After hitting a homerun with his epic The Civil War, Ken Burns has maintained throughout Baseball and Jazz, either tangentially or centrally, his recurrent theme of "the monumental hypocrisy born at our founding: the existence of slavery in a country that had just proclaimed to the world that ‘all men are created equal.’" Or, as Burns states, "If you're concerned with the question [sic] of ‘Who are we?’and ‘what does it mean to be an American?’ you are constantly brought up against the question of race." Despite Burns’ assiduous documentation of his preferred musicians in Jazz Latin, European and avant-garde jazz musicians being noticeably absent from the ten-part series, which chopped off the progress of jazz somewhere in the 1960’s one wonders whether Burns was more interested in race relations in America than in the music. Not that jazz enthusiasts are unappreciative of the spotlight that Burns shined upon "America’s classical music" in such a highly promoted fashion. Burns’ exclusionary basis for Jazz, did include massive amounts of information about jazz never before broadcast. It’s just that jazz appeared to fit Burns’ search for material that coincides with his agenda.
He’s done it again.
Without any pretensions of fondness, let alone passion, for art or sport, Burns will see his Unforgivable Blackness air on Public Broadcasting System on Martin Luther King Day, 2005.
It’s about race. It’s about violence. It’s about sex. It’s about injustice. It’s about power. It’s about suicide. It’s about pride. It’s about wealth. It’s about humiliation. It’s about rioting. It’s about the power of the press. It’s about time that Burns dropped disguises and addressed his all-consuming theme of race head-on. He does. It’s about America’s reaction when Jack Johnson, as early as 1908, became the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
Johnson is a fascinating subject for documentation, particularly because much of the information about his rise and fall cannot be found in history books. Broadway and Hollywood covered the subject a generation ago when James Earl Jones played Johnson in The Great White Hope. But people forget. And Burns reminds.
You may have noticed that this jazz CD review hasn’t yet described the music of Wynton Marsalis’ Unforgivable Blackness, which is being released a month and a half ahead of the TV series itself. That’s the problem. Once again, the story of the documentary’s subject becomes the story, and not the music, even on a CD where not a word is spoken. Even the CD’s liner notes are full of photographs and text about Johnson and just one small photo of Marsalis and a brief mention of the music.
One of the busiest and most successful of jazz musicians, Marsalis, of course, has scored for television and film before, among his many other activities. The theme of Johnson presents Marsalis with the perfect opportunity to contribute the music that he enjoys and which comes as little surprise. As an audio souvenir of Burns’ television special, most of Marsalis’ musical sketches, dictated no doubt by the length of the televised footage, are under three minutes in length. A few "Ghost In The House," "Jack Johnson Two-Step," "New Orleans Bump," "Deep Creek," and the concluding "We’ll Meet Again Someday" exceed four or barely five. So, extended improvisation is not emphasized as much as ensemble playing in atmospheric arrangements. In one instance, pianist Eric Lewis plays the 1:17-minute-long "I’ll Sing My Song" as an evocative solo, radiant in its simplicity, though it probably serves as segue to another segment of the TV production.
Unforgivable Blackness includes small groups of musicians who have been performing with Marsalis for years, such as drummer Herlin Riley, reedman Victor Goines or trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. The music itself recalls the blues and ragtime, whose recorded history commenced after Johnson had been declared heavyweight champion of the world twice in extraordinarily publicized fights. In fact, Johnson listened to operas and symphonic recordings on his Victrola until he fled the U.S. But the music of Unforgivable Blackness reconfigures Marsalis’ groups to reinforce the moods assigned to the facts of Johnson’s life, as nothing-but-the-fact historian Burns is wont to include.
On "Weary Blues," Marsalis’ septet is anything but weary as it adopts the spirit of "Royal Garden Blues" or "Muskrat Ramble" with the conventional ragtime configuration of trumpet, clarinet, trombone, piano, bass and drums (with banjo thrown in ). More ominous in suggesting the decline of Johnson’s life after he flaunted his disregard for social mores is the clarinet chorus of "Rattlesnake Tail Swing," with its tinge of melancholy, which pianist Eric Reed includes in his conclusion of the theme. There’s "Careless Love," which has a Preservation Hall Jazz Band feel to it, or hints of "A Closer Walk With Thee," and while Gordon’s trombone work possesses its usual vocal quality, the careless love certainly doesn’t sound reckless, but rather deliberate as if done in stages. "The Last Bell," perhaps musically describing Johnson’s fatal automobile accident in North Carolina in 1946, emphasizes Eric Lewis’ bass-clef minor-chord dirge-like theme, embellished by treble-clef flourishes, as it recalls a New Orleans funeral parade.
Unforgivable Blackness proves once again Wynton Marsalis’ ability to work, and to succeed, in apparently limitless media opportunities as he works with Burns to add the emotion behind the words and images of the documentary. The CD includes 13 new compositions, as well as six of Marsalis’ interpretations of the music of WC Handy and Jelly Roll Morton.
In a turnabout of Burns’ themes about race, the music and the sport revolve around a central character, as if the presentation were a play, rather than the characters of Burn’s documentary adding up to his central point as they contribute to an art form or a sport. Unforgivable Blackness unapologetically is about Jack Johnson, and not about boxing. But in Ken Burns’ hands, it’s really about the issues of race in America, his ever-constant theme in all of his documentaries. Wynton Marsalis should have a few more PBS documentary projects awaiting him as Burns continues his work in the future.