If It Ain't Got That Swing: Ken Burns Strikes Again

Filmmaker Ken Burns has been much lauded for his epic documentary miniseries, The Civil War [1990], and Baseball [1994]. Jazz [2001], not so much. The announcement of "The Tenth Inning",
a new chapter of Baseball to be aired on PBS at the end of Major League Baseball's current season, has brought back memories of the hailstorm of criticism Burns received for his treatment of post-1960 jazz, relegating subgenres--and its practitioners--such as fusion, avant garde, and free jazz, to mere footnotes. And its contributions questionable at best. Good grief!

Jazz critic David Adler, a former music biz colleague of ours, had this to say at the time regarding the oversight by Burns and his collaborators--mainly jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and journalist Stanley Crouch--in his review of the miniseries:

Having acknowledged Miles Davis’s birthing of what came to be known as fusion, the film stops with a stunningly vague comment about how more fusion bands soon emerged to follow Miles’s example. None are named. Thus is the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Headhunters, Weather Report, and Return to Forever written out of the history of jazz. In fact, the 1970s as a whole basically never happened in Burns’s view. It is left for Branford Marsalis, who knows better, to declare that "jazz just went away for a while."

During the course of the Miles discussion, Wynton Marsalis all but dismisses the electric guitar as a non-jazz instrument, closing off the possibility that Pat Metheny and John Scofield — both of whom drew considerable crowds while jazz was supposedly dead — made meaningful contributions to the music. The film, giving similar treatment to the electric bass (referred to ineptly in the script as "electronic" bass), also dispenses with the towering influence of Jaco Pastorius.

As we've stated elsewhere, it's a damn shame Ken Burns did not show the same level of respect for jazz as he did with the subject of his other two series. His overlooking of the last 40+ years of the music was the equivalent of going into loving detail about baseball up until the '75 World Series and then doing a "This was followed by 2 players strikes--the latter causing the cancellation of that year's World Series--and the so-called steroid era. The End." Unforgivable.

Hopefully, with "The Tenth Inning" baseball will fare much better.