Distributed February 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Ferdinand Jones
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 650 Words


Ferdinand Jones

Ken Burns’ Jazz succeeds as a documentary
In the unsteady state of American race relations today it would be all too easy to believe, as a small number of white jazz players and critics maintain, that the African American culture and African American musicians have not provided the major sources and shapes of the jazz art form. Ken Burns’ documentary firmly represents the truth of African American creativity that we all need to acknowledge – and not rationalize away or forget.

Important aspects of time and African American culture in the Ken Burns television documentary Jazz may have been overlooked or misunderstood by its critics, judging from the various reactions to it. Critics have challenged his approach, questioned his success, and resented that someone so removed from the jazz community could produce the series. What they might be missing is an appreciation for the importance of historical time – and this perspective is essential for understanding the significance of jazz music for both American society and its African American members.

The historical frame of Jazz traces the evolution of the art form at the same time it sketches the outlines of the developing African American culture. Witnessing this dynamic interplay should remind us that some things can’t be rushed. Significant cultural constructions are like the seasons and the tides; they progress despite our attempts to impose controls on them.

There are some things that shouldn’t be rushed and we are the better for it. We are impressed, moved and sometimes startled when creative individuals lead us to experience the elegance of time in unconventional manifestations. Such seminal figures in jazz history as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Thelonius Monk and Sarah Vaughan were masters in the innovative uses of time, space and silence in music.

African American culture has been evolving since Africans were first brought to North America. The vast majority of those Africans needed to adapt to jarring physical and psychological conditions: captivity, brutal dislocation and the realization that they were perceived and treated as if their very existence warranted these abuses. The existence today of the richly textured African American culture is a phenomenal example of human adaptability. The outgrowths of the African oral tradition heard in the varieties of African American music – certainly including jazz – are especially beautiful representations of that capacity.

The distinguished cultural psychologist Harry C. Triandis writes that, “Culture is to society what memory is to individuals.” I like it, therefore, that the Burns documentary relies on some particularly expressive commentators who realize that they are documenting jazz’s place in the layered contexts of African American and American history. While some audiences find these spokespersons too dogmatic or brash, I applaud their insistence on establishing this perspective on jazz in our collective memory.

I do not know why Americans don’t fully appreciate historical time. Our social policies, and our everyday behaviors and attitudes often reflect a stance of historical dismissal. We can be like the adolescent who is convinced his parents know nothing and that his contemporaries’ perspective is real wisdom. In the scope of world history, the United States is a young society and African American culture within it is obviously also still developing. The implications of these facts for all Americans are profound. We cannot rush to declare the accomplishment of a level playing field of interracial competitors, as some impatient observers of American race relations would wish. Consistent respect for African American intellectual and artistic ability is still elusive in the society. In the unsteady state of American race relations today it would be all too easy to believe, as a small number of white jazz players and critics maintain, that the African American culture and African American musicians have not provided the major sources and shapes of the jazz art form. Burns’ documentary firmly represents the truth of African American creativity that we all need to acknowledge – and not rationalize away or forget.

It is natural that jazz enthusiasts wish more of our favorite artists had been featured, but that, however , misses Jazz’s intent and effect. Burns’ production is finally urging this uniquely rich art form to public consciousness, and that will be healthy for the music, its musicians and listeners. As the documentary demonstrates, jazz has been denigrated, misunderstood or ignored by most Americans throughout much of its history, but it is a singularly significant phenomenon in American life.


Ferdinand Jones is professor emeritus of psychology at Brown University and currently guest faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College. He is co-editor with his brother Arthur C. Jones of a volume of essays, The Triumph of the Soul: Cultural and Psychological Aspects of African-American Music.

######