Teaching Jazz with Ken Burns

Teaching Jazz with Ken Burns

I apparently watch Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz once every ten years. For whatever reason, it seems that I also take classes on the history of the genre at roughly the same interval. Despite that, though, my two experiences in classroom settings, getting earfuls of individual’s takes on the development of the music and the country we live in, it seems as if the film has supplanted any semblance of text sets.

First entering academia at the tail end of the ‘90s, I was primed to hear as much music via this new fangled thing called the internet as possible. It resulted in hours of jazz being streamed through some pretty dinky computer speakers. Either way, what resulted was a supreme interest in what seemed like the most well articulated expression of the American experience as musicians could muster.

The first time I took a class on the genre was as an undergraduate student in Athens, Ohio. My school’s music department isn’t and wasn’t exactly world renowned, but it did posses a pretty deep library from which my professor was able to pull all manner of compact disc and vinyl from. This gentleman, whose name is really just lost to time, saw fit to incorporate at least one text written by a guy named Tirro. While I might not be able to claim that I currently retain any information directly culled from those pages, I did get to watch a fair share of Jazz in class. Of course, I’d just finished watching the thing since it’d aired on PBS the previous fall. Either way, I count that as a single viewing.

A few years on, I undoubtedly consider myself a jazz enthusiast. There’re scores of folks better acquainted with the genre, but people that are about my age don’t very frequently possess the wherewithal to levy some new information on me. That doesn’t mean my knowledge base can’t be expanded. And for that very reason, I decided to take a jazz history class at a well regarded art school in Chicago. Guess which one….

Either way, my professor totes around a huge back log of information, partially from studying and listening to recordings, but he was also probably able to catch some of the latter day bop players towards the end of their various careers. It just seems that a great deal of what’s being related to my classroom has been cherry picked from Burns’ movie.

There can’t be any question that Jazz was well researched and spliced together, but why would anyone take that film to be the gospel truth about the entirety of a genre? Moving between filmic work and writing in a journalistic tradition sometimes makes hearing facts without there being any substantiating evidence difficult. The first hand stories related over the course of the Burns film shouldn’t startle too many folks. But the well voiced narrator reels off a litany of debatable stories, ideas and facts. Surely, some of them are true, but it seems that understanding the film as a definitive portrait of a music with a history more than a hundred years old is suspect at best.