Burned Out

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 31 2001 3:00 AM

Burned Out

Why did Ken Burns leave contemporary musicians out of Jazz?

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If you've read the critical reaction to PBS's 10-part documentary Jazz (concluding this Wednesday at 9 p.m.), you know that Ken Burns and his crew of commentators pay scant attention to the post-Coltrane era. The 17-plus hour series devotes twice the amount of time to the four years between 1935 and 1939 as it does to the past four decades and hints that in recent years the public lost interest in jazz and the form has stagnated. Some critics have attributed this omission to the heavy hand of "senior creative consultant" Wynton Marsalis, who heads up what might be called the neocon movement of jazz, which, broadly stated, favors returning to codified jazz traditions over pushing the boundaries of the form.

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Here's another, more innocuous theory. In Burns' series, jazz is inextricably tied to race and racial struggles; indeed, Burns has stated outright that Jazz, along with his series on the Civil War and baseball, is part of a trilogy on the theme of race in America. While it's relatively easy to build an early history of jazz around an examination of race, that relationship is much harder to plot when it comes to today's jazz renaissance.

Stars of the current jazz scene come from a wide range of backgrounds and draw on a mishmash of sources. Take the prayer shawl and fatigues-wearing John Zorn, spiritual leader of some of the most innovative musicians now playing in New York. Zorn has experimented with soundtracks, Japanese noise, and game theory—in his band Cobra, Zorn "conducts" by holding up randomly generated cards and giving ever-changing signals through gestures to a revolving cast of musicians—among other genres. Zorn's most transcendent recent work has been with his Jewish-themed group Masada. (Like Latin jazz, Western swing, and other subgenres that didn't fit neatly into a straightforward explication on race in America, klezmer music, or "Jewish jazz," was ignored by Burns.) Listen to "Gevurah," the first track from Bar Kokhba, a set of klezmer compositions Zorn sets as chamber music: With bassist Greg Cohen and pianist Anthony Coleman (two longtime Zorn collaborators who both record for Zorn's label, Tzadik) vamping on an almost sultry, Middle Eastern riff, drummer Kenny Wolleson beats out a syncopated rhythm that owes more to Latin jazz than it does to klezmer. The group reaches for inspiration from tango master Astor Piazzolla and Ornette Coleman's early quartets (click here to listen to two other selections from Bar Kokhba). Many of the musicians on Bar Kokhba are making equally rewarding, and hard to classify, music of their own. Trumpeter Dave Douglas released the best album of his career last year with Soul on Soul, a tribute to Mary Lou Williams, a woefully overlooked African-American piano player who reached her peak in the 1940s. Uri Caine's The Goldberg Variations, which follows similar treatments of Mahler and Wagner, and is criminally hard to find, mixes woeful blue notes, honking clarinets, boogie-woogie breakdowns and DJ Logic with Bach's intellectually masterful composition.

Or consider pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, the leaders of another, more visceral and less overtly intellectualized jazz clique. Shipp and Parker tend to expand jazz's traditions from within instead of adding ingredients from the larger musical stew. Right now Shipp is in the middle of producing The Blue Series for Thirsty Ear Records, a number of small band recordings that meld the blues with the free jazz and experimental traditions (click on "1_Blue Decco" to listen to the track). A Shipp mini-tradition is turning children's traditionals into dark, brooding wonders. On this clip from last year's Pastoral Composure, Shipp attacks "Frere Jacques." With Shipp dragging out the chords and pounding away at the lower register of his keyboard, trumpeter Roy Campbell begins with the theme before delving into an incantation, updating Coltrane's sheets-of-sound approach.

Perhaps one reason Burns chose not to include Zorn, Shipp, Parker, and their contemporaries is the characters don't fit into Burns' typography. In Jazz, white—and oftentimes Jewish—figures are described as practicing obsessively and bursting with ambition. Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and their kin are painted as materialistic obsessives. Indeed, Burns makes a point of noting how Goodman's father signed Benny up for a local band at his synagogue after learning that a neighbor's boys were earning extra money by playing music. Burns' description of black musicians, meanwhile, focuses on a preternatural, almost animistic talent; in his discussion of Coltrane's incessant playing, Burns alludes to Coltrane's spiritual nature—the music was in his soul—rather than his perfectionism. This neat dichotomy doesn't hold up with today's musicians. Zorn, Douglas, and Caine are white, Shipp and Parker are black, and  all of them are continuing Charlie Mingus' fight to retain control of their own music (Zorn with his Tzadik label, Shipp and Parker with their independent or self-released albums). Half of Douglas' band is black, and Soul on Soul is a tribute to a female African-American pianist.

Interviews and segments on this bunch undoubtedly would have been interesting and maybe even provocative. (Shipp and Marsalis have been sniping at each other for years.) But they wouldn't have Burnsian narrative import or a straightforward message about race. Don't let that be a reason not to listen to their music. Their stories might not be as stirring, but their sound sure is.

Seth Mnookin is the associate director of MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. His most recent book is The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. Follow him on Twitter.

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