George Mason University
Recent Shifts in Racialized Jazz Discourse
Work in progress.
Please do not copy, quote or circulate without author's permission.
The tenor of recent jazz discourse more than suggests an escalating antagonism
among factions engaged in the interchange; it also belies the utopian
facade of racial harmony romanticized throughout much of the historical
narrative. Although notions of race are deeply embedded in jazz discourse,
the debate has evolved from the simple black-corporeal/white-cognitive
binary, evident in much early jazz criticism, into a more complex postmodern
struggle for representation and ownership. One result of this shift in
tone (apparent in both formal and informal jazz writing and general jazz
discourse) is mounting tension between an ever-growing black subjectivity
and agency, and normalized white subjectivity habituated by a race-based
hierarchy of power. Two examples of the shift can be seen in responses
to the recent publication of Richard Sudhalter's Lost Chords: the Contributions
of White Musicians to Jazz, 1915-1945, and reaction to Ken Burns's 10-part
film entitled Jazz.
This essay surveys the history of jazz writing and asks questions about the intent, function, and effect of formal and colloquial jazz discourse-specifically jazz criticism and Internet discussions. My position in this paper is an investigative take on possible causes for this latest iteration of racialized and revisionist discourse. In this exploratory study, I will argue that although mainstream jazz discourse has expanded to include heretofore excluded black perspectives-including professional jazz critics and the general black jazz consuming public- old anxieties around race and representation persist. How these anxieties relate to a growing cultural trend of portraying whites as victims will also be explored.
Characterizing Ken Burns's Jazz as an historical misrepresentation filled with "distortions, omissions and fabrications," critic Jonathan Yardley also suggests in a February 5, 2001, Washington Post column that only "die-hard aficionados" and those "keenly attuned to the subtlest nuances of race relations in the United States" bothered to tune in. Yardley reports that he was able to divide, by race, responses to an earlier article he had written about the program in which he criticized the film for "so obsessively plac[ing] race at the center of the tale that it manage[d] to politicize it." He was able to make this determination because his critique "sat well with some readers (mostly white) . . . but poorly with others (mostly black)." What may be driving this discourse-along with abiding representations of sexualized black bodies and the metonymic function of jazz for freedom, transgression, and licentiousness-is the perceived expurgation of white influences in the making of the music, or what Yardley describes as "gratuitous slights on even the finest white jazz musicians."
In the ever widening rift of postmodern social relations, particularly racial and cultural difference, critics and fans argue that jazz is elementally equal parts African and European. The attenuation of black influence in the music, coupled with calls for a color-blind outlook, only thinly veil anxieties of erasure in an ever expanding concept of what constitutes American culture. While jazz discourse has become much more nuanced, it remains firmly rooted in an black/white binary. As ever, such representations are associated less with the creation and more with dissemination and consumption of the music.
No longer excoriated as the "low streak" of American expressive
culture, jazz has ascended to the status of art in America and throughout
the world. Yet, despite this cultural evolution and cachet, jazz also
endures as trope for the exotic, the sublime, and the taboo. In the 2001
electronic version of Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus, the following words
are listed as synonyms for jazz: nonsense, baloney, bull, bushwa, crap,
flimflam, guff, malarkey, moonshine, and poppycock. And elsewhere in our
complex postmodern commercial world, "jazz" often denotes emotion
and sensuality. One example is an automobile manufacturer's use of Sarah
Vaughan's lush and sonorous vibrato's longing coo of
Alone on Key Largo
How empty it seeeeeems
With only my dreeeeeams . . .
. . . as the product glides across the 7-mile bridge in light, air, and
mist almost palpable to the flesh. This specific example of how music
functions in the world of commerce is a rather cogent linking of jazz
with sensuality. And, with regards to the corporeal, there is, of course,
sex. In nearly any film or television program with a music track, it is
not the perfectly metered plink plink plink of a harpsichord, but the
wail of a jazz saxophone that signifies the sexual touch before the fade
to black. Without suggesting that other musical genres are not as frequently
mined for their evocative prowess, jazz has somehow settled in our collective
consciousness as metaphor for antipathy, desire, and release. Perhaps
Vaughan's rendition of Key Largo was selected to sell the luxury vehicle
for the sheer visual and aural beauty conjured by their combination, but
it is just as likely that the voice was chosen for its utter sensuality
- desire is so precisely captured you virtually feel the sound.
