Ken Burns' epic 10-episode "Jazz" ended Wednesday. Its ratings didn't light up the heavens but its impact was nothing if not massive. The greatest film ever made about one of the greatest of all-American subjects left behind a lot of pleasures but even more worry.
Anyone given to thinking that "jazz is dead" could easily find nothing but ammunition in Burns' "the past is all there is" approach to jazz. And yet all Burns did in his history was confirm what the most savvy jazz listeners have long known -- that while the music is indeed alive and well and peopled by truly phenomenal musicians, all the James Carters, David Murrays, Pat Methenys and Bill Frisells in the world are never going to obscure the fact that there is no figure under 50 who even remotely bears comparison to the Armstrongs, Ellingtons, Monks, Parkers, Minguses and Miles Davises of the past. The only unquestioned giants in current jazz -- John Lewis, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Randy Weston -- have all reached legal retirement age and then some.
While Burns' "Jazz" engendered a megaton of predictable grousings and red-herring side issues (New York Review of Books critic David Hadju even managed to find it anti-Semitic), the series' offshoot no one could have imagined is the finest set of single-disc jazz anthologies ever made, all labeled "Ken Burns' Jazz" on the cover, as if Burns had somehow invented the art form itself rather than presented its definitive television history.
But the 22 discs are extraordinary beyond previous hopes and imaginings. As good as the five-disc set celebrating Burns' "Jazz" is, what is singular about the brilliantly programmed single-disc anthologies is that, for the purpose of endorsing Burns' vision, competing corporate America beat its swords into plowshares. Some of the individual discs are on Columbia/Legacy, some on Verve. But all are all-inclusive. Record labels owned by some of the greatest competing conglomerates in American business granted permission to these anthologies in a way that has never quite been seen before. (Except in the Smithsonian Institution's massive history of recorded jazz.)
The Ellington disc alone goes from 1927 to 1960 and includes Ellington masterpieces whose rights are controlled by Columbia, Universal, BMG and EMI-Capitol. For one brief shining moment, then, corporate conflicts have given way to a cooperative effort to provide listeners with single-disc anthologies of devastating intelligence. They don't just celebrate history; in a small way they make some. If you see these large Burns' "Jazz" promotional installations in area record stores, take a good look. Among the treasures:
The Definitive Louis Armstrong (Columbia/Legacy CK-61440): You have to put up with "What a Wonderful World" at the end and those godawful strings on "Hello Dolly." But this is a tremendous life portrait of Armstrong's music from "Chimes Blues" with King Oliver in 1923 to the delicious duet with Ella Fitzgerald on "A Fine Romance" from 1957. Rating:
The Definitive Duke Ellington (Columbia/Legacy CK-61444): On one disc, for the first time ever, the early genius of "East Saint Louis Toodle-Oo," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "The Mooche," the 1940 "Ko-Ko," and original 1941 "Take the A Train." On top of it all is a live version of "Jeep's Blues" with a soul-melting Johnny Hodges. Rating:
The Definitive Sidney Bechet (Columbia/Legacy CK-61441): Majestic music from the New Orleans master who had probably the most varied career in jazz after Ellington -- everything from "Wild Cat Blues" with Clarence Williams to Noble Sissle's 1938 marijuana propaganda "Viper Mad" to the monumental blues of the late-'40s. The early "Maple Leaf Rag" is missing and some of the later collaborations with modern French pianist Martial Solal, too. But so what when everything else is this good? Rating:
The Definitive Fletcher Henderson (Columbia/Legacy CK-61447): That the great swing master arranger gets a disc to himself and Cecil Taylor doesn't tell you all you need to know about Burns' priorities. Still, this is an unexpected and welcome inclusion among the 22 discs in honor of the greatest arranger of the swing era. Rating: 1/2
