Ken Burns' Jazz Revisited

Growing up named after Miles Davis, I guess I had a healthier interest in jazz than the teenagers around me ODing on Spoonie G (though I was one of them, too). The first record I ever spent money on, at the Fordham Road Crazy Eddie’s around 1984, was some kind of My Funny Valentinecompilation by Miles. (The second: UTFO.) But even though I’m a critic, I’ve got to admit that my knowledge hit a wall back in my 20s. I know my Miles, Monk and Mingus, my Holiday, my Coltrane (both John and Alice), a little Ellington. But that’s literally everybody whose music I’ve enjoyed over the years, barring an occasional Don Cherry disc. Pop’s Christmas gift this year was Ken Burns Jazz.

The DVD compilation is 90 hours of video including all the extra bells and whistles, but each of the 10 shows in the program are nearly two hours long: more like 20 hours in all then. I’m up to disc 5 now, where bandleaders Benny Goodman and Chick Webb are about to battle for swing supremacy up at the Savoy in Harlem. It’s been so worth my time. I saw some of these episodes when then originally aired in 2000, but I couldn’t make the commitment to sit down every night for it like that. I knew I’d own it, and I’d watch it then. Nine years later…

“Creole Love Call” by Duke Ellington is the best three minutes of music I’ve ever heard. (I got mad in NYC weeks ago when I saw the Dolce & Gabbana commercial with Matthew McConaughey and Miles Davis’s “Générique,” my all-time favorite jazz tune – now everybody‘s gonna hear it – so I think it’s supplanted.) Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” was as omnipresent and iconic for its time as, like, “All About the Benjamins” or “The Show.” Being raised in the South Bronx when hiphop started, I don’t need to catch up on its history the way I guess a lot of Generation Y cats born outside of New York might need to. I remember it all firsthand without the Ego Trip Book of Rap Lists (though I love that book anyway).

But jazz is different. I know the names – Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Buddy Bolden – but not the music, not beyond the seven people in the first paragraph. Now more than ever, it’s possible to just grab the whole discography of, say, Sidney Bechet and stick it in my iPod for later. I got 80 gigas, what else are they for? My knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) race man reaction to Ken Burns back in 2000 was that he was a culture vulture putting undue emphasis on jazz as an American music, as in, “blacks were part of it, but it wasn’t their creation.” Maybe that’s why I stopped watching, in fact. Now that I don’t live in America, I realize the truth of his point much better. I’m a lot less hypersensitive about theft from the race than I used to be. Yes, whites were there, they were in it. I don’t think Burns exaggerates their importance. From the disc I’m up to, Satchmo is obviously god, without whom the Brady Bunch theme wouldn’t have had any swing decades later. Thank Pops. (In fact: “thanks Pops.”)