Responses to Ken burns article logo

( Read the original KEN BURNS 'JAZZ' article here)

From Autumn 2001: Thanks to all of you who wrote in to share your thoughts on this artricle -- it meant so much! I have decided to select just a few of the most astute observations -- for a sampling of the many emails received from all over the world. It's good to know that there are so many devoted fans of Bill Evans' music-- and that the travesty of how the KEN BURNS documentary failed to acknowledge this major innovator was keenly felt.

NOTE: There has been no content editing done by me -- except for the fixing of an occasional grammatical error in order to facilitae the narrative flow.

Thank you all!

I just read your skillfully rendered piece about Ken Burns Jazz. I couldn't agree more with your analysis. I too am left with ambivalence in place of the excitement I was expecting from this series- and not just from the fleeting perception left by Ken Burns that Bill Evans sprung fully formed from Miles Davis rib only to evaporate after "Kind of Blue" was in "the can". If anything, the historical perception of Bill's role in "Kind of Blue" if anything is growing almost daily. Where were the "goods" on people like: Nat Cole, Wynton Kelly, Oscar Peterson,Dr. Billy Taylor, Marian McPartland, Dick Hyman or Joe Pass- to name but a few, both African-American and not ? In the last bit about contemporary artists - no mention of Diana Krall or John Pizzarelli whatsoever. The musical canvass itself may be the most "short-sheeted" of all Burns subjects, as you so ably point out. Songs of the day were the canvass and they formed a grand framework for most of 20th century jazz performance. No where was this more painfully obvious than the complete omission of the Brazilian influence of (Bill Evans one time building neighbor), Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose music was immensely popular in the 60's and which took Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd and others to the heights of their careers. There must be more of the Jazz story told than Ken Burns wonderful yet myopic vision. Burns vision is Dickensian- truly schizophrenic: the best and worst of times". Why doesn't "BET on Jazz", "History" or "A&E" (for instance) make an ongoing series on Jazz to fill in the Burns-blanks ? Surely, sooner or later the big Hollywood media celebrities and or their pets will have to be exhausted as subjects for these channels...I for one hope it will happen before all first hand accounts of artists who have left us is no longer possible. Maybe someone will interview the roster of Bill Evans bandmates on video for posterity, even if it's home video. Perhaps the "Smithsonian" or some other repository could organize or collect such tapes for Jazz artists against the day Burns or someone else gets "corrective lenses".

Bruce Brannigan

Unfortunately, I was not able to watch ALL of [Ken Burns'] "Jazz" due to work and other commitments. What I did see seemed to be very well done - especially regarding the early years.

I do agree that the entire work was really a portrait of America as seen through the evolution of Jazz. It was certainly less concerned with the music than with the social and cultural milieu.

Being a Bill Evans fan, I was certainly disappointed that he, among many others, received such short shrift. I suppose this slight had to do with the concentration on the social and cultural as opposed to the musical. I suppose one has to give Mr. Burns some license to dwell on that which interested him. It was his show. But it makes one want to go out and put together an addendum work that would say "Hey, what about this guy or that?" No doubt, though, that such an effort would again fall short, leaving out still others whose contributions should have been examined more fully.

The program was certainly a good primer for the history of Jazz (as far as it went.) However, I don't imagine the average Garth Brooks or Faith Hill fan spent much time watching it. But I feel that anything that attempts to get the word out about Jazz is worthwhile. Much the same can be said of the Three Tenors' appearances, and the rise of Charlotte Church's popularity over the last few years in bringing operatic music into the spotlight. I suppose it's a toss up depending upon who you talk to as to which is the harder sell - jazz or opera. Basically, both camps simply don't want their favored forms to die from neglect. Ken Burns "Jazz" may have added a little fuel to the dwindling fire. For those whose curiosity was tweaked, perhaps they will happily discover Bill Evans music on their own.

Terry Shannon

(If you find any of the above twaddle having enough merit to reprint, you may use my name. I don't think there are any outstanding warrants.)

Bill Evans 1977I found your editorial extremely interesting, balanced and thoughtful. However, I do wonder about us jazz fans. We seem to require separation into groups or niches, there has always been, and no doubt always will be such divisions, therefore nobody can agree on much, especially at the extremes. Just like all human endeavours. Though I haven't see the Burns thing I've read lots about it, most of it itemized by yourself. It seems more a sociological study (as I found the Barnes & Noble University site on it to be) using Jazz as the vehicle and no doubt has merit in that light. It is always good to see rare or new footage and listen to the stuff, but I feel that covering everyone in it would have been impossible.

My own vision of jazz is contained within three expressions; Jazz is a freedom of musical expression (Stan Kenton) The swing is THE thing (Bob Brookmeyer) and anything said by Duke Ellington on the subject. Let's just enjoy it as we see fit, arguing does nothing but waste time, keep things in a mellow tone is best. we love and hold in awe people like Bill Evans, Miles, Gil, Duke, Ben, Hawk, Gerry, Brookmeyer and a thousand others, and we're lucky to have them.

Brian Hope

I think it should be remembered that Bill Evans and Miles Davis were both to be congratulated for ignoring the race discrimination that was going on and happily played together without any issue of race being in their minds. Jazz, it seems cuts through these things as does and did classical music. It's the public political climate that gave rise to such awful things as physical violence being done to Nat King Cole when he gave concerts in a racially over-sensitive areas.

One quote I have never seen in print of Bill Evans's goes "I think jazz music is the purest tradition this country has ever had. I has never bent to strictly commercial considerations, but has made music for its own sake, that's why I am proud to have been a part of it".

