September 29, 2023

An Interview with filmmaker
Ken Burns
by Dick Bogle

African-Americans, the only people to be enslaved in the history of our ostensibly free nation, turned their frustrations into the freest music on the planet,” so says the esteemed film maker, Ken Burns. “Jazz,” the latest Burns film exploration of the American fabric is a 17 1/2 hour, ten part documentary series on the history of jazz. Check your local Public Broadcasting listings for the time and date in your area. I had the pleasure of engaging in the following one on one conversation with Burns during his recent visit to Portland.

D.B.: What was the biggest challenge in putting together this series?

K.B.: It was figuring out what stories to tell. You can’t tell every story and you are always going to make somebody who is a jazz expert unhappy. How to take something that is traditionally background music and make it foreground. And to push the social things just back a little bit so that you have the opportunity to let the most important thing, the extraordinary music, the 497 pieces of music we have in this film, let them shine.

D.B.: Did you have a problem or dilemma between dealing with the sociology of jazz and the art of jazz?

K.B.: No, because I think this more than any subject and why I think this is my best film is because jazz is such a perfect reflection of the country. It was much easier to integrate the sociology and the politics and the race questions and all the other things like geography. This is also a film about great cities.

D.B.: Did you touch on the Black revolution or civil rights struggles in the fifties and sixties and the jazz music that came out of the movement?

K.B.: Oh yes, tremendously so. In fact one of the proudest sections I have is a set of four or five chapters at the beginning of the last episode. That is Mingus, Abbey Lincoln, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and the way jazz music really came to symbolize a new militancy and a new political importance to the music.

D.B.: Your selection of narrators reflects a great divergence of opinions with folks like Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins. Is there debate?

K.B.: I think so. We’ve got Cecil Taylor saying as he prepares for his concerts, so should his audience. We’ve got Branford Marsalis saying that is a bunch of self indulgent b.s. Somebody else comes on saying “I Love Cecil Taylor.” Someone else says ,”I respect his right to play what he wants, but I don’t have to listen to it.” These are the same kinds of arguments that go on, so we celebrate that. We have 75 people who are interview subjects. We had another two dozen consultants. We could never put them around a table because they’d be flying at each other with fist fights cause they would disagree about everything except—-that Louis Armstrong is most important person in music in the 20th century.

D.B.: Who is your target audience?

K.B.: I’m speaking to a general audience that is ignorant but curious about this music that is our national soundtrack. That is why we have to tell a coherent story and why we have so many great things. We have this music coming out on all these CDs, the book. General Motors, our underwriter, has an educational outreach program that is reaching six million , I repeat six million kids at the middle and high school levels. They are taking music classes so we get them before the pop junk ruins their lives and they get to understand the strength of this music.

D.B.: Has rap and hip hop hurt the future of jazz?

K.B.: Nothing has hurt the future of jazz. What’s happened is since world war II,when bebop came up and the music lost its’ relationship with a mass audience that wanted to dance, it’s now been seen primarily as an art music. It sort of fragments into a lot of different genres like hardbop, cool, modal, free, avant garde, fusion and hip hop. All of these forms, rock, r&b, soul, hip hop and rap are outgrowths of this music. But they are sort of pale versions of it.

D.B.: Do you think this series will increase the acceptability of jazz?

K.B.: I hope America will re-embrace jazz in all its’ forms whether New Orleans, and Louis Armstrong, or Chicago style, swing or bebop. Somebody is going to find something they like that is going to give them a much more sumptuous meal than the pop music that’s crowded jazz out of our main visibility.

D.B.: Are there enough youngsters to carry on?

K.B.: No question about it. They are artists struggling to express themselves in the ultimate American genius of improvisation. I see them everywhere.

Story and photo reprinted courtesy of