This article appeared in Just Jazz Guitar (May 2001): 122. The article generated much discussion, and letters and responses will be featured in this spot in the near future. Sciabarra's views ("Racial Profiling") were also featured in Jazz Times (June 2001, p. 18). The article has been translated into Russian by Suzann Whittle, into Finnish by Elsa Jansson, and into Swedish by Eric Karlsson.
THE SUBTLE RACISM OF "JAZZ"
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Now that I've watched Ken Burns' "Jazz" in its entirety, to give it the fair hearing it deserved, I can honestly say that I am as infuriated as I am inspired. I suppose that is the mark of a good film: it compels one to think hard about the issues raised. As the conclusion of Burns' trilogy on race relations in America, one that began with his "Civil War" and "Baseball" series, "Jazz" is a compelling portrait of the black-white divide, even as it beckons toward the possibility of music as a genuinely universal language. But by subtly perpetuating many of the stereotypes it seeks to conquer, "Jazz" becomes part of the dialogue on race relations in ways that Burns may not have fully anticipated or appreciated.
Throughout the series, we hear competing views of the nature of this music. With one breath, we are told that it is an art form that knows no racial or ethnic boundaries, even though it emerged from the African American experience. But with another breath, we are told that blacks are "innovators," while whites are "appropriators." When a black artist follows in the footsteps of Armstrong or Parker, he's a "disciple." When a white artist follows in those same footsteps, he's simply "stealing." To be sure, Burns presents us with a few notable exceptions - Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Dave Brubeck - but the overwhelming chorus of opinion is that white musicians are simply "copying," lacking in real "soul" and "emotion." Even among the exceptions, we are given one example of the difference between a white band and a black band. It is said that in a "Battle of the Bands," Goodman's ensemble was wrecked by Chick Webb's. This proves about as much as a similar "battle" of legendary proportions, told to me by those in attendance, when Harry James' "chops" compelled Louis Armstrong to bow in tribute.
We hear of the "bland" West Coast school of Lennie Tristano and company, though we never actually hear anything except the musings of critics who say so. Whole instruments are ignored, like the violin and the guitar, and one begins to wonder if the reason for their exclusion is that whites are among their greatest representatives. One tiny mention of Joe Venuti (though no instrument is attributed to him). No mention of Stephane Grappelli or Jean-Luc Ponty, though we do see and hear Regina Carter.
Fans of the jazz guitar especially should be furious: There is not a single mention of the great Armstrong-inspired gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, who is featured on the 5-CD "Jazz" collection, but is nowhere to be found in the film. Though we are told of Charlie Christian - but not of Wes Montgomery - what of Jim Hall, Johnny Smith, Chuck Wayne, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Pat Metheney, and so many other guitar innovators? Band leaders, composers, arrangers: Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Michel Legrand, Antonio Carlos Jobim. Except for passing reference to the first two, one would not know of their existence. Vibist Gary Burton, bassists Scott LaFaro and Eddie Gomez (Latinos don't fare well): who are they? Reed players Buddy DeFranco, Phil Woods (surely one of the greatest Parker disciples), and Michael Brecker: huh? Pianists George Shearing, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea - hardly noticed, if at all. And in a 19-hour documentary, Burns provides Bill Evans, arguably the most influential musician in modern jazz piano, with a few minutes worth of reflection - and only in the context of his participation in the band of Miles Davis.
In vocal jazz, the myopia is flagrant: except for a single mention of Anita O'Day, in a discussion of the rampant drug use in jazz (in which Chet Baker and Stan Getz get their only minute of fame), where is any reference to Armstrong-disciple Louis Prima, or Mel Torme, or Diane Schuur? Alas, even black jazz artists who have appealed to "white America" - like Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, and Carmen McRae - are ignored.
Some of the most wonderful aspects of the Burns documentary centered on the universality and humanity of jazz; many of those interviewed spoke of the ability of the music to bring whites and blacks together. Nourished on the blues, drawn initially from the horrific injustices experienced by African Americans, the music has come to embrace all colors and cultures, as individuals of diverse backgrounds feed off of each other's creativity. That's something to celebrate! Nothing could be a greater tribute to the enduring legacy of this country's black trailblazers than the fact that their idiom has been built upon, extended, and expanded by peoples of every shade. That message can be found in "Jazz," but it is often obscured by the subtle racism it perpetuates.