Although this admittedly incomplete summary of evocations of the unrestrained and the sensual as they relate to jazz are as old as the music, the connotations have not always been the favorable surfeit of excitement and pleasure we associate with it today. In contrast with these postmodern notions of desire, jazz once evoked anxiety and contempt, as illustrated in a 1918 New Orleans newspaper article quoted a length below:
Why is the jass music, and, therefore, the jass band? As well ask why is the dime novel or the grease-dripping doughnut. All are manifestations of a low streak in man's tastes that has not yet come out in civilization's wash. Indeed, one might go farther, and say that jass music is the indecent story syncopated and counterpointed. Like the improper anecdote, also, in its youth, it was listened to behind closed doors and drawn curtains, but, like all vice, it grew bolder until it dared decent surroundings, and there was tolerated because of its oddity. . . . On certain natures loud sound and meaningless noise has an exciting, almost an intoxicating effect, like crude colors and strong perfumes, the sight of flesh or the sadic pleasure in blood. To such as these the jass music is a delight . . . . In the matter of jass, New Orleans is particularly interested, since it has been widely suggested that this particular form of musical vice had its birth in this city-that it came, in fact, from doubtful surroundings in our slums. We do not recognize the honor of parenthood, but with a story in circulation it behooves us to be last to accept the atrocity in polite society, and where it has crept in we should make it a point of civic honor to suppress it.1
Gerald Early advises that "Jazz was suspect or disliked simply
because its origins lie with a group of degraded and socially outcast
people,"2 yet eight decades of popular exposure and access to jazz
have given audiences time to cultivate enjoyment and acceptance of this
American production. Long after this newspaper's disavowal of jazz, because
of its "uncivilized" origins and "doubtful surroundings,"
evidence of a struggle for acknowledgment and credit for jazz's past,
present, and future can be gleaned from recent writing about jazz. One
example is a February 2001 letter to the editor in response to the recent
Ken Burns Jazz mega series. On the one hand, unlike the New Orleans newspaper
reporter, the letter writer champions jazz and the possibility that the
series may have introduced jazz to a previously uninitiated audience.
On the other hand, like the 1918 New Orleans reporter, the 2001 letter
writer does express anxiety about the racial associations of jazz. The
letter reads in part, "[w]hile it's hard to knock any program that
has a chance of introducing Americans (particularly young Americans) to
a pantheon of great American music and musicians, I, too, have been disappointed
at the racial overkill in the series."3 By distinguishing Ken Burns'
interpretation of jazz history from the music itself, and by no means
eschewing the music altogether as did the 1918 report because of its putative
origins and feared deleterious affect on the general public, the new letter's
admonition is instead similar to one heard in much of recent jazz discourse
- in order to keep jazz palatable for all Americans, refiguring the music's
genealogy is necessary, and avoiding overt references to race is essential.
Now that jazz is fully American as the 2001 letter suggests and no longer
the cultural atrocity to be hidden in societies's basement, foregrounding
the music's pedigree may disrupt some consumer's reception and enjoyment.
Race, at this late date, seems only to muddy American's clear cultural
waters, making the distance that jazz has traversed from "We do not
recognize the honor of parenthood . . . and where it has crept in we should
make it a point of civic honor to suppress it," to "a pantheon
of great American music and musicians" a remarkable account.
For a music discounted as the faddish entertainment of an historically disfavored segment of American society and declared dead more than once in its 100-year history, jazz's journey from humble beginnings to international acclaim is a marvelous one. Although as equally racialized as its modern precursor, postmodern jazz discourse carries a distinctive tone unique to a time that finds America engaged in the project of determining what constitutes American culture. Despite being salted with racial signifiers, the lingua franca of postmodern jazz discourse has shifted away from the twentieth century demonization of the music because of its racial pedigree and instead now focuses on the twenty-first century contestation of the pedigree itself, a shift possibly caused in part by the hard earned cultural capital of the music. The conundrum then is how can a music, and its history, represent the complexities of America and also be the creation of a marginalized and vilified segment of American society. Might the expediency to redefine what constitutes American culture have some bearing on efforts to re-imagine a utopian and unfractured America and, by extension, its cultural productions, specifically jazz music?
