Ken Burns: Jazz-A Critique

I admit that Ken Burns is NOT my cup of tea. The way that all of his films are so long, needlessly pedantic, and quite frankly pretentious is really off-putting. Indeed, even the makers of the ASPCA commercials which feature images of mistreated animals might look at Ken Burns and remark about how heavy-handed he is.

While I’m not sure why Ken Burns had to RUTHLESSLY PILFER 20 HOURS OF MY LIFE to talk about Jazz, what I am most upset with is Burns’s arrogance. Now, I have been accused of being arrogant myself, but a friend once described me as being more “delightfully arrogant.” Picture someone like Kelsey Grammer’s portrayal of the famous “Dr. Frasier Crane” character. You know, snobby but lovable.

Burns, on the other hand, proves his arrogance by making people believe that they should WANT to spend 20 HOURS OF THEIR LIVES watching his work. Further, Burns is arrogant because he is passing off his biased opinion of the “history” of Jazz as some kind of all-encompassing chronology. If that were true, he would have mentioned Robert Johnson right off the bat and the blues movement of his day of which modern jazz is a direct descendent. It is not the “history” of Jazz, it is Jazz through Burns’s own, biased lens.

Moreover, he didn’t even bother to mention modern Jazz musicians like Lee Ritenour, David Sanborn, Kenny G., Keiko Matsui or Oingo Boingo. How can you mention Wynton Marsalis and not mention David Sanborn? Oh, I know! It’s because Wynton Marsalis has the same, selective knowledge of Jazz that Burns does. NOT a coincidence. Recall that Miles Davis (who was also conspicuously absent from the documentary) once refused to play with Marsalis citing Marsalis’s limited knowledge of music. Additionally, I would submit that Al Jarreau deserves a mention. His was the voice of Jazz in the ’70s and ’80s.

No, it was obvious that Burns’s target audience was snide, upper-middle class, White people who have never touched a Black person. (People like my grandparents) Those are the type of people at whom Burns was aiming. Those are also the type of people who are afraid of talking about REAL jazz and how its roots are set in the raw, untamed, sounds of a single musician noodling on his guitar talking about how the world hates him and he hates it right back.

So, if you’re an elitist yuppie, you’ll love Ken Burns: Jazz. For the rest of us who are forward-thinking and love all forms of expression without censor or sanitization, I would steer clear of it. I wish I had.


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