In Jazz, Burns tunes up talking heads like Wynton Marsalis (right) to a lyrical intensity. (Photos courtesy of WETA.)
Adapted from Current,
Jan. 15, 2001
By Steve Behrens
Listen as the waves roll in. Last week, public TV made a sizeable splash, beginning to plunk 19 hours of Ken Burns' Jazz into the ocean of the American public consciousness.
Overnight Nielsens indicated that PBS doubled its usual primetime audience, with a 4.4 rating and 6 share on the first night, 4/6 on the second night and 4/6 again on the third. Even larger percentages of viewers in the Hipster Belt watched the first episode San Francisco (10.1 rating), St. Louis and Seattle (8.5), New York (6.9), Kansas City (6.7), Boston (6.5) and New Orleans (6.2).
The first-night plunks were not as big as for Burns' earlier monuments in 1990 and 1994, comparing Jazz's 4.4/6 to The Civil War's 9/14 and Baseball's 5.1/7. Audience fragmentation may have trimmed the ratings over time.
But those are percentages. In terms of millions of viewers, according to PBS's cume projection, the first-night Jazz audience was nearly or virtually as large, capturing 12.6 million, by PBS's projection, compared to 15.1 million for The Civil War and 12.57 million for Baseball.
A long press tour by the tireless Burns, and then a fusillade of great reviews helped make the plunk a big one. Jazz is "as good as the documentary form can possibly get," raved longtime Village Voice journalist Jack Newfield in the New York Post.
"It invites joy, tears, toe-tapping, pride, shame and maybe an occasional goosebump," commented John Carman in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Can anyone ask more from the electronic box?"
The series "not only does jazz proud, it also rises to meet it," wrote Jay Cocks in Time. "Jazz is great television about great music." Cocks said Burns "may be the only documentary filmmaker at work today who would be entrusted with the time and resources to reckon with it."
Even some jazz periodicals approved (with some consistent reservations). The "superb, immediately absorbing narrative" brilliantly demystified the great performers of jazz, applauded John Murph in Down Beat. "In this film, the untouchables become accessible."
After Burns' big splash, public radio will be watching for ripples in its jazz audience. More than 30 NPR stations arranged underwriting tradeouts to publicize their jazz fare with video blurbs on PBS stations, according to NPR publicist Jenny Lawhorn. The network also re-fed its 1995-96 jazz series Making the Music, hosted by Burns' favorite talking head, Wynton Marsalis. And NPR heavied-up its rebroadcasts of programs featuring jazz legends on its major jazz series.
Billie Holiday in Jazz.
"A series like this comes along once in a lifetime" on TV, says Murray Horwitz, NPR's v.p. for cultural programming, while listeners can find jazz on many public radio stations any day of the week. And radio can give them things that TV can't, he sayslike a closer examination of the music itself. Horwitz points to last year's weekly "NPR 100" reports on All Things Considered that explicated major works of American music.
PBS will bring jazz to a wider public, summarizes Steve Rathe, executive producer of Jazz at Lincoln Center, but "public radio is where jazz lives."
Most intent on the backwash from Jazz are platoons of marketers, with tie-ins ranging from Starbucks to the National Basketball Association.
"This is the largest exposure that jazz can possibly get," says Seth Rothstein, senior director of jazz marketing at Sony Legacy, whose label joined with Verve to issue a CD, a five-disc boxed set and 22 artist compilations, all branded with Burns' name. Even before the series hit the air, consumers had bought an "unbelievable" 40,000 of the $60 boxed set, Rothstein said. The joint venture shipped 20,000 or more CDs of sax/clarinet star Sidney Bechet, for example, instead of the usual 2,000 or 3,000 copies. Rothstein guesses the TV splash will boost sales of Sony's older discs by 30 or 40 percent this year.
"I think it will bring in many who are on the periphery or are not fans at all," says Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records, who licensed about 30 songs for the Burns releases.
"It should lift contemporary stars like [Wynton] Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson onto network television and into the windows of CD stores, and maybe into video rotation on VH1," Jack Newfield speculated.
That's a big gain for a genre that now accounts for less than 3 percent of record sales.
Burns himself admitted in a Newsweek interview that he senses jazz could return to greater popularity. "I think it can fuse with popular music again, as it did in the 1930s, and be hugely entertaining."
But few mortals can sustain Burns' level of optimism. In the Dallas Morning News, Thor Christensen quotes singer Diane Reeves: "I don't think jazz will ever be American popular music again. The culture that used to surround jazz simply is not there anymore. The active listeners are gone, and the musicians make records to fit a format."
Burns isn't surprised that Americans today discount the value of jazz.
"As a country, we're in our adolescence, and adolescents think they'll live forever, so they're always looking forward," he told Christensen, "and they burn their past behind them like rocket fuel."
Recognizing the difficulties of their task, the producers hit their points firmly and repeatedly, underlining significance and hyping heroes. Narrator and talking heads alike agree that Louis Armstrong was God, or at least a gift from God.
"Louis Armstrong changed my life," Burns told Jack Newfield. "He made me a better person while I was in the editing room with him."
"If you're used to Burns going over the top, he won't let you down," wrote Steve Paul in the Kansas City Star. "The superlatives pour forth in dizzying succession."
"I swear that if Burns produced a 40-hour documentary series about the history of golf divots in American, he would tell you golf divots are uncannily precise mirrors of the national character," Carman commented in the San Francisco Chronicle. "And he would mean it."
Though Burns ends the series with a segment touching on the future of jazz, with solos by impressive teenaged players, numerous critics say his decision to cover the last 40 years of jazz in the 10th and last evening, and barely mention whole schools of recent jazz, carries a loud message that jazz is a museum piece.
"I left out many more generals in The Civil War," Burns quipped in Newsweek. "They just didn't have as vocal advocates."
But by compacting all that musical ferment in a "superficial and cramped toss-off," Burns not only missed great music but also a chance to reflect on the effects of commercial popularity in "that pervasive pop blandness, the 'soft jazz' that makes most of the dwindling jazz money today," wrote Steve Paul.
"Those taking Burns' project overall as a manifestothat jazz stopped decades agoare overreacting or misinterpreting," countered critic Larry Blumenfeld in Jazziz magazine. "He's waving the flag of jazz as sewn by its founders. And if this [CD box set] sends listeners off to fill in the gaps or extend the tale themselves, there are any number of satisfying sequels to assemble."
Sequels? "It would be terrific if public television could devote an equivalent amount of time to the spectrum of music that is being made today, and acknowledge it as a living art," says Rathe.
Maybe jazz could make another splash on PBS. Burns admitted to Newsweek that he "unhitched my narrative" for the 10th evening. "I refused to tell the present what it's about," he said.
"We didn't feel enough time had passed to have perspective," explains Burns' co-producer, Lynn Novick. And some of the recent music would be "difficult for an audience not already interested in jazz."
"It would be almost a different kind of film," she adds. "I hope somebody makes it."
Web page posted Jan. 18, 2001
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