The American preoccupation with defining and describing itself can be read in responses to significant events in our collective experience such as, for instance, the above mentioned reaction to the popularization of jazz in New Orleans in 1918. Jazz and its musical antecedents, because of their uniquely American pedigree, or, as Antonín Dvorák appraised in 1893, American Negro music's centrality in the founding of any uniquely American music, provide a useful lense through which to read this process of self definition and the evidence the process leaves in its wake. According to Dvorák, Negro melodies "must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States."4 However, as we have seen, the argument of this observer of American culture was counterpointed twenty-five years later in 1918 by the opinion articulated in the New Orleans article cited earlier. Gerald Early explains these differing lines of thinking thusly:
In the 1920s there was a conflict occurring about the racial origins and the racial future of the American self. It was largely a battle about authenticity and authenticating a glorious or at least praiseworthy heritage of achievement. This authenticating heritage became, in effect, an authenticating essence of some sort of national or racial peoplehood. Jazz became one of the major cultural happenings of the twenties in which this preoccupation with authenticating the American self in racial and national ways was most intense.5
In his essay "The Meaning of Lindbergh's Flight," the popular
responses John W. Ward cites from many contemporaneous sources capture
the popular fervor resulting from the success of the solo May 1927 transatlantic
jump. Pointing up the social significance of that flight, Ward writes,
the moment he landed at Le Bourget, Lindbergh became, as the New Republic noted 'ours . . . . He is no longer permitted to be himself. He is US personified. He is the United States.' Ambassador Herrick introduced Lindbergh to the French, saying, 'This young man from out of the West brings you better than anything else the spirit of America,' and wired to President Coolidge, 'Had we searched all America we could not have found a better type than young Lindbergh to represent the spirit and high purpose of our people.' This was Lindbergh's fate, to be a type. A writer in the North American Review felt that Lindbergh represented 'the dominant American character,' he 'images the best' about the United States. And an ecstatic female in the American Magazine, who began by saying that Lindbergh 'is a sort of symbol. . . . He is the dream that is in our hearts,' concluded that the American public responded so wildly to Lindbergh because of 'the thrill of possessing, in him, our dream of what we really and truly want to be.'6
The popular fervor of Lindbergh's accomplishment brings to mind the particularized
passion for jazz music. And, given its vilified pedigree and contested
history, it is both ironic and exhilarating - at lest to jazz fans - that
the music's present-day world-wide cultural utility can in some ways be
compared with the impact of Lindbergh's accomplishment. With extreme license,
I argue that recent events in the ongoing discourse, although not solely
responsible for its present discordant tenor, may be viewed as similarly
stirring to the popular imagination as the Lindbergh event. Consider the
following interpolation of Ward's report:
. . . from the moment [jazz] landed . . . [it] became . . . 'ours . . . [Jazz was] no longer permitted to be [itself. It] is US personified. [Jazz] is the United States.' [It] brings you better than anything else the spirit of America' . . . . 'Had we searched all America we could not have found a better type . . . to represent the spirit and high purpose of our people.' [Jazz] represented 'the dominant American character,' [it] 'images the best' about the United States. . . . [Jazz] 'is a sort of symbol . . . what we really and truly want to be.'
Although the cultural status of jazz is no longer contested, the cultural
capital attending its status coupled with arguments about jazz's genealogy
may explain some of the rancor associated with the current discourse.
And as was the case with Lindbergh's flight, the influence of major jazz
events also generate responses from which readings of the extent to which
their impact has on the continuing discourse can be measured. One such
event occurred of late.
Ken Burns' Jazz: A History of America's Music (KBJ) - a 10-tape VHS set, a 10-disc DVD edition, a 490-page coffee-table book, a five-CD boxed set, and an interactive web site - aired in ten installments on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations in early 2001. And, as early as February 10, 2001, a Billboard article reported that KBJ "debuted to an audience of 13 million viewers [on] January 8," which, according to a February 5 Cahners Business Information report, translates to a 3.6 rating, nearly double the average PBS prime time 2-point rating. Cahners also reported that the "five-CD boxed set . . . had sold more than 500,000 copies as of January 12" thereby achieving "gold" status in sales. Additionally, scores of newspaper and magazine reports, website dialogues, and internet chats presaged, punctuated, and trailed the broadcast. KBJ, multi-layered, grandly presented, and broadly realized in its media scope and saturation, simply stated, was a major cultural event, and, evinced by the volume and pitch of the discourse surrounding the film, this event caused a stir that continues to resonate throughout the jazz community many months after its initial airing. But KBJ not only captured the public's imagination, its multi-media approach to the subject also created a residual product: a wealth of documented responses to the broadcast that lay ready for mining - mining for meaning(s) of the event and the music to the multi-faceted audience who received it in one or more of its iterations, and for insight into the nature(s) of the vast KBJ and jazz audience itself. Enlivened by KBJ, audiences, old and new, contributed to the jazz discourse with their flood of documented responses to the event, responses that reflect recent shifts in the jazz narrative. Their responses are a significant installment to the evolving narrative, and reading those responses is the focal point of this essay. Inasmuch as the argument for the centrality of black culture to any definition of American culture is not new, the scale on which KBJ presented the argument and the audience to which it was presented was significant.7
Burns' two earlier popular and critical successes with baseball and the Civil War made, by default, his treatment of jazz the highly anticipated event that it was, and, having the measurable impact on the audience that it did, it further invigorated the ever vocal, if elite and shifting, jazz audience. KBJ's unprecedented media scope, particularly the more than 18 hours of film, broadened the discourse by engaging a largely uninitiated audience, if only for the duration of the series. Burns undertook this years-long project of telling a story of jazz because the subject interested him, as did baseball and the Civil War, and, specifically, because he believed that "[j]azz has offered a precise prism through which so much of American history can be seen - it is a curious and unusually objective witness to the 20th Century."8 He further describes the significance of jazz for him as,
a story about race and race relations and prejudice, about minstrelsy and Jim Crow, lynchings and civil rights. JAZZ explores the uniquely American paradox that our greatest art form was created by those who have had the peculiar experience of being unfree in our supposedly free land. African-Americans in general, and black jazz musicians in particular, carry a complicated message to the rest of us, a genetic memory of our great promise and our great failing, and the music they created and then generously shared with the rest of the world negotiates and reconciles the contradictions many of us would rather ignore. Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in the unfolding drama and parade we call American history.9
This positioning of jazz as a "curious and unusually objective witness
to the 20th Century" is what renders the collected responses to the
series useful in reading perceptions about how American race matters are
received and reproduced.