Bill was a very modest man and to malign him as a non-swinger who didn't have any blues element is really a reverse kind of racism. It's a way of saying "He's white therefore he can't have "the blues" and "the swing" in him, you have to be black to have that naturally". It's a shame that this is an untypical attitude of those few black musicians who criticized Bill for being an outsider looking in and not an insider looking out.

Admittedly the "College Jazz" of great musicians like Dave Brubeck sometimes have got that kind of element inbuilt where the background of the musician is formally Classical and it hasn't got that in-born African American chromosome-based "feel" for the way the emotion of the music overtakes bodily movement and the whole being of the person becomes the music. In a way Brubeck was a kind of Jazz-rocker who could ride the piano stool like bucking bronco - I've seen him close up during concerts in the UK four times in my life.

Yehudi Menhuin the great Classical Violinist tried to pay homage to Jazz by recording with the late Stephane Grappelli and Menhuin admitted he hadn't got the jazz feel. Grappelli wrote out Menhuin's solos for him and the performance was stiff and stilted and sounded nothing like jazz. One could hardly level that kind of criticism at Bill Evans. He had one of the most envied senses of timing and rhythm that any jazz pianist has ever had. Wasn't it the wonderful Helen Keane who brought to attention the later recordings of Bill Evans, who said if she could live her life over again, she'd like to be born with Bill Evans's sense of "time"?

His phrases had a length and structure that were the approach of a jazz horn player and that marks someone who really can feel jazz. The color of his skin should be of no consequence. Either you can or you can't. Henry Mancini could swing like Basie and Mancini wasn't black. I think it's a great shame the race issue ever came into it. I also think it very unfair to call Evans a punk even if he did say he wanted to prove he was a bum. Eddie Gomez who was the longest associated bass player with Bill Evans and a virtuoso Jazz bassist himself has been interviewed on TV about his association with Bill and he's the one to ask if Bill could swing or not. Gomez understood every nuance in Bill's playing and got a rapport with him that even Scot Lafaro couldn't match but would have done if he had lived long enough.

The geniuses are all so often robbed of life early on and so are the rest of us. Gomez misses Bill Evans probably more than any other person in his life. Together they made some really magical moments in music-art that have enriched my life no end. I have fed myself a diet of Bill Evans music now for ten years and listen to almost nothing else. That's not an obsession it's simply that Evans takes me to a place that only exists in a plane above this ghastly earth and I know from my experience of listening to Evans that he was a player who kept his "ego" completely out of the music and played us a gift from his heart at all times.

He had supreme respect for the music and wanted us to hear just how great it was that the music was "there" - He played with it and reveled in it, in a way few have ever or will ever match. I think he was close to being a Mystical musician. Shame that drugs had to bring him to that stage, and rob him of life and us all of a great force for good. I regret that when Evans was playing in London while I was studying to be a piano technician Tuner, I never got to see him at Ronnie Scott's club. I didn't really know about his music then in 1974 sadly.

Mr. L. Prior

Congratulations on the most even-handed commentary on "Jazz" that I have seen yet. The description of the Crouch-Murray-Marsalis nexus explains a lot about the series' peculiar biases. Yet your commentary also illustrates how difficult it is to discuss this art-form in any objective way. (It may be an oxymoron to discuss art objectively.) Your paean to Bill Evans illustrated how the best and brightest got short shrift in the series; but by singling out Bill Evans, it fell into the same trap. To substitute my non-objectivity for yours, Gerry Mulligan got about the same treatment in "Jazz" as Bill Evans; but he was a more important contributor as a composer, player, arranger. leader and innovator. The point here is that whoever is involved in a project like "Jazz" is going to bring his/her own biases (tastes). The big flaw is that Burns was evidently blind to the fact that he was focusing on the same biases by giving all three of the CMM nexus such prominence.

I had some other problems with the series that you did not mention. One was the extensive, maudlin, God-has-clay-feet account of the personal lives of some of the musicians. The extended account of Charlie Parker's grief-stricken actions at hearing of his daughter's death is a prime example. It is not social commentary nor musical commentary, just sanctimonious keyhole-peeping.

On the question of cutting off the history at about 30-40 years ago, I don't have a big problem with that as long as it is made clear and a rationale is presented. What did cause me to gag, though, was the inconsistency of the treatment of Wynton Marsalis, given the "It is too soon to tell" rule for not discussing current musicians. Given his influence on the series and how much was untold, that was simply disgusting. Maybe at some point, his contributions will be recognized as genius; but that time has not come and may never come.

My bottom line on "Jazz": I am awfully glad that Ken Burns did it -- warts and all. If new listeners hear "Kind of Blue," they will hear Bill Evans and maybe want to hear more. If they hear, "Birth of the Cool," they will hear Gerry Mulligan. If they tune into jazz radio as a result of Ken Burns, they will hear others and develop their own tastes/biases.

(OK to use my name if you publish this.)
Bob Crow
Burlingame, CA

Bill EvansYour commentary was spot on and the thoughtful opinion I had been searching for since the airing of [Ken Burns'] "Jazz". As a fan and avid collector I was so looking forward to the inevitable placement of my personal hero, Bill Evans, squarely before the world as one of the greatest practioners of the art of Jazz. To say I was crushed by his treatment in the film would certainly put it mildly. I am glad that Burn' s "Jazz" was made. I'm even grateful for it. The complexity of Evans was simply too much for poor Ken. I'm sorry he doesn't get it but I'm glad I do. However, I might have expected a major disappointment, as a southerner I'm still smarting from his comparison of Robert E. Lee to Hitler in the Civil War film.

Greg Nuckols