Ken Burns: Jazz Revisionist?
There is much to appreciate in Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary Prohibition, including his trademark use of pristine photos and film footage; deep historical background on the Temperance movement and a clear delineation of the conflicts between "Wets" and "Drys;" and a roster of talking heads that includes Daniel Okrent and Pete Hamill.
As with previous Burns productions, music is prominent throughout Prohibition, and includes original scoring by Wynton Marsalis, David Cieri and Doug Wamble. Marsalis’s ensemble is heard extensively playing the Jazz Age-style material he composed for the series. The soundtrack also includes numerous recordings from the era, but that's where Burns loses touch with the kind of historical accuracy that makes his narratives so renowned.
In Prohibition, one feels again the strong influence that Marsalis began exerting in Burns’ documentary Jazz. Here it’s maintained not only in Wynton’s score, but through a selection of recordings heavy on Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong but light on the actual popular music of the time. To be sure, the Prohibition Era coincided with, and may have helped foster, the careers of both Armstrong and Ellington as major innovators of the new jazz idiom, and the 1920’s marked the first decade of extensive recordings of jazz and the widespread dissemination of other black vernacular styles.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band caused a sensation both here and in England with its groundbreaking recordings in the late ‘teens, but it wasn’t until 1923 that pioneering black players like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bessie Smith were heard on record. As appreciation for the art of jazz grew over time, these and other early figures came to be celebrated as its true originators, and jazz itself has proven to be the most evergreen music of the era.
But jazz was not the popular music of the Jazz Age. The term was widely used to describe (and often to denigrate) the kind of overly-excited music that was more emblematic of the era’s devil-may-care flamboyance than the pathos of a Bessie Smith blues or the exalted emotion of an Armstrong Hot Five. In the day, however, authentic jazzmen were no match for Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, Isham Jones and other Jazz Age stars of radio, the musical stage, and a speakeasy or two. As the decade progressed, Guy Lombardo, Rudy Vallee, and Bing Crosby emerged as hugely successful recording artists. But they’re largely absent from Prohibition. And in at least one case, the soundtrack is out of synch with its timeline: Sidney Bechet’s “Blue Horizon,” one of the masterpieces of recorded jazz and a recurring motif in Prohibition, was made in 1944, long after the repeal of the 21st Amendment.
Marsalis is understandably keen on making Ellington, Armstrong and other jazz masters as prominent as possible in the historical record. As one who listens on average to at least one tune apiece by Pops and Duke every day, I find it delightful to hear their music in anything that’s getting as wide a hearing as a Ken Burns documentary. But that’s hardly an excuse for this kind of jazz purist revisionism.