The broadcast of KBJ opened a usually private, although always spirited, discourse to a broader audience revealing characteristics and sentiments of that expanded audience through the many postings, letters, reviews, and reports the series spurred. These audience responses - full of meaning for what receivers of the series felt and thought about jazz music and how they thought KBJ impacted the music - are divisible into two categories: internet exchanges culled from jazz boards and websites, referred to here as electronic responses; and published articles, reviews, and reports, referred to throughout as more orthodox responses. These reactions captured in the responses to KBJ aptly represent the tenor of much of current jazz discourse which focuses on provenance and ontogeny. This current focus sets the new discourse apart from earlier dialogues, which ostensibly supported the argument that jazz was the creation of American blacks, but, nevertheless, linked the music with overly sexualized and debauched black imagery. That linkage supported the modernist notion of the exotic primitive and also granted any who partook of black expressive culture permission to transgress the boundaries of civil society. Ironically, despite the seditious tone of earlier jazz writing, the discourse rarely argued the music's pedigree.
KBJ touched an exceptionally sensitive nerve in both the uninitiated and seasoned jazz consumer, who, in their process of consumption, catalyzed what Lawrence Levine calls "a process of interaction between complex texts that harbor more than monolithic meanings and audiences who embody more than monolithic assemblies of compliant people."10 Among the stated goals for the project was Burns' desire to present jazz to the general public as a history of a music, a history of a people, and to frame jazz as "the only art form that Americans have ever invented."11 It follows then that as Levine suggests, the complexities and contradictions apparent in the people are also apparent in the people's opinions. And, while a cursory scan of the responses reveals considerable attention paid to the minutia of "facts" versus "conjecture," the refrain of larger contextual issues - such as the meaning behind how KBJ expanding the jazz audience by popularizing the music, and the centrality of race in the KBJ story - are also evident.
When asked if he considered himself an expert on jazz after making KBJ, Burns replied "I'm not an expert in anything. I'm certainly not a historian. I'm an amateur historian. What I am is a filmmaker, and I'm curious about the way my country ticks."12 Because of the controversial nature of Burns' subject and the inherent dynamism of audiences, it can be argued that audiences imbued the film, book, and DVD with meaning as individual as themselves. However, more significant to this discussion is the transformative influence audiences have on the culture and events they receive and what those reactions reveal about them.
KBJ, because of its scale, set up a new version of an old debate about
race as it relates to jazz - a new debate captured in the various types
of audience responses to the series. Despite differences between the internet
discussants and the orthodox responders mentioned earlier, we are, nonetheless,
able to ascertain subtle distinctions between the two groups, perhaps
because of the uniqueness of each milieu. Whereas internet posters have
an expectation of privacy-the assumption being that posters and lurkers
on the site alike share a specific interest in the board's subject matter
which is usually more single issue focused than information on the same
subject from a more "public" source-the orthodox responders
often speak to a more general readership. Both audiences and contributors
to these two forums do, however, address the same issues arising in post-postmodern
jazz discourse. This problem of race in jazz discourse was addressed in
a moderated online Grove Music discussion on KBJ by music scholars and
educators Krin Gabbard and Scott DeVeaux. What follows are excerpts from
DeVeaux's and Gabbard's response to the question, "What about the
racial theme in the documentary?"
SD: I have to say that of the criticisms I've seen the one that I am least in sympathy with is the claim that music really should be kept separate from politics and that the emphasis on race and politics is a distorting factor in the film . . . the fact that jazz was embedded in a history of race relations in American life I thought was probably the film's greatest strength . . .
KG: I agree, but what I have to add to this is that race is such a deeply vexing subject for Americans. Americans, black and white then and now, are deeply conflicted about race. It's almost impossible to speak about race in the United States without becoming inflammatory in some way, without offending someone.
SD: Without being misunderstood.
