writers Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch -- Jazz takes time to diss the clunky non-jazz Whiteman perpetrated in the '20s. But it virtually ignores great latter-day innovators like bassist Charles Mingus and pianist Bill Evans. Errol Garner, the ground-breaking Art Ensemble of Chicago and a half a dozen other major figures are not mentioned at all.
Meanwhile, Burns crams the most recent four decades of jazz history -- John Coltrane to John Zorn -- into his galloping final episode -- as if to say that nothing very significant has happened to this vivid, ever-evolving music since the end of the Eisenhower administration. The one exception, of course, seems to be Wynton Marsalis himself. Of the film's 57 talking heads, Marsalis is by far the most talkative, and his view (both fiercely disputed and coolly embraced) continues to be that jazz is strictly blues-based, dance-oriented music inimical to free-form or any European influence at all.
At this spring's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the magisterial drummer Max Roach, whose career began in the hotbed of bebop and continues to push the edges of percussive and harmonic invention, said this about Burns's tribute: "It tells part of the story, but only part. Louis Armstrong is the father of us all, but we've learned much more as his children than the series shows."
Still, Jazz may be, as Village Voice critic Richard B. Woodward writes, "the last, best hope for jazz to connect with the American public again." In case you missed a chorus or two in January, Channel 6 is currently running the entire series again, on Fridays at 9 p.m. This week's episode is number four, one of three set in the 1930s. The series will be pre-empted June 1 and June 8, then resume each Friday through July 20.
Praise for Burns's efforts and heated disputes about his approach will likely last much longer. Not since CBS-TV broadcast a pioneering (and still memorable) hour called The Sound of Jazz back in 1957 has the improvisational, idiosyncratic, inimitable music passed so close to the pulse of American mass culture. Whether it remains in earshot or moves on remains to be seen -- and heard. But observers like Twist & Shout's Epstein think Lady Day, the Duke and Ornette might just stick around for awhile. He notices a heightened interest in jazz at his store -- sales of Miles Davis's seminal Kind of Blue have doubled since January, and he's sold 65 Thelonious Monk CDs from the Ken Burns Verve collection -- and he's thrilled by it. "Because this was on public TV," Epstein says, "the jazz niche might now be a little deeper and a little more ingrained in our public institutions. Certainly it's rewarding to see something we've devoted so much time to rewarded in the public media; it's nice to have such a positive light shed on it."
Amid the cacophony of argument, the band plays on.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.