The Measure of Greatness

Everyone seems to be talking about recent epic jazz documentary by Ken Burns. Americans are rarely without an opinion and the line seems to fall between two differing points of view. The general public and the jazz neophytes seem to have both appreciated and benefited from the series. A number of my history of jazz students with no previous knowledge of the style have expressed that they were unaware of the greatness of the art form and the music fans who sacrificed so much towards its evolution. In this way the Burns piece has got us discussing the music and thinking about its social impact and that in itself is important It is long overdue.

On the other hand, musicians, critics, and seasoned jazz fans are lamenting the many important musicians and concepts that the documentary omits. It is doubtful that the Burns’ series on the Civil War, and then on baseball, created such impassioned discussion. While there is no doubting the magnitude of their creative genius, the series seems to sacrifice the last 40 years of jazz evolution under the weight of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. They cast a long shadow which at times may have been excessive in the documentary, but I still prefer to see this as an important first step in this country’s attempting to understand our own American art form. Someone will have to come along to fill in these gaps at a later date, hopefully in the PBS format. All conservative Republicans please take note – this is why we have a National Endowment. There may be another way of looking at the Burns Jazz Series. Someone once said that “popularity is the crumbs of greatness” and this documentary reminds us that it is ultimately the artist’s impact on people and the nation that really matter. As we sweep the floor of the flavor-of-the week-pop music (Girl bands, boy bands, giraffe bands, etc.) we might be reminded of that Frank Zappa quote, “Americans hate music but they love entertainment.” The Burn series may open some doors and begin to help us discern the difference.

The real heroes of America are the common folk who make a difference by doing their work in an often less public light than the MTV generation has experienced. The late, great jazz bassist Milt Hinton taught us the benefits of giving to one another through jazz and that music can be an all encompassing mission of tolerance and love. (Can I get an amen?) The hell-bent on success, get out of my way if you can’t get me a record deal folks are the tree people who have truly missed the forest. Milt really knew the long way home, and showed quite a few of us, not with lecturing but leading by example.

No documentary, movie, play, song, or concert is perfect, and the debate of its merit that ensues can be tiresome. By looking at the Burns PBS series on jazz in a positive light, despite its faults, it may help us to go into the closet and pull out the measuring stick of greatness that was forgotten in America so long ago.

For Milt Hinton, thanks for everything, Judge.