KG: Exactly, so I'm not sure it was a good idea to foreground race as aggressively as they did. I agree with Scott entirely that it's work that must be done. That these things must be said. That those photographs of people being lynched, as well as those photographs of black Americans experiencing the normal daily humiliation of the black-American experience must be seen. But I just don't know how it could have been handled in a way that didn't upset people and allow cheap shots like 'it's really about the music, it's not about race'. I also think what's most missing from the programme's attitude toward race is the really deeply conflicted fascination that white Americans have with black Americans.
SD: Yes, that's an excellent point.
KG: One could write a history of jazz based on how white people have
tried to cast black people in their own mythology. And at any given moment
you can tease out elements in that fascination that are profoundly racist
but also profoundly envious. White people are jealous of black people
in some ways and they can hate them and love them and admire them and
fear them all at once. And that is an essential part of the reception
of jazz by the white public; it's an essential part of all those white
musicians who listened so carefully to those black musicians; and it's
also an essential element of the performance practice of a lot of black
musicians. It's impossible to think of Miles Davis without talking about
this strange fascination that whites have for blacks and the way blacks
have responded to that. There is none of this in the Ken Burns documentary.13
In contrast with that modernist discourse briefly mentioned in the previous
section, some segments of the KBJ audience sustain the tone of the new
discourse, a tone that musician and writer Richard Sudhalter describes
in his recent book, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution
to Jazz 1915-1945, as a much needed challenge to a "black creationist
orthodoxy."14 The off-putting asymmetry of this argument, however,
is that while overlooking contributions to jazz by whites would indeed
be a troubling omission in the narrative, narratives placing blacks at
the center of jazz's creation and development are considered outright
racist. Accusations of a "black creationist orthodoxy" recur
in responses to KBJ. And, although both electronic and orthodox media
responses are seemingly about the music and KBJ's interpretation of it,
both oblique and acute references to race are woven into this sustained
discussion and reflect the tenor of the ongoing American discourse on
race. So, not surprisingly then, embedded in these exchanges is jazz's
inextricable link with black American culture and all the psychosocial
connotations the linkage invokes, including a retrenchment on both sides
of the racial divide around who owns jazz and who has the authority to
represent and interpret the music. Again, Gerald Early supposes that the
nexus of black America, white America, and jazz was a "new way to
bring about a sort of racial syncretism by allowing whites to pretend
that they were primitives of some sort, not through sight, not visually
through picture imagination as blackface minstrelsy suggested, but through
sound and one's response to the sound both as adventuresome musician and
as adventuresome audience."15 And in addressing the effects of long-term
pan-racial consumption and re-production of jazz, Early continues,
Here is the paradox: Blacks may very well have created most American forms of music and dance, but they certainly could not popularize them. This means, strictly speaking, that they never created American popular music and dance but rather contributed a lion's share of the ideas that helped to shape an American popular imagination. They constantly needed whites as brokers, intercessors, collaborators, and promoters in order to help introduce then to a wider audience and to make the music truly popular.16
Although not provided here, a closer reading of the examples from both
the postings and orthodox sources described above may offer evidence of
how the KBJ audience regarded jazz prior to the event, and how the audience
interpreted and responded to the KBJ version of jazz, specifically how
the series and its products popularized a once almost cultishly appreciated
artform. However, the impact of KBJ on its audience as well as clues to
who comprised that vast audience - from novice to connoisseur and all
points along that continuum - are evident in the responses to the event.
Those sources will be examined in greater detail below.
The following three examples of responses from the KBJ audience began to bring into focus an idea of the scope of opinion on the series' impact and accomplishments, while at the same time revealing a bit of the controversy surrounding the program. In a July 19, 2001, report from a British monthly, a writer declared, "Ken Burns' massive documentary . . . tripled sales of jazz CDs in the US," and "[w]hilst the jazzerati noted its various weaknesses and ellipses, television critics were largely exuberant."17 Another report from an American weekly presented a very different facet of the jazz audience under the headline "Burns' Myopic Jazz Carries a Sour Tune." In this report the writer, Ralph de Toledano, stated that "Ken Burns not only has a tin ear, but what he knows about jazz you could stick in a fly's ear."18 The critique further offered that Jazz "was a disaster any way you look at it . . . [a] voice-over 'Sociology 101'" course, that espoused a "faded, reactionary propaganda of the dead left hand" [from a] "black-is-everything school . . . whose hearts belonged less to jazz and more to Karl Marx."19 The report concluded that KBJ failed its mission and the reason for the failure was because "Burns chose as his three mentors jazz writers whose names do not merit mention and Wynton Marsalis, jazz boss at the Lincoln Center in New York City who should have his mouth washed out with detergent every time he shoots it off."20 Yet another facet of the jazz audience, reflected in a South African daily, announced that although "Jazz has come in for flak from critics in the US . . . [it] has achieved what it set out to do: make people aware of its existence."21 This small sampling of varied opinions from differing segments of the KBJ audience may reveal how individual frames of reference, shaped by experience and expectations, also shape what has evolved into a very complex jazz audience. Revisiting Levine helps in understanding the KBJ audience as "complex amalgams of cultures, tastes, and ideologies . . . [who] come to popular culture with a past, with ideas, with values, with expectations, with a sense of how things are and should be."22 Furthermore, it is probable that in the case of Burns the filmmaker and KBJ the series and products that "the control any creator has over the manner in which her or his creation is received is always incomplete and fragmentary."23 The comprehensiveness of the KBJ phenomenon and the filmmaker's stated goals notwithstanding, this multi-layered text invites its audience to make meaning of it - meaning fomented by each recipients particular preexisting cultural frame of reference. The postings and reviews produced in response to the series convey a sense of the varied meanings the KBJ audience derived and constructed from this event.
