Music provides not just the soundtrack but the very subject of his newest nonfiction opus, Jazz, a 17-and-a-half hour documentary of America's improvised art form, debuting on PBS Jan. 8. When Burns visited Atlanta last month to screen excerpts of Jazz at a Carter Center reception, he admitted to being a relatively new admirer of the music.
"It was a subject I knew very little about. I was born in 1953 and grew up on rock 'n' roll, although I was exposed to all kinds of music when I worked in a record store when I was young," recalls the eternally boyish-looking filmmaker. "But when we were doing Baseball, we interviewed [writer] Gerald Early, who said, 'When they study this American civilization centuries from now, three things will be remembered: the U.S. Constitution, baseball and jazz music."
Burns adds, "I don't choose my subjects -- they really choose me. Jazz came up to me and said, 'You claim to be interested in American history, then why aren't you paying attention to me?' And Jazz was right."
Compared to five years in developing The Civil War and four for Baseball, Jazz was in the works for six years, drawing from about 900 hours of material, including 100 interviews, with the finished product airing over 10 nights. If historian Shelby Foote was the "breakout" interviewee of The Civil War, Jazz's most cool and passionate speaker proves to be trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
You never see Burns' face or hear his voice in his documentaries, but you feel his hand in the smoothness with which his films integrate small, personal episodes with sweeping biographical trends. Jazz provides a means of exploring the major events of 20th century America, while vividly recreating crucial moments for the music, like Duke Ellington's career-changing performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at the Newport Jazz Festival.
"I'm a filmmaker, not a historian. I've chosen history the way a painter might chose a still life over landscapes," says Burns, who's been chronicling Americana since his Brooklyn Bridge doc in 1981. "The constituent building blocks of all of our films have been biography. And its still true here, but here we could not be limited to biography but had to have something out in front of it, which is the music and the various phases it went through in the history of jazz. And at the same time, carrying in its wake, are not only these broad themes, like race and war and sex, but minor things, little quotidian things, like how people dressed, what cars we drove, what Times Square looked like in every decade of the 20th century."
Among the scores of musicians mentioned, Jazz's primary biographical heroes are Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and most of all, Louis Armstrong. Burns is a practiced advocate for his causes -- he calls GM "Modern Medicis" for their support of public broadcasting -- but it's hard to minimize his enthusiasm for Satchmo. Discussing him in the Carter Center's green room, he nearly levitates out of his chair.
"What Einstein was to physics, Freud was to medicine and the Wright Brothers were to travel, Armstrong was to music -- and not just jazz, but all 20th century music. If I could have dinner with anyone from history, I honestly don't know if I'd rather pick Abraham Lincoln [or] Louis Armstrong." He adds, "Even the dogs get it. I have a golden retriever, and when we were watching the trumpet solo in 'Dinah,' he got up and walked across the room to the television."
Burns says Jazz had to shift focus between the content of the film's stories and the songs that play throughout. "The challenge was great to take something which is traditionally background music, used to merely amplify emotions. But here we not only put it in the background, we put it in the middle ground, and the foreground, and in the case of Matt Glaser, a kind of hyper-ground." In one of Jazz's most entertaining clips, critic Glaser listens attentively to an Armstrong solo, hilariously hanging onto every note. "It's a combination of goofy and exhilarating," Burns says. "Audiences across the country, black, white, mixed, men, women, scream and yell as Matt leads you through a composition."
You'd think that documentaries like his, which raid dusty archives and require countless hours of assembly, would have nothing in common with the improvised nature of jazz music, but Burns feels the opposite. "From the very beginning, the way I've made films has been a form of improvisation. I didn't realize it until I had the triangulation of working on a film like Jazz. Unlike so many of my colleagues, I don't go out with a script in hand. I film what I feel like filming, I ask what I feel like asking in interviews. We evolve what organically works, which is exactly what a jazz musician does."
Preliminary reviews of Jazz generally offer two criticisms: that even with its length, Burns overlooks some masters of the form (the exclusion of pianist Erroll Garner seems particularly surprising), and that he gives short shrift to the modern era, with the first nine parts lasting up until 1960, and the remaining four decades covered in the last chapter (what he calls "an impressionistic celebration"). Burns argues that "History is about stories that are done, and historians -- even amateur ones -- should not tell stories that are still going on, like the modern era. And if I were to do justice to all the controversies and streams going on today, I'd need another 17-and-a-half hours."
He shrugs, "A lot of the 'jazzerati' who have attacked it have been just people who wish that I'd interviewed them for the film. But I didn't make this film for the jazzerati. I try to make films that appeal to every body. I made it for the farmer in Nebraska and the shopkeeper in Louisiana and the librarian in Seattle and, my God, the vote-counter in Florida. The jazzerati, who claim to love the music more than anyone else, have obscured it, they make it seem like you need some kind of advanced degree to enjoy it."
Burns' strong feelings for his films don't keep him from having a self-deprecating sense of humor about their length: "You can do 17-and-a-half hours on the history of the vacuum cleaner, if the stories are good enough." Introducing the 45-minute highlight reel to the Carter Center audience, he joked, "It seems unfair to give you such a small glimpse of it, so I've talked to the ushers, and we're going to close the doors and watch it tonight in its entirety. You'll be out of here some time early tomorrow afternoon."
What a hepcat. u