The Definitive Count Basie (Verve 314-549-090-2). It begins with a frenzied riffing roar -- the astonishing "Toby" by the Basie-influenced Moten Band from 1932 -- and never relents in its excellence right on to Neal Hefti's final "Li'l Darlin'" from 1957. And if you feel the need for more Lester Young, Burns' series has that covered, too (see the next entry.) Rating:
The Definitive Lester Young (Verve 314-549-082-2). This is where you'll find the great "Basie with Lester." And some of the great tenor saxophonist's best work with Billie Holiday, too. Marvelous music first to last, right up to a live and superb "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" from his final and supposedly worst era. Rating:
The Definitive Billie Holiday (Verve 314-549-081-2). From the girlhood she never really had right on through to the cracked-voice ruin she became, the most profound and dramatic of all jazz singers from 1936 to 1958. Rating:
The Definitive Ella Fitzgerald (Verve 314-549-087-2). One of the biggest mistakes of Burns' film is carried into the one-disc anthology -- far too much attention to the immaturity of her work in the '30s and early '40s (including the execrably cutesy "A-Tisket, A-Tasket") and much too little of her amazingly varied and sublime mature work from the very late '40s to early '60s. Good Ella but much better collections are found elsewhere. Rating: 1/2
The Definitive Charlie Parker (Verve 314-549-084-2). "Sepian Bounce," the earliest Bird is just a wasted obeisance to history (like Fitzgerald's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket") but after that this is the finest single disc Parker anthology you are ever likely to find. Rating:
The Definitive Dizzy Gillespie (Verve 314-549-086-2). Simultaneously a great disc and a considerable failure. Presented here is only the pyrotechnic Gillespie, the trumpet virtuoso and extrovert. Criminally omitted is the late-'50s and '60s Gillespie who put himself in service to great jazz compositions by J.J. Johnson and Lalo Schifrin and learned a thing or two from his younger and former acolyte Miles Davis. Rating:
The Definitive Thelonious Monk (Columbia/Legacy CK-61449). One of the best of the single-disc Burns' jazz series. All that's missing here is Monk's quartet with Johnny Griffin and the most beautiful of all Monk tunes, "Ask Me Now." Otherwise, it's all here, even the 1954 trio performance of "Blue Monk" that Monk himself once called his best work. Rating:
The Definitive Miles Davis (Columbia/Legacy CK-61443). He had so many creative selves that you simply can't put them all on one disc, especially if, for reasons of historic fidelity, you waste two and a half minutes of Miles as a fledgling bebopper with Charlie Parker and five minutes of indifferent electric funk Miles on "Tutu." Still, this is a very nice try, including -- bless it -- his amazing music from the French film "Ascenseur pour l'echafaud." Rating: 1/2
The Definitive Charles Mingus (Columbia/Legacy CK-61448). Was it a waste to include late, huge-band Mingus rather than something from that astonishing performance at Antibes with his Eric Dolphy-Booker Ervin group? Probably. But this is still awfully good, with no slighting of the great bassist/composer's antic sense of humor ("Eat That Chicken" which is about as funny as modern jazz gets.) Rating:
The Definitive Sonny Rollins (Verve 314-549-091-2). One of the best of the entire 22-disc series. Brilliantly selected by Richard Seidel and Ben Young to have not an ounce of programming fat on it, it presents the greatest living saxophonist in all his masterpiece-producing glory. It claims to be definitive and, by God, this one really is. Rating:
The Definitive Ornette Coleman (Columbia/Legacy CK-61450). A great and gutsy anthology of the alto saxophonist/composer who often gives less venturesome listeners fits. It's as representative of his best work as it can be. I'd have liked to see "Happy House" here, with its amazing tandem drum work from Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins but this makes his case as well as anything ever will. Rating:
The Definitive John Coltrane (Verve 314-549-083-2). Give anthologists Seidel and Young credit. They could have made it easy on themselves and not closed with five minutes of marvelous but perennially problematic "late Coltrane" ("Jupiter," a duet with drummer Rashied Ali recorded just months before his death) but they didn't. It's very much "definitive" then and all but perfectly chosen too. As good, in its way, as their Rollins disc. Rating: