February Films: Ken Burns’ Jazz – “Risk”

Today’s movie was the “Risk,” the eighth episode of Ken Burns’ 2001 documentary mini-series Jazz. This episode covered the decade after the end of World War II, the period in which the new style of bebop became the most influential force in jazz – though not the only one, coexisting as it did alongside swing/big band, which had fallen from its heights during the last 1930s and early 1940s but remained popular, and the traditional styles of Louis Armstrong.

Burns chooses to organize the episode around the rise and fall of Charlie “Bird” Parker, as troubled a genius as the world’s ever seen. Hopelessly addicted to alcohol and heroin and yet relentlessly creative on his alto saxophone, Parker was one of the catalysts of bebop, along with Dizzy Gillespie – widely viewed as the public face of bebop, as well as a talented composer and virtuosic trumpeter – and, to one side, Thelonious Monk – an eccentric pianist who composed numerous brilliant tunes.

Burns weaves the stories of Diz and Monk, as well as the emerging trumpeter Miles Davis, into the episode, but comes back over and over – like a soloist returning again and again to his main riff – to Bird’s music and struggles. Parker’s music is wonderful (as is the music of Gillespie, Monk, Davis, and others) – unbearably fast, marvelously clear, endlessly inventive. Parker’s personal life is unremitting agony – repeated slides into drugs and alcohol, and finally the tragic death of his toddler daughter, which sends him over the edge to his death at age 34.

As the story of Bird and bebop, the episode succeeds. But Burns also wants the story to tell us something about race in America, and here he falls short, intermittently but unsatisfyingly mentioning, say, the Birmingham bus boycott and the young Martin Luther King, Jr. Burns misses the opportunity to set the scourge of drugs among jazz players and in the broader African-American community against the backdrop of postwar poverty – not just discrimination. For some black addicts (like Parker or Davis) heroin was undoubtedly a way to cope with racism, but the drug was also a way to cope with poverty – racism’s twin. Oddly, the episode includes a few minutes on the white Beats’ (retrospectively embarrassing) embrace of bebop as free and untutored artistic expression, but does not expand on white hipsters’ other attempts to appropriate African-American culture, such as slang or their penchant for liberation through narcotics.

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