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Not Exactly All That Jazz

Even at 19 hours, Ken Burns' new opus couldn't cover everything about the music, and that is causing some static.

August 06, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

NEW YORK — Two gunshots shatter the stillness, a violent collision of silence and sound.

Images of Paris in the 1920s flicker on a screen as a narrator describes an incident in which hot-tempered soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet pulled out a revolver and fired at a musician who accused him of playing a wrong chord.

In the isolation of a Manhattan mixing studio, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, producer Lynn Novick and the episode's editor, Craig Mellish, watch closely, discussing possible ways to make the shots fit: to move the narration, for example, or adjust the picture. The exchange continues for nearly 15 minutes before Burns and Novick reach a decision. The shots, a sound-effects addition intended to create dramatic ambience, don't work. They'll have to go--at least for the moment.

It's just one deliberation of a great many that have taken place over the past five years, as thousands of sounds, stories and images have been fused into a massive 19-hour, 10-episode documentary, "Jazz," scheduled to air on PBS in January, the latest work from the creator of "The Civil War" and "Baseball."

Beyond the doors of the studio, another argument is beginning to unfold, one of ideas and interpretations as dissonant voices within the jazz community confront the question of how the story of the music should be told, and whether Burns is framing it from a limited historical perspective. Specifically, questions arise about the influence of trumpeter, composer and Jazz at Lincoln Center creative director Wynton Marsalis, whose views on jazz have already triggered years of infighting around the jazz community, and whether "Jazz" glosses over the last four decades, leaving out key figures and musical styles.

The sniping will undoubtedly increase, long before the actual airing of "Jazz," in part because of advance screenings Burns has and will continue to present around the country.

It's not surprising, of course, that the documentary is already evoking some critical reactions. Jazz has always had its factions. Fans who recall the '40s can remember the wars of words between swing musicians and beboppers, in which the boppers referred to mainstream players (or to anyone who didn't support the new music) as "moldy figs."

But a work as large and ambitious as "Jazz" obviously presents an extremely large target. Burns' acknowledgment of his ignorance of the music when he started the project makes it an even easier mark. Jazz, after all, is neither as manifestly historical as the Civil War, nor as popular with the mainstream as baseball. And the challenge Burns has faced with the project has been the need to understand that--whatever happened historically--the music's essential creativity is the core of the story, simply because it is the factor that has always been the fuel that drove the players, both the great ones and the lesser known.

That's a difficult task for a filmmaker who has tended to emphasize chronological, historical points of view. Burns has worked hard to keep the music central to the story. But he also views jazz and improvisation as a metaphor for American society and a device to explore African American history in the 20th century. It's a useful, if arguable, technique that frequently makes extremely effective points. But it also tends at times to place the music at the service of Burns' (and his advisors') historical perspective.

Like the multi-episodic and much-honored "The Civil War" and "Baseball," "Jazz" has been a long time in the making, in part because of the vastness of the subject, but also because Burns' approach to filmmaking calls for the accumulation of huge amounts of minutiae.

Burns, a slender, smallish bearded man whose dark, Beatles-style bangs make him look considerably younger than his 47 years, is surely America's best-known documentarian. His "Brooklyn Bridge" was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981, and "The Civil War" drew an audience of 40 million during its premiere in September 1990--the largest audience ever for a public television program. It received two Emmy awards. "Baseball" attracted 45 million for its 18 hours and received another Emmy.

Curiously, he found himself irresistibly drawn to jazz while making "Baseball."

"I realize now that it actually incubated for a long time," says Burns during a lunch break in the mixing, which is taking place at a studio in Manhattan's legendary Brill Building (interestingly, a center, in the '50s and '60s, for the pop and rock 'n' roll songwriters whose music would eventually help draw young people away from jazz).

"There was a comment by Gerald Early, a writer we interviewed for 'Baseball' as well as 'Jazz,' " says Burns. "He said something to the effect that, a thousand years in the future, America will be remembered for three things: the Constitution, baseball and jazz.

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