Filmmaker's riff on all that 'Jazz'

Ken Burns - America's most popular history teacher - says he's not a jazz guy, a Civil War guy, or a baseball guy.

"I'm not an 'anything' guy," Mr. Burns says. "I didn't know about the Civil War. I knew only a little bit about baseball. These films represent a process of discovery."

PBS holds high expectations for Burns's 18-1/2 hour, 10-part series "Jazz," which begins Jan. 8. The network has even named the month "Jazzuary." The first two documentaries Burns created for PBS drew unprecedented viewership: 40 million for "The Civil War" (1990) and more than 45 million for "Baseball" (1994).

"Jazz" threads poverty, racism, and substance abuse through the story of America's only native art form. Still, Burns maintains, "It's not homework. We've dealt with some very heavy themes in this, but this is about a joyous evocation."

His new work celebrates "transcendence in the face of adversity," he says. Jazz was developed by "nonfree people in a land which celebrated freedom. That's a wonderful contradiction, and set in motion the best kind of improvisation."

Burns says, "America's genius is for improvisation. The Constitution is four pieces of paper, and it's able to adjudicate our most complicated problems. We have a simple children's stick-and-ball game - with infinite chess-like combinations that we call our national pastime - that is improvisation at its heart. And we have as our only art form a music whose genius was that 'I'm not going to play in the European tradition what notes are on the page. I'm going to play who I am right now, what I feel right now.' "

Dressed in blue jeans and a black "Jazz" T-shirt, the youthful-looking Burns ignores the ringing telephone on his paper-crammed wooden desk to chat about the simple, agonizing art of historical storytelling.

"The much-maligned talking head is in fact the only thing there is," he says. "We're all storytellers, putting together the random and seemingly chaotic stuff of the universe and trying to make a little bit of sense of it."

Burns has been doing that ever since he received an 8-mm movie camera for his 17th birthday.

He moved to Walpole, N.H., a tiny village near the Connecticut River, to complete his first film, "Brooklyn Bridge." That 1981 documentary kicked off his steady and commercially successful exploration of American history - from Lewis and Clark and women's rights to Thomas Jefferson and Huey Long.

He works out of a spare two-story office just steps from his comfortable, white Cape-style home, where "I can live relatively cheaply and put everything on the screen. You're not overcome with the huge overhead that might compromise your vision."

Burns must mix vision with fundraising. He recalls more than 800 rejections while trying to raise money for "Brooklyn Bridge" in $500 and $1,000 batches. Now, he's grateful for GM's ongoing commitment to cover 30 percent of his films' costs, but says raising the rest of the $14 million for "Jazz" has been just as hard as financing previous projects.

Burns makes no excuses for a "Jazz" selection process that leaves such major figures as post-bebop pianist Erroll Garner on the cutting-room floor. With 40 to 50 hours of interviews and performances for every hour that made it onto the screen, many great moments just didn't fit, he says.

He makes room for the jumping rhythm-and-blues precursor Louis Jordan. He pays as much - and extremely graphic - attention to the drug abuse of bebop masters like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis as he does to their musical innovations.

Burns defends his content by saying, "Part of being in the business of telling stories is discrimination, [deciding that] 'I want this story over that story.' Nobody reads an encyclopedia or a telephone book...."

Burns, who is involved in everything from archival searches to camera work, says he never knows where his story is headed before he starts. For "Jazz," he and his crew conducted 100 interviews without a script. "We wanted to be open. People didn't see the questions in advance - we want every sound bite that survives to be a happy accident."

"Jazz" resounds with fascinating "accidents." They include such nuggets as pioneering cornetist Freddie Keppard's refusal to make the first jazz recording for fear rivals would steal his notes. Nonpareil keyboard artist Art Tatum is shown honing his virtuoso skills by memorizing two piano-roll solos at once.

The series also veers into hyperbole. Do the riffs of trumpet and vocal giant Louis Armstrong - however great - really let the "platonic world enter for a moment the modern world?" Were Armstrong and Nobel physicist Werner Heisenberg really equally influential in "embod[ying] new ideas about time, space, and the human place in the planet?"

Nat Hentoff, the noted jazz critic whom Burns interviewed about Parker, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and others, says some exaggeration may occur because "when somebody discovers something for himself, then you go overboard a little."

Still, he praises the series for letting mass audiences see musical giants. And he appreciates such insights as a description of a dejected, lonely Armstrong that belies the handkerchief-waving trumpeter's perpetually grinning image.

Celebrated in past works for reframing and cutting between still pictures, Burns says he had to make a "quantum leap" with "Jazz."

"Here, the soundtrack is not just the background. It's my most satisfying, challenging, and difficult experience - keeping it in the forefront without relinquishing the narrative."

His next narrative will be a four-year biography of Mark Twain. After that, Burns will explore America's national parks. It will trace the history of land and the people, tribes, and animals that lived on them. He also plans biographies of Martin Luther King, Elvis Presley, and boxing champion Jack Johnson.

Burns explains his eclecticism. " 'Jazz' is an opportunity to look through a prism through which you can see refracted so much of who we've been" as a country "and who we are. I want to talk about how my country ticks...."

And he makes each film for the average viewer, not the expert. For "Jazz," he says, "if the little old lady from Dubuque, [Iowa,] is tapping her feet while she watches, I'll know I'm on to something."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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