Revisiting the audience response above from the British monthly, which argues that KBJ increased record sales and succeeded in promoting jazz and informing an otherwise uninitiated fan base, we also see how the writer marks the distinction between the "jazzerati" and the general viewing public, pointing up the differing expectations of both. A poster from the "Now that you've seen 'Jazz'" thread made the same observation in reporting that,
The strangest thing I find with the whole "controversy" about this series, is the fact that jazz people think that the flaws of this series are, 1) unique to this particular film, and have never before been present in such TV documentaries; and 2) that because these problems are "unique" to this film by Ken Burns about Jazz, that they were brought about by a massive conspiracy directed by Mr. Crouch and Marsalis on the hapless Burns.24
Another poster to the same thread also commented, "Burns is not
concerned with correctness of details because it doesn't matter to the
Great Unwashed."25 These examples illustrate a rather harshly drawn
distinction between the long-term jazz fan and those new to the music,
and it is important to note that this distinction was most often made
in the electronic responses. However, the series viewer commenting in
the American weekly further contrasts the differences between the seasoned
and the novice jazz fan by impugning the filmmaker's knowledge of jazz
and the jazz world, and, consequently, his authority to treat the subject.
One poster registered similar skepticism as "Kenny B is now PBS'
poster boy and America's pop TV historian."26 Another poster also
concluded that " . . . the historical background came across as a
Readers Digest summary of history. . . . Wynnie's scatting and eye rolling
was, I guess, aimed at the unwashed masses . . . And that tender moment
when he was asked about 'race' was way, way too much."27 The middle
ground view reflected in the South African daily praises the efforts of
KBJ for expanding the audience, leaving aside criticisms of specific content
and/or structural flaws. This read of KBJ was also humourously reflected
on the web thus:
I'm outraged! I watched the whole damn episode and not even five seconds on Peter Brotzmann!!!! Is Burns crazy? Doesn't he realize if you start at the beginning and use human voices to explain things that people might learn something? How dare he not pander to the jazz cognoscente. Clearly, General Motors wanted their money spent on us, the 1% of the population, and not the idiot 99% of all consumers, the ones who know or care nothing about jazz. Why, it's pearls before swine to make jazz compelling to the average Joe. What a pointless pursuit, when it's *our* sophisticated and arcane tastes that need confirmation from the mass media. . . .And I'm going to watch every minute of it just so's I can complain about it.28
These perspectives demarcate the fault line in the jazz audience, traceable
in the proprietary claims by connoisseurs who limit the scope of who may
unselfconsciously receive and enjoy the music in its popularized form.
Returning again to the "Now that you've seen 'Jazz'" thread,
the chauvinism of one hard-core jazz lover is expressed as " . .
. you mean Ossie Davis can have opinions, but people who have devoted
much of their lives to jazz can't? . . . . Frankly, I think there are
some people 'in the jazz community' who have earned the right to have
an opinion about jazz -- at least as much as actor Davis, who, as far
as I know is neither a jazz musician, a jazz critic, nor has played one
on TV."29 - emphasis added. And concerning Gerald Early's appearance
in the series as a talking head another poster complains, ". . .
of the non musician talking heads he is the only one that hasn't come
off like he doesn't belong discussing Jazz."30 . - emphasis added.
How the posters decide what constitutes authority of experience as it
relates to jazz is an interesting criterion that will not, however be
examined here. What were the conflicting expectations of the divergent
audience sectors, and what was the basis for the differences?
