March 23, 2013
Ken Burns on Film, Jazz, History and America
Interview by David Cogswell
Ken Burns attended the Tauck Ken Burns Jazz Event in New Orleans in early March 2013. It was a travel event exploring New Orleans from the viewpoint of jazz as conceived and portrayed by Burns in his 10-part, 19-hour film series "Jazz". The program layered many different kinds of experiences all related in some way to the history of jazz in New Orleans, including lectures; musical performances; visits to museums, restaurants and historical sites; and city touring. Burns and his production team worked with Tauck to create the program and Burns gave the keynote address to the 200 participants of the event. This interview was conducted in the library of the Ritz Carlton New Orleans.
What was the role of travel in your life before your partnership with Tauck, the tour operator?
Immediately in my professional life I do a great deal of travel in the United States and I have known and seen every corner of the United States just about. So when Tauck approached it seemed a really logical thing. Their process and their insistence on excellence reminded us of our desires and our wishes within our own processes. They seemed strangely enough very similar and we thought that we could sort of meld our expertise of perhaps seeing a different side of the location, one that we had learned in the course of intense study for a film and it would benefit the people who would come to these tours. And for the last several years it’s been a really wonderful relationship. So I hadn’t really thought of it so much as travel as just sort of learning the country. It was sort of like being a blood cell in a body and that I was as a citizen I was obligated to know as much of this corpus as possible. I’ve spent most of my professional life understanding the United States or trying to.
Before this had you thought of being involved in a travel industry project?
No, of course not. I’m a documentary filmmaker interested in doing films on American history. The fact that that required a lot of travel wouldn’t have suggested to me ever that I would have been in the travel business. In fact I’m still surprised. But as I said, the Tauck people were do impressive in their insistence on excellence, their insistence on understanding what the ingredients of an experience were that for Dayton Duncan, who is one of my producing partners, and I, we just felt that wow, for the first time in my life I’ve had a relationship with a corporate entity in terms of a kind of sponsorship thing.
Is it an extension of the kinds of messages you put out in your films?
Not really. Our films are our films. They are complicated narratives about America. They sort of have at the core a deceptively simple question about who we all are, and I suppose the oddest question is who am I. This is the great question that each individual has. But what we’ve learned in the course of pursuing this complicated stuff was aspects of places in this country, the national parks, Civil War battlefields, jazz in this extraordinary city, baseball, that have given us a unique access and perspective in how you negotiate these things. So the partnership with Tauck was sort of unexpected and has been wonderful.
What role did jazz play in your life before you made “Jazz”?
My father enjoyed jazz a great deal. He played some around the house, not all. I was aware of his things. But I was born in 1953 and I’m very much a child of rock and roll and R&B and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, outside of Detroit, so R&B was a huge part of growing up. But I worked in a record store, sold a lot of jazz, knew a lot about it, but didn’t know anything about it. And as I became a filmmaker and as I was looking for music that would bring to life certain eras, the ‘20s, the ‘30s, the ’40s and ‘50s, again and again I was coming back to jazz and realizing how much I didn’t know, and how much I wanted to know. I developed a friendship with Wynton [Marsalis], who, just as “The Civil War” was over said you ought to think about doing jazz. No filmmaker likes to be told what the next song will be, what the next film will be. But yet, he was right. I was drawn inexorably to it and now it’s the only thing I listen to.
If you made the film today, would you do anything differently?
No. I mean that’s… It’s interesting, what you do professionally... It would be like saying to Wynton, “If you could play that tune you played at that jazz club on Thursday, April 20th, 1995, would you do it the same way?” To which the answer is, “Of course not.” But at the same time you can’t redo that. It’s like looking at an old photo album and seeing yourself in some Godawful paisley shirt with a hugely wide collar. You might go “Yuk!” but you don’t tear the photograph up. The films are what they are. They were made at that time. We’re all in the business of practice. We’re just practicing. Hopefully we’re trying to get better. Hopefully there is some end in sight that we’re moving towards. But we’re practicing. It is what it is. And I’m very proud of it. We quadrupled the sales of jazz music for a while in the United States as a result of it, and that’s a good thing to do. It was something that used to be 75 percent of popular music in the United States. At the time of the jazz series it was something like 1.7 percent of the market. Now it’s significantly less than that. So to triple it or quadruple it is not a bad thing to do.
