Ken Burns Jazz: The Richard Nixon of historic jazz compilations. There are large, inexplicable gaps.
Ken Burns Jazz: The Richard Nixon of historic jazz compilations. There are large, inexplicable gaps.

Various Artists

The man who produced the acclaimed Civil War and Baseball series has spent the past several years working on a ten-part, 19-hour documentary called Jazz, which should practically be mandatory viewing given Ken Burns's track record. In conjunction with the PBS documentary, Columbia Legacy has released this five-CD boxed set, which is a bit of a puzzler.

Burns uses more than 500 pieces of music in the documentary but had to whittle down that number to 94 for this set. He has essentially tried to create a survey of jazz's most important recordings, with pieces by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock and so on. Recordings by lesser-known performers like James Reese Europe and Ethel Waters, who played a significant role in the development of jazz and, more importantly, in the documentary, are also present.

Ken Burns Jazz is by no means the definitive primer; it's merely a good collection that includes many historic recordings, each discussed in the liner notes. However, dozens and dozens of landmark recordings are noticeably missing, as are landmark performers. Jon Hendricks, Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Smith and Art Blakey are conspicuously absent, while Armstrong accounts for seven tunes. That one of Satchmo's selections is "Hello, Dolly!" is peculiar, to say the least. No one's arguing Armstrong's role in the development of jazz, but this 1964 novelty tune should not have been included over such classics as Ahmad Jamal's "Poinciana," King Pleasure's "I'm in the Mood for Love" or the Mahavishu Orchestra's "Meeting of the Spirits."

Guitarists are slighted, too, as Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin, Kenny Burrell, Larry Coryell and George Benson are all missing in action, even though they've contributed more to the vocabulary than many of the musicians Burns features. Jazz-rock fusion is basically omitted altogether; the only real fusion track is Davis's "Spanish Key," the short, single version, naturally. Burns's other "fusion" selections are tame and curious: Weather Report's "Birdland" (more of a pop tune); Grover Washington Jr.'s "Mister Magic" (a funk-jazz classic); Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" (though it foreshadows the scratch phenomenon, the song is hardly Hancock's most important work); and a recording by Ron Carter and M.C. Solaar (acid jazz -- the verdict isn't in on this one yet).

Burns's dismissal of fusion is part of a larger problem that plagues both the documentary and the boxed set. While Burns dedicates nine episodes to covering jazz from its beginnings to 1960, the last 40 years earn just one episode. Likewise, this boxed set boasts little more than a CD's worth of material. It's as if to suggest the past 40 years of jazz were an afterthought. It implies that soul-jazz, jazz-rock, post-bop, chamber jazz and even New Age jazz are inferior to the old stuff. Not only is that a genuine disappointment, it's also indefensible from a historical standpoint. Perhaps the subtitle of this collection should be changed to The Incomplete Story of America's Music.

That said, most of the music on Ken Burns Jazz is outstanding, historic and worth hearing again and again.

A side note: Columbia Legacy and Verve also have released 22 different "best of" compilation CDs in conjunction with this boxed set (for example, Ken Burns Jazz Collection: John Coltrane). These single discs are a good value, as is Verve's 20-song disc, The Best of Ken Burns Jazz, which is composed mostly of the pre-1960 material. Of course.


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