For all the distance between the New Orleans Times-Picayune characterization
of jazz and its place in American culture, and the tenor of the KBJ audience
responses, the debate remains the same. In many ways, the established
jazz community is a self-contained system often very resistant to incursions
from outsiders: a closed "jazz world" patterned after other
systems of organization. It is a system designed to mediate the creation,
distribution, response, and appreciation of jazz, and as such, does the
work of reinscribing the values of the larger social world. In light of
this entrenchment of values, one might wonder if there exist any hope
for dislodging the world of jazz criticism from its patterning after the
larger social world's race-based hierarchy of power and control. This
notion of a "jazz world" and its relationship with how jazz
discourse has been institutionalized by the community of connoisseurs,
writers, critics, musicians, scholars, and fans will be discussed in slightly
greater detail below. And, although the "connoisseurs" posting
on the "Now that you've seen 'Jazz'" and "Ken Burns 'Jazz'"
threads constitute only a segment of that community, they often make measurably
more contentious arguments in their analyses of the role of race in jazz
discourse and who does and who does not have the authority to address
Many connoisseurs, fans, and critics position themselves as the community responsible for jazz's survival in an era of immense musical variety and availability and have determined that the popularization of jazz, by KBJ and other means, has both demystified and dumbed-down the music, by first seeking to engage a very large and primarily uninitiated audience followed by foregrounding its pedigree. To a large degree, the jazz community - in its efforts to define what is and is not jazz, privileging levels of jazz knowledge, and determining who does and who does not have the authority to re-present jazz and jazz history - does the work of institutionalizing jazz discourse. Borrowing Howard Becker's art worlds analysis mentioned above to examine the world of jazz discourse, one may argue that the same apparatuses that regulate other systems of organization also mediate the jazz discourse. In fact, how people acting collectively define the character of any given subject is what seems to have occurred in the dialogic wake of KBJ. The audience reactions to KBJ attempt to 1) negotiate and determine what collectively agreed upon criteria constitutes good, innovative, authentic music; 2) decide who is and who is not innovative, authentic, and qualified to speak authoritatively about jazz, and; 3) determine to whom and how the music should/will be produced and consumed.31 The internally imposed censorship Becker describes as the central feature of "art worlds" with its coercive and normalizing influence on taste and contingencies of support (which also reflect overarching social and cultural agendas) militate against actual democracy and freedom, both often invoked as tenets of jazz. Social definitions create reality, whose in and whose out, and what constitutes authority of an individual or group.
Jazz discourse, including what we have heard from the KBJ audience, is a carefully mediated system - an institution. And, as institutions exist to reproduce themselves by what Mary Douglas calls in her analysis of institutions "collective representations" recreated and preserved with a "self-sustaining functional loop," jazz discourse is in many ways also sustained by this doctrine.32 Douglas continues,
Any institution then starts to control the memory of its members; it causes them to forget experiences incompatible with its righteous image, and it brings to their minds events which sustain the view of nature that is complementary to itself. It provides the categories of their thought, sets the terms for self-knowledge, and fixes identities.33
The new jazz discourse, perhaps seeking to "sustain the view of
nature that is complementary to itself," one in which the jazz community
and all discussion about the music are colorblind, is poised to "forget
experiences incompatible with its righteous image" by re-visioning
the racial history of jazz. Critic Ira Gitler made it clear in an early
1960s review of Max Roach's Freedom Now that he considered the audience
a key player in the discourse. His rather harsh characterization of Abbey
Lincoln's performance as being the agitprop of a "professional Negro"34
that succeeded in alienating the intended audience reveals his assumptions
about who Lincoln's intended audience was. Gitler's marginalization of
Americans involved in the black liberation struggles of the time who may
have empathized with Freedom Now's message and delivery is curious. The
subtext is that references to the stickiness of American race relations
are best left aside when reception of jazz as pure art is in jeopardy
of disruption by such issues.
What DeVeaux and Gabbard earlier concluded about Burns' sharp focus on race stands in stark contrast with many reviews and postings on the same subject. One particularly salient counterpoint is critic Diana West's Weekly Standard article of January 15, 2001, in which she assesses the film in part "for what it says about a tightly blinkered view of history and race that has come to dominate the presentation of music in America."35 West further comments that Burns relied too heavily on and "found as mentors the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and writers Stanley Crouch, Gerald Early, and Albert Murray, who anchor the commentary for the nineteen-hour documentary . . . [and] also provide the thematic core of the book."36 What West describes as "freshly shocking" is Burns and his "mentors" "role in the . . . documentary, . . . [r]ather than helping viewers to hear the rich and varied history of jazz, they are there to instruct us in how to see it: as the exclusive domain of the black, blues-oriented musicians who have long suffered at the hands of the white and derivative interloper."37 West continues,
The result is a vigorous exercise in political correctness, a distortion of cultural history that only deepens racial division while ill-serving the music it sets out to celebrate. Even more dispiriting is the fact that Ken Burns passed up a genuine opportunity to showcase one of the only organically and expansively multicultural movements in American history -- the evolution of jazz.38
At least three letters to the editor support West's critique of the prominence
of race in KBJ. They argue, as does Gitler, that jazz is best received
when not heavy-handedly inscribed with racial markers. One response to
West's article, a letter from Holyoke, Massachusetts, reads in part, "Diana
West is on target in her view of Ken Burns and jazz. Burns skews culture
and history to advance a political agenda on race, while West's knowledge
of an affection for jazz is obvious."39 Some segments of the jazz
audience, most often the most vocal segment, have made colorblindness
a condition of ones love for the music and the fixity of its status as
a pure art.