Tens of millions of people watched it and got curious and went back to rediscover, saw things, people that they had misjudged, like Louis Armstrong, whom they may have seen as “It’s a Wonderful World” or “Hello Dolly” and hadn’t seen him as the Einstein of jazz … and saw his centrality to it …. going back I was very proud of it. There’s a service that records an artist's sales and Sidney Bechet, who’s a great New Orleans jazz musician and for a while was – I won’t say the equal of Armstrong, but could run with him for a while, a great personality and his clarinet or alto sax -- he had died in the late ‘50s and had since his death sold something like – I’m going to make this up – but something like 5,000 records, from his death until January 2001 when the series came out. And then sold at least that much in the first four months of 2001. And that makes you feel good. That’s a kind of ratification.
It’s a gift…
It’s just you’re reminding people of the things they share in common. They may have forgotten it. I came this morning from Preservation Hall and listened to six tunes for an hour from those guys and it just rearranged my molecules and you realize what a joyous, perfect music this is.
You made two films on baseball…
Well, we made a series that was 18-and-a-half hours long, It came out in 1994 called “Baseball.” And then after … when we came out there was a strike going on. And all of a sudden our film didn’t seem so – I mean it was the only Baseball around, it still has the highest number of viewers in PBS history, BUT, we watched the strike and then the home run-hitting contest and Cal Ripken breaking King Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man record and then the steroids era and Barry Bonds and all of that, and my Red Sox finally winning the series and we said, “You know what, we need a 10th inning.” We’d had nine episodes and each of those episodes was called an inning. So we went back and did an update – we finished and broadcast in 2010, and brought it from 1992 to 2009. And God willing there will be time to do an 11th and a 12th. Baseball will never end.
Do you think you will ever revisit jazz that way?
I could see myself doing a biography in it. I’m now working on a gigantic history of country music. But I could see myself going back to individuals in jazz who are the important ones like Armstrong, like Miles Davis, like John Coltrane.
I just learned you are doing a film on country music. would you ever be interested in doing films on other genres of music?
Yeah, very much so. I’ve gotten very excited. If you accept what I said that the operating principle is “Who are we?” there are many ways into that. It may be the most important event in our history, the Civil War. It may be the national pastime. It may be the only art form that Americans have invented that is recognized around the world. It may be monuments like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty, individuals like Jefferson or Huey Long. These are all films I’ve made. Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion. And country music is a way in. Country music is a hugely important part of us and revealing of us. And that’s what you look for. It’s not so much that you’re doing it on a particular subject, but how does that subject resonate with the larger picture, the larger question, Who are we? What kind of mirror does it represent? What kind of lens do you look through with it and see? What kind of prism is it that refracts a certain kind of light? And that’s why you pick a subject.
So rock and roll, R&B?
That’s the thing, I don’t choose it that way. I don’t say, Oh Jeez I should do something else on another music. It’s the idea. So maybe is the honest answer to all those things. You just don’t know. I’ve got my stuff all planned out for 10 years. I have a film coming out next month called “The Central Park Five” about the five black kids who went to jail for a crime they didn’t commit. I’ve just finished – yesterday – a seven-part, 14-hour history of Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt with Paul Giamotti, Edward Herman and Meryl Streep reading off-camera the voices of them. It’s kind of an intimate history as well as the broad history of the country. That’s 2014. We’re working on a biography of Jackie Robinson. Even though he was a central figure in our baseball series, he’s an extraordinarily important American. And we’re also just finished shooting and about to begin editing a massive series on the Vietnam War. And then we’re in the early shooting and writing phases of "Country Music" and we have a biography planned on Ernest Hemingway. And I’m sort of out of my side pocket doing a film about a school of dyslexic kids – boys -- in Vermont who are made to memorize the Gettysburg Address. I’m doing a small film on their struggles trying to memorize that given their learning disabilities. And I’m serving as the executive producer of a film called “The Emperor of all Maladies,” which is a history of cancer, which is the disease that is the emperor of all maladies and touches everyone within the sound of my voice.
