Notes on the Ken Burns Jazz Series

I recently watched Ken Burns’ 12-part documentary series about the history of jazz. Burns is known for producing epic documentary series like this, including one on the Vietnam War. Here are the notes I took from it, for those of you interested:

  1. This series talks a lot about how jazz could only have happened in America, and frankly leans into the American angle to an excessive degree. The relevant factors it points out are: a large ethnic minority, a cultural history of appreciating freedom, and a general penchant for improvisation and error-correction, embodied in things like the constitution.
  2. Ted Giola writes about the ‘Pythagorean paradigm’ that dominated Western music for centuries. This is the view that “holds that notes should always be played in tune, without bends or deviations of pitch.” The benefit of this is that music can be notated and passed on with high reliability – in the language of James Scott, it can be made legible. The angle this series takes is that jazz was indelibly influenced by African music, because Africa never shared this obsession with systematisation and notation.
  3. This series very much ties in with my interest in cities, urban design and agglomeration effects. The important developments in jazz were remarkably concentrated in Chicago and New York (and, briefly, Kansas City). The heart of jazz in the war years was 52nd street in New York. Jazz was being heard by tens of millions of people, and yet its artistic development was occurring largely on the one street! There were a few different traditions in jazz, including the bebop-y Kansas City tradition and the West Coast tradition, which was mostly white and exemplified by Dave Brubeck. It’s very interesting to me how these artistic and intellectual trends can be so geographically clustered – e.g. West Coast vs. East Coast hip hop, the Chicago school in economics, Continental vs. Anglo-American philosophy, etc. How accurate are these labels? Is the main effect in talented people moving to places where they fit in intellectually, or that people in different locations get influenced differently?
  4. It appears that musical ability does not remotely fit in a Gaussian distribution. This is most evident in the mid-to-late 20s jazz scene, in which you have Louis Armstrong and you have everyone else, and no-one else is even close. In other words, why is there only one Elon Musk? If talent were a normal distribution, you would expect there to be many people who are 90% as accomplished as Elon Musk, but very few, or none, of these people exist. Is this an extreme version of the Matthew effect?
  5. People love a good rivalry, and there are a few of these scattered throughout the history of jazz. During segregation, this “rivalry” was between the dominant white band and the dominant black band. In the late 20s, Fletcher Henderson led the foremost black big band and Paul Whiteman led the foremost white one.
  6. This series should have been shorter. The major figures get introduced multiple times, in large part owing to the fact that most viewers won’t have seen all previous parts, and so they have to catch you up. They could have cut four of the episode without much loss, particularly when covering the early development of jazz in New Orleans.
  7. I’m interested in whether people’s musical attention spans have shortened. Generally, jazz is an interesting case study in the story of whether media in general has gotten more complex. Charlie Chaplain films can be followed by a kid; Friends is simple and easy to follow; Game of Thrones is sprawling and extremely complicated. Similarly, jazz during the ‘jazz age’ was actually pretty simple and consisted often in 3-minute dance tunes. My guess is that the selection effects within genres or media are toward complexity, but the selections effects between genres are away from complexity. Hence why you get a progression from books to TV to TikTok, but a growth in the sophistication of radio, TV, and music over time.
  8. The series briefly alludes to the possibility that jazz should be referred to as a form of classical music. Indeed, the jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan referred to jazz as ‘black classical’. The meaning of classical music seems to be unclear in much the same way the meaning of the word ‘literature’ is, which so far as I can tell, is often used to mean fiction that’s actually good.
  9. I can see why someone would think that the series is dismissive of more popular forms of jazz – for instance, Glenn Miller is brushed over remarkably quickly. There is a certain attitude that if people actually listen to the music you make, you must be doing something wrong.
  10. The episode featuring Coleman Hawkins was the most interesting to me. He really transformed the use of the saxophone. Before him, tenor sax in particular was considered kind of a joke instrument because of its association with vaudeville. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins were another great jazz rivalry. They had an opposite sound: Young was airy and hollow-sounding, while Hawkins’ playing was heavier.
  11. The series relies extensively on interviews with Wynton Marsalis, Gary Giddins, Gerald Early and others. They are subject to the usual hyperbole present in the “guy interviewed for a documentary” genre. I find that people who love a certain topic are apt to overstate the influence of the most influential figures. I see this a lot in philosophy, where people will talk about about how 20 or 30 philosophers from a certain era are “essential” reading, even though, realistically, people with only a casual interest in philosophy only need to know about a few of these.
  12. Something I hadn’t thought about before: in the 30s, the top white jazz musicians were mostly Jewish and the rest of the top musicians were black. This was a pretty powerful symbol to send before and during WW2, and was one of the reasons that jazz was banned by the Nazis. In a totally bizarre episode of history, the Nazis later changed their minds about this and Goebbels ordered the creation of Nazi jazz, (!) which featured popular swing tunes with anti-semitic lyrics.
  13. An under-appreciated figure I learned about: Billy Strayhorn. He was a composer and pianist with the Duke Ellington big band. He even arranged “Take the “A” Train” and named it after the directions Ellington gave to get to his apartment.
  14. Dizzy Gillespie was the famous trumpeter who in collaboration with Charlie Parker launched the bebop revolution (see here for the only surviving footage of them playing together). The series has a number of interesting things to say about Gillespie. For one thing, he revived the association between jazz and the Caribbean, which had existed since the beginning due to the many Caribbean immigrants to New Orleans who influenced the music. He was very public-facing, and kind of silly, which led people to not really realise the extent to which he drove the music forward. You get the sense that he was this under-appreciated mentor figure that orchestrated one of the most significant musical shifts in the 20th century.
  15. Something I neglected to mention in my Miles Davis post: the first Miles Davis band was the Miles Davis nonet. Nine is an usual number of musicians for a band, and it featured a tuba and French horn. They only recorded a few sessions but one of them was released as The Birth of the Cool.
  16. I loved the stuff about how Miles Davis relentlessly wanted spontaneity in his musicians. Apparently none of the musicians he recorded with ever even saw the sheet music before they got to the recording session (!).
  17. I can see why people say that this series is harsh on jazz fusion. It’s not harsh on the Avant Garde, or on modern jazz in general. In a 12-part series they only really have one interviewee talk about jazz fusion (!) and he does so in a very negative light, which makes it seem like the producers endorse this view. While the late Miles Davis period does not make for easy listening, some of it is excellent.

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