Recent jazz writing suggesting that the best and more innovative jazz produced today emanates not from the United States but from Europe may have fueled an already fractious discourse. Furthermore, the rancor expressed in the sources referenced for this essay concerning the preeminence of race in the jazz narrative may in some way connect with arguments that situate Europe as the new creative center of jazz. Might a reasonable supposition be that instances of racialism in the discourse, though random, are also episodic? And, finally, what might the timing of KBJ and the ever increasing cultural capital of jazz (for example, the Jazz at Lincoln Center enterprise, The Carnegie Hall jazz organization, and the Smithsonian Institution's Jazz Masterworks Orchestra among others) to do with these racialized exchanges? Whether or not answers for these questions can be recovered from internet posts and critical reviews, what seems true for both the formal and informal written reactions to jazz events in particular and jazz world in general is that they reveal the respective authors' feelings about American race relations independent of their jazz experience.
Given the history of race matters concerning jazz and Americans, it is difficult to imagine a colorblind jazz world. Might exporting jazz to a land less rancorously bifurcated by race be the answer to the question of how one loves something so embedded in so violent a racial history? And so goes the struggle for stewardship of jazz's future and authority to interpret its past - who in fact are the masters and architects of jazz?
1 "Jass and Jassism," New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 20, 1918: 4.
2 Gerald Early, "Pulp and Circumstance: The Story of Jazz in High Places," In The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. Robert G. O'Meally. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 404.
3 Russell Evansen, Letter to the editor, The Weekly Standard, sec. Correspondence, 6, load date, February 5, 2001.
4 Antonín Dvorák, "Real Value of Negro Melodies," New York Herald, 21 May 1893.
5 Gerald Early, 241.
6 John W. Ward, "The Meaning of Lindbergh's Flight," American Quarterly, Volume 10, Issue 1 (Spring, 1958), 6.
7 It is important to note that there are at least three distinct production and consumption exchanges associated with the KBJ event. First, there is the music itself and the viewers' relationship to it prior to their exposure to the series. Next is the presentation itself, a re-presentation of a creation/reception story of jazz, in all its complexity and variety, fashioned and refashioned by its shifting audience over its 100-year life span. The third exchange, and focal point of this paper, produced the audience responses to the filmmaker's interpretation and codification of jazz. From the body of responses to KBJ come many cogent and on-point comments, including those from two threads on the Jazz Corner website, and scores of articles and reviews from the orthodox media. The thread called "Now that you've seen 'Jazz'" ran for 1,382 posts over the course of six weeks from January 8 through February 21, 2001. A second thread of nearly 600 posts called "Ken Burns 'Jazz'" meandered for 14 months from November 11, 1999, to January 9, 2000 - a full year in advance of the PBS airing - and ended the day following the premiere.
8 Ken Burns, 2001. Behind the Scenes, Interview with Ken Burns at the PBS website. Available: http://www.pbs.org/jazz/about/about_behind_the_scenes3.htm
10 Lawrence W. Levine, "The Folklore of Industrial Society: Popular Culture and Its Audiences," The American Historical Review, Volume 97, Issue 5 (Dec., 1992), 1381.
11 Burns, 2001. Behind the Scenes.
13 From the Grove Music website, "Ken Burns Jazz: A Discussion with Scott DeVeaux and Krin Gabbard," Available: http://www.grovemusic.com/macmillan-owned/music/feature5.htm
14 Richard Sudhalter, "A Racial Divide That Needn't Be," The New York Times, Sunday, January 3, 1999, sec. 2.
15 Early, 408.
16 Early, 418-419.
17 Mark Cousins, Prospect, July, 19, 2001.
18 Ralph de Toledano, Insight On The News, June 11, 2001, sec. The Last Word, 48.
21 Don Albert, Financial Mail, May 11, 2001, 84.
22 Levine, "Folklore," 1381.
23 Levine, "Folklore," 1381.
24 From the Jazz Corner website, "Now that you've seen 'Jazz'" http://www.jazzcorner.com/index2.html, #28.
25"Now that you've seen 'Jazz'", #158.
26 "Now that you've seen 'Jazz,'" #161.
27 Ibid., #97.
28 Ibid., #40.
29 Ibid., #231.
30 Ibid., #260
31 Howard Becker, Art Worlds, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, 149.
32 Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986) 112.
34 Ira Gitler, Down Beat, Review of "Straight Ahead," (March 1962.)
35 Diana West, The Weekly Standard, January 15, 2001, sec. Books & Arts; 33.
39 Bill Hassan, The Weekly Standard, sec. Correspondence, 7.