Does Dayton Duncan work with you just on some of those?
Yeah. We have parallel teams, usually just two, Dayton being one co-producer and Lynn Novick being the other. But this Roosevelt series is done with my main editor of the last 30 years, Paul Barnes, who also produced with me a film on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the ‘90s and a film on Jack Johnson called “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” in the aughts. And now “The Roosevelts”. I made “The Central Park Five” with my daughter Sarah, Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon. And she and he and I are making the Jackie Robinson film. So maybe to be fair there are three and sometimes four parallel tracks, and I serve as the director or co-director as the case may be. And Lynn Novick and I are working on the Vietnam project.
I heard an interview on WBAI with your daughter, so when the …
Yeah. She wrote a book on the story and has been keeping it close to her. Of course we all remember it and probably remember, I hope with some amount of shame, that we bought the official story and these kids had their confessions coerced and their lives ended, sort of, for a while. And we’ve tried to at least ask different questions about what happened.
I hope their lives are rejuvenated a little now.
Well the city has for 10 years delayed shamelessly the civil suit that they filed in 2003 after a judge, at the urging of not only their defense attorneys but the city itself, the prosecutors office, that they vacate the convictions, even though they’ve served out their full terms. And the city just doesn’t want to pay, doesn’t want to admit it made a mistake.
What was the biggest difference between the making of “The Civil War” and “Jazz”?]
There are more similarities than differences. You approach a subject with these animating questions, and then you put your arm around whatever available material there is. Now of course the Civil War is a concentrated four years in our nation’s history but its lead up is quite extensive and its effects still continue to this day, and it’s the most important event in our history. Jazz is a different sort of thing. It is a music, and music in films is usually the background, the sound track. But sometimes in a film about jazz it has to be that sound track, it has to be the middle ground, it has to be the foreground, and in some cases when you’re sort of dissecting a tune, a kind of hyper ground, a kind of accentuated reality. So different challenges, and of course its story range is from the beginning of the country to the present. So it, like the Civil War, has resonance. Lots of differences that are obvious. People come up to me all the time and say, “Boy you choose such diverse topics,” and I think of them as pretty close to the same thing. And then the people who say, “Oh you just do one type of thing.” That’s the one that you want to grab and talk about the variety.
I find them so closely related that sometimes when I’m recalling a scene I forget which is which.
Well you know it’s interesting that you say that because there is a warp and a woof, a kind of interweaving thing that takes place in American history. And it seemed ridiculous to me as I realized that I was going to make this my life work that you wouldn’t have these intersecting threads. So I’ve now passed through just in the last five years the 1920s and ‘30s many times, in the dust bowl and prohibition and this Roosevelt series, in the National Parks before that in the War, before that in baseball and jazz. So there are many instances when we’d pass through this thing and each time you passed through the decade it was a little bit different. And yet some same familiar people – I think we’ve done the date that will live in infamy speech in about six or seven films because that moment is really next to the Civil War the second biggest moment.
There’s a scene where you have I guess an original recording of a slave, or maybe it was a reading…
No, it was a recording, in the Civil War series, “You ain’t nothin’ but a dog.” He would just take a gun and kill himself if he had to be a slave again. The Library of Congress had in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration and various stimulus programs, giving jobs to artists and writers and playwrights and documentary filmmakers and photographers, as well as carpenters and other trades, went and recorded a good deal of the folk life of our country, and among them were some surviving slaves. That was a very scratchy recording from there. Very powerful when you feel like that era is not accessible, but to understand that the legacy of slavery ... and what you realize as you stand back from all the films I’ve made is that if the outer question is, “Who are we? Who are these strange and complicated people that like to call themselves Americans?" And questions about what freedom means both collectively and individually, the sub theme is always about race. It’s here with an African American president. It’s here with sort of strange racism continues to bubble to the surface. It’s here as the Supreme Courts begins to debate whether you should roll back the Voting Rights Act, saying everything’s okay, and yet African Americans stand in lines much longer than you and I would have to stand in lines to vote. And in some places gerrymandering has just eliminated African