Ken Burns’ “Jazz:” Crossing Boundaries of Possibility

By Lee A. Daniels

Director of Publications
National Urban League
(Guest Columnist)

As someone who's been interested in jazz since age 12, I eagerly awaited the documentary on this great American art form that Ken Burns, the historian and filmmaker, would present to the American people and the world.

I'd been deeply impressed with Burns' previous discussions of American history, including his series on the Civil War and on Major League Baseball. To me his work exemplifies the point that if you're not afraid to seek the truth of American history, then a great and poignant drama awaits you.

Well, I can't wait for the end of the nineteen-hour series, which I've been following religiously on the Public Broadcasting Service, to render my impressions.

It's more than I expected: always informative and evocative, by turns lyrical, rollicking, inspiring, sobering, the series is a great contribution to the telling of American history.

Oh, yes, I know, there's been some significant criticism of it—especially of the fact that gives very short shrift to the post-1960 period of jazz and avant-garde jazz in general. It strikes me that some significant portion of the criticism about the presentation and analysis of the music itself is valid and deserves wider discussion.

Beyond that, there is the point the contemporary saxophonist Joshua Redman made in a recent article on the series in the New York Times.

He said that one limitation inherent "in any historical account of an art form is that the organic, intangible essence of the art itself can be obscured in the narrative process." Thus, he continued, a documentary about jazz "can never fully capture the soul of the jazz experience."

Nonetheless, Redman found the series "edifying, engaging and entertaining," because it will "hopefully stimulate [viewers] to discover themselves—through actual listening, witnessing, maybe even playing what jazz really is. This film leads its viewers to an open door. What happens inside is ultimately up to them, and us."

Some critics take on the Burns' series in far more caustic terms. But this, in my view, is all part of the debate any important history should provoke.

Indeed, by forcing a deeper consideration of what the series did portray—and what it left out—the criticism is likely to even further advance the contribution this series has made to our understanding how jazz developed and why it was and continues to be so important.

Perhaps Burns' most significant contribution is to make clear how embedded in the foundations and development of jazz is the African-American Experience and how inseparable this is from the American Experience.

It is a complex tale, fully reflected in the music itself, in which joy, innocent and bawdy, beauty, exalted achievement, courage, and inspiring examples of decent human behavior are all mixed up with greed, jealousy, deprivation, discrimination and tragedy.

One could expect no less of an art form (and the people who created and advanced it) that was forged out of the seemingly barren crucible of chattel slavery and the dehumanizing era of legalized segregation that followed.

Jazz coalesced at the same historical moment that the Supreme Court's disgraceful 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson effectively deprived African Americans throughout the country of their civil rights, and validated a murderous reign of terror in the South that was to last for the next sixty years.

Yet, not only did jazz declare that we have survived and are determined to do better, it also keenly showed the sensibility needed for the modern times then sweeping over civilization. That is the understanding that the ability to maintain a posture of hope and affirmation even while being besieged was the only way one could live in the modern world.

No one could hear the music that came out of Black America during this period, or consider the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and so on, and pretend that African Americans were simply a people burdened with despair and self-doubt.

Finally, the history of jazz underscores the fact that, despite the worst that racism in America did do, the boundary of race in America was never completely a boundary of limitation.

Instead, it was a boundary of permeability, and thus, of possibility. It was always being crossed and re-crossed—by both sides—time and again.

The human expression of their talent pushed black Americans to create the music that "crossed" into the American mainstream culture as soon as it began to be played. And whites, individuals and the masses, "crossed" into the black American sub-culture in order to find the music, and the sensibility, and the individual models on which they would build part or all of their lives.

Jazz, the music Black America created at the beginning of the twentieth century, declared that art is by nature integrative, that the imagination is by nature integrative.

As with so much else about jazz, the point was superbly made by Duke Ellington. During an interview he was asked what he was doing while seemingly aimlessly playing the piano.

He replied: "This isn't piano; this is dreaming."

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