I WAS, A FEW DAYS AGO, livid with rage at a certain writer.
I picked up my morning paper to see that his review of Ken Burns' "Jazz"
documentary series (airing on PBS starting this Monday -- a plug, a plug)
was running that day. For some -- personal, as we shall see -- reason,
I couldn't bear to open the paper and read it until I had a coffee in front
of me and K., awake to witness my possible outrage.
It was as bad, if not worse, than I imagined. The certain
writer's basic point was that jazz, once the most popular music in America,
had declined to the lowly status of minority taste -- from 70% to 3% of
record-buying totals in fifty years -- thanks not to changes in taste,
society, or demography, but rather because of jazz critics; "pencil-necked
geeks" in his words.
(I'd like to point out, as a way of explaining the personal
component of my rage, that I was supposed to write a review of "Jazz" for
this same paper, but was pulled off the assignment when it was pointed
out, by the arts editor of the paper to my editor in the Weekend section,
that the certain writer in question was, in fact, the paper's "jazz critic".
A precise measurement and comparison of neck dimensions, alas, will not
follow. [For the record, I'm a 17".])
These same pencil-necks, he was at pains to point out,
had been reviewing Burns' documentary with something less than the hosannas
and ecstatic praise which he felt it was due. "Jazz snobs have been lining
up to whine," he writes, and summarizes the various flaws found so far
in the series by these snobs: Too much time spent on the music's early
years, at the expense of its recent history; a canonical approach to its
major figures; too many artists ignored or barely discussed; too much time
spent with Wynton Marsalis, the series' "senior creative consultant". The
certain writer, who has said that he feels he and Marsalis share a certain
"relationship", due mostly to a few interviews over the years, thinks this
is particularly galling as Marsalis has done so much to make jazz popular
again. (Like his Wheaties cereal box, for instance, and his partnership
(On another personal note, I'd like to make it known,
for the record, that after I was pulled off the piece, I talked to another
paper -- the free weekly I also work for -- and set about doing my
review for them. When the book, CDs, and tapes of the series didn't
show in my mail box, I called back the publishing and record companies
and publicists I had talked to previously, and was told that the arts editor
at the major daily had phoned and told them I was off the story, that they
shouldn't send me anything. I was amazed, not at his pettiness, but at
the fact that an editor actually called someone back without any urgent
reason, like deadlines or money. I'm actually shocked that a paper's editor
would go so far as to try and humiliate a regular freelancer at his own
paper. Which only goes to show how naive I am.)
Ken Burns' series, this certain writer would have us know,
is a godsend to jazz. We jazz critics -- I assume I'm included in the pencil-necked
brigade since I share many of the reservations about the series the certain
writer so deeply implores -- should be happy for this gift to the music
(thanks to the nice people at the N.E.H., GM and the Pew, Doris Duke, Arthur
Vining Davis, Reva and David Logan and MacArthur foundations.) Instead,
we're a bunch of soreheads sitting at home listening to "14-piece bassoon
ensembles from the South American pampas". Don't we know that, thanks to
Ken Burns, Wynton Marsalis and "Jazz", "tens of thousands of (jazz) CDs
will be in the hands of teenagers who would otherwise be listening to N'Sync."
Perhaps they will, if they give them out with Happy Meals.
At this point it should be pointed out that the certain
writer's main gig at the major daily is as the Ottawa columnist, covering
the political doings of our federal government. (Since, obviously, nobody
can make a living as a jazz critic in this day and age.) I wonder how he'd
feel, if some beknighted soul should make a multi-part documentary about
the history of Canadian federal politics. (I know you can't wait for that
one.) And I wonder how he'd feel should the majority of the series restrict
itself to chronicling a "golden age" of Canadian politics that happened
years before he, or the director of the series, was ever born, opting to
cover the last forty years of the country's political history in a rushed,
What if this documentary lavished whole episodes on figures
like William Lyon Mackenzie and Wilfred Laurier while dispensing with Pierre
Trudeau in just two minutes? And what if this series had some notable gaps
in coverage, devoting most of its attention to the Liberal party, a bit
less to the Tories, barely touching on Social Credit, the CCF, NDP, or
Bloc Quebecois, while giving the last word on any aspect of over a century
of political history to, say, Stockwell Day.
Wouldn't he find this series -- in spite, perhaps, of
its high production values and undeniable importance -- critically lacking,
biased, or deficient? Wouldn't he feel obliged to list the missing figures,
the inconsistencies, the outright biases, the lapses of coverage evident
to anyone, regardless of their neck size, who has made it their business
to write about politics -- or jazz -- as a living, vital thing and not
a historical issue, quaint and drained of vitality?
Wouldn't he consider someone who wrote about this piece
of television with witless defensiveness, unaccountable hostility, and
occasional lapses into press-release puffiness, to be something of a fool?
I know I would.