Ken Burns: booked up for rest of century

By then we'll see his series on the history of jazz

Originally published in Current, Dec. 4, 1995

While in D.C. to accept public TV's highest award, Ken Burns also scouted camera angles at the Jefferson Memorial for next year's biography of the third president and put in some time fundraising for a big jazz history series that he hopes to get on the air in the year 2000.

Most producers have only hazy notions of what they'll do after their next projects, but Burns has his work cut out for the rest of the century, and a commitment from General Motors to pay part of the cost.

In his thank-yous for CPB's Ralph Lowell Award, Burns left no doubt that the documentaries would all be made for public TV, his outlet for his entire 15-year filmmaking career.

''People, individuals, networks, cable stations approach me all the time, ask me to come and make my films with them. I say every single time, 'No, I am happy where I am.' Not that I can be a big fish in a small pond, but that I am a small fish in a big pond that trusts me to do my work, does not corrupt that work with undue commercial messages, that allows my messages to come out undistracted by the clutter of our all-consuming professional lives, and simply has been a good friend in the arduous, incredibly difficult task of merely putting a film together.''

He contradicted the claim of private-sector ideologues that commercial cable networks could have produced his breakthrough series The Civil War. ''The marketplace cannot, will not, ever be able to make The Civil War, Eyes on the Prize, Baseball, any of the films that I've worked on, or any of the remarkable films that my colleagues have worked on. ... The marketplace does not write Shakespearian plays, the marketplace does not produce the best news, children's, history and science programs.''

Public TV faces a ''persistent threat'' from ''those disingenuous and sanctimonious forces in our political firmament who can in one breath bemoan a loss of morality in our cultural landscape and then turn in the next breath do everything to deny funding to one of the few institutions, public television, which is doing the best job of uniting our often-fractured union and providing a genuine alternative to the decay ... ''

His next products will come to PBS for broadcast in fall 1996: The West, Stephen Ives' series for which he is executive producer, and the Jefferson bio, first of five planned American Lives profiles.

After Jefferson, will come American Lives programs about Lewis and Clark, Frank Lloyd Wright, ''a dual biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,'' and a fifth subject to be named later. For the fifth spot, he's considering such figures as Mark Twain, Sitting Bull, boxer Jack Johnson and photographer Edwin Curtis, he told Current.

If American Lives works out well, he expects to start planning a new round of bios before the first five are done.

But the big project on his horizon, at the turn of the century, is a multipart series about jazz, which Burns sees as the sequel to his Civil War and Baseball histories--all dealing with the soul of the nation and the relations between black and white. He's already filming interviews with musicians who knew and played with the immortals of jazz like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and about half of the production's budget of about $8 million is committed.

An airdate in 2000 may see far off, but that's a normal timetable for Burns. ''When I proposed The Civil War in 1984,'' he said in an interview, ''1990 sounded a long way away. And when I proposed Baseball in 1989, 1994 sounded a long way away.''

The idea for the jazz history has been cooking in his head for a while. In interviews for Baseball, he took note when historian Gerald Early said that the country will be remembered for three things: the Constitution, baseball and jazz. And when he watched broadcasts of the baseball series, with so much music swinging on the soundtrack, ''I decided I've got to do jazz.''

Jazz is the latest in a thread of emotionally resounding historical topics for the Burns documentaries, starting with Brooklyn Bridge in 1981. The others have been: The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God in 1984, Huey Long and The Statue of Liberty in 1985, Thomas Hart Benton and The Congress in 1988, The Civil War in 1990, Empire of the Air in 1991 and Baseball in 1994.

Though Burns has remained a hands-on filmmaker who often runs his own camera, he acknowledged the essential help he's gotten from CPB and its Television Program Fund director, Don Marbury; General Motors, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other funders; and his ''home'' at WETA, its past president Ward Chamberlin and its present president, Sharon Rockefeller, who ''never flinched when I said, 'Well, maybe [Baseball] should be 18-and-a-half hours long and I think I need another $2 million.' ''

He also thanked his coproducers and collaborators. ''Sometimes I feel like I'm just Tom Sawyer--just a clever boy who has convinced his many talented friends to help him get his fence painted.''


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