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Jazz Is

The companion book is at least less tedious than the series


The book lists for $65. The19-hour Ken Burns PBS series it’s meant to accompany is free if you have a TV.

So far, the book is actually the better value.

You can put it down when you’ve had enough for one sitting and come back to it when you like. And without feeling like some kind of cultural traitor. The series, six years in the making, is boring and formulaic but binds you to it out of a leaden sense of duty. Nothing about the plodding presentation is fresh or innovative, let alone daring enough to challenge preconceived notions about the lives of the jazz saints. Most of the esteemed jazz authorities called upon to hold forth on Pops and Jelly Roll become tiresome within a half-hour. The clumsy race pedagoguery of writer Gerald Early sets the teeth on edge, and even the boundless affability of Wynton Marsalis eventually becomes just a little too infectious to put up with.

Book and series are solemnly pious and repugnantly prudish. The book doesn’t make any pretensions to comprehensiveness, but the series seems to skip over any figure in the history of “America’s music” whose recorded output hasn’t been picked over by Burns for tunes to give “definitive” status to in the accompanying CD collections and boxed sets. While reading the book, you are presumably free to listen to anything you like. Louis Armstrong. Captain Beefheart. The Flying Luttenbachers. A clanking steam heater.

I could go on like this, but you get the idea. There are many gaping holes in both the chronology and the dramatis personae of Burns’ odyssey, but that is to be expected with a project this ambitious. It’s just that the oversights seem so unnecessary in light of the excess of adoring attention heaped on just a few personalities. At the time of this writing, four installments of the series have aired, and I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten to know any of the players any better than I did two weeks ago. And, having sat through no less than two hours of just Louis Armstrong, I find this completely unacceptable.

Sins of omission are one thing. What leaves me limp is how little in the way of actual detail emerges from the smug pageantry of the series. The most interesting characters are the ones who merit less than 10 minutes of screen time. Characters like John Hammond, camp-following socialite and jazz writer who eventually befriended most of the greats of the ’20s and ’30s. And pianist Art Tatum, who was completely blind in one eye, mostly blind in the other, played pinochle with a special light rigged up so he could squint at his card and put away Pabst Blue Ribbon by the quart.

The major players are the ones Burns just can’t fawn over enough, until they just never seem to go away. Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman don’t outstay their welcome under their own steam so much as they find themselves plagued by a surfeit of biographers and other experts striving to outstrip each other in earthy metaphor and deathless prose about how their minds exploded the first time they heard this or that genius do his natural thing. And then cut to Wynton Marsalis chirping away with the cocksure alacrity of someone who, apart from his obvious passion for the music, also obviously considers himself a living legacy and heir to all this tradition.

Certain of these criticisms also apply to the book, but at least the book never falls into the tedious rhythm of the series. The format, with all its photos and essay sections and sidebars, is modular enough that you can skip around as much as you like.

If you’ve got $65 lying around, it’s a nice book to have. You can buy a Louis Armstrong album used for a buck or two at any good record shop, and you will find the chatty liner notes to be much more edifying than the Ken Burns series.

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