Burns Backlash — Chuck Israels Responds to the Documentary Series ‘Jazz’

      Date posted: April 26, 2001

Chuck Israels

       Chuck Israels first became widely known in the jazz world as a brilliant bassist who succeeded Scott LaFaro (also among the missing in ‘Jazz’) in the Bill Evans Trio. But Chuck, born in New York City in 1936, made his recording debut in in 1958 with Cecil Taylor. He played with Bud Powell, Billie Holiday, Max Roach, Don Elliott, Tony Scott, J.J. Johnson, Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, and Hampton Hawes. George Russell and Eric Dolphy were among the many people with whom he recorded. In 1973, he founded the National Jazz Ensemble, the first such orchestra, years before the Jazz at Carnegie Hall program. In 1998 he recorded for AIG with a quartet, producing two volumes of The Bellingham Sessions. He wrote the following when he was asked what he thought of the ‘Jazz’ series.

       I have refrained from the fray up to now, but perhaps it’s time to weigh in. It is not my intention to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the good qualities that abound in Burns’ work, or in Wynton [Marsalis]’s, but rather to suggest that there exists the possibility of more thoughtful and even-handed approaches to projects like this.

       Well, I didn’t see all of it, and I certainly liked a lot of the things I saw and heard. I also have reservations, though I’m not as irritated and angry at Burns as some seem to be. I don’t think he knows a lot about the subject matter, but he knows how to create a series of interesting images and some good conversation on a rudimentary level. Comparison with Leonard Bernstein’s Norton lectures, which were later turned into TV lectures (mostly about Beethoven), is ludicrous. 'Jazz', the Documentary SeriesBernstein lost sleep over how to describe abstract musical events and relationships in words, and he became an expert at it. Wynton hardly scratches the surface and mostly sounds pompous, asking us to take his experience and appreciation on faith. We are at fault and deficient if we don’t hear what he hears and value it the way he does. (The exception being the few seconds he spent showing the intriguing design of Epistrophy, which he did very well, except he forgot to mention that the authorship of this piece is in doubt.) The series would have been more palatable to most of the detractors from whom I have heard if Wynton, Crouch, and Murray had been relegated to the position of the peripheral characters that they are.

       There will always be problems for jazz fans who have some sense of history when Wynton is selected as the main spokesman for this music. His exalted position is in the business of jazz as “cultural product”, not as a jazz musician. In spite of his enormous skill and intelligence, there are a number of overpowering factors which direct his attention and energy to the maintenance of his public persona and positions. Too much too soon, and all the false humility is belied by the pontificating and posturing. He cannot avoid this and still maintain the benefits he receives from occupying and inflating his position.

Wynton Marsalis

No one I know models his music on Wynton’s music, and that’s a key issue. There is a lot to admire technically, but insincerity abounds. Efforts at genuine musical expressiveness come across as calculated. Little appears spontaneous to experienced ears except the quick and bright reactions to social circumstances, reactions which maintain the posture of the humble guy in the trumpet section whom we should all really have recognized as “the master.” This insincerity is evident and distracting to knowledgeable viewers, though perhaps not so much to the audience at whom the series is directed; people for whom Wynton and Burns represent authority simply because of their access to money and attention.

       I remember one place in the series in which Wynton bemoans the fact that real communication doesn’t happen all that often among musicians, and that he rarely experiences it. Does that have anything to do with a limitation on his part? Sometimes I think he wouldn’t know “level” communication if it hit him in the face. His choices of personnel reflect this. There is little true communication without mutual vulnerability. When one person is invulnerable, there’s no possibility of it. Wynton seems to want to maintain the illusion that he’s only in the game with the rest of us. He’s not, and we’d all be better off if he’d admit it and take the responsibility for the power and effect of his decisions without pretense. I don’t blame him for wanting to remain successful and in the center of attention, but the kind of attention he gets is more the attention of stardom than of accomplishment. Erma Bombeck said, “Madonna represents fame, Helen Keller represents success.”

       Then there are the sins of omission or damnation with faint praise/recognition in Burns’s series. They are countless and include seminal figures. We don’t need a list, but it is clearly a large one. Did I miss it, or did they omit Wes Montgomery? One could argue that the series could only emphasize a few major figures, and that argument might fly if it were a three- or four-hour show. As long as this one was, the argument becomes suspect. How many times do we need to hear about those things that feed Wynton’s aesthetic position while ignoring things that he doesn’t understand or appreciate? Someone pointed out that Goodman and Shaw are portrayed as influenced by commercial popularity while Coltrane’s excesses are elevated to a plane of “spirituality.” In fact, there’s a combination of motivation in everyone. This is hardly explored. There are interesting social questions about “why we do it” that come into play here on many levels throughout the history of the music that hardly even got asked, let alone answered.

       These are things that come from Burns’ reliance on the reigning royalty for direction. That’s the danger of creating a document that many will view as “history” before having command of a broad and deep overview of the material. It’s all done before you know you’ve skewed things by depending on direction from too small a sampling of “experts.”

Ken Burns

Burns and Marsalis must share the blame for this; Burns for relying on Marsalis, and Marsalis for failing to direct Burns to include other more legitimate representatives.

       Let’s consider who gets to appear in interviews. There are too few clips of conversation with acknowledged “masters.” Were there none in the archives? Bill Evans spoke more eloquently about music and what is required to create it than most musicians, and we know that there is video footage of that. How about living musicians? Could not Horace Silver have been asked to speak about Art Blakey’s influence, or his own? How many situations has Clark Terry experienced about which he could provide insight? How about Percy Heath, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Ray Brown, Donald Byrd, J.J. Johnson, Joe Wilder, and Benny Carter, who has lived creatively through so much of the history of this music? Oh well, there’s another pontifical moment with one of the anointed instead.

       So, what do I think? I think that it is essential to understand that all of the greatest examples of this music were created during an unusual period when popular music and this more ambitious art music shared the same data base. The materials of construction were the same, and the audiences overlapped. This situation no longer exists, so jazz, if it is to survive, must find another way of communicating with its audience. Wynton and I agree on many of the basic ways that this might be done, but we disagree on some too. If the audience is as dumb as he treats it sometimes, it is demeaning to give in to the impulse to explain oneself to it - better to suffer its neglect in favor of a deeper and more meaningful relationship with more informed listeners. Fame and recognition are powerful drugs and they fuel a materialistic system with which we must all come to terms. The terms required by good art are often more exigent and exist in different areas of communication than those required by the demands of public success.

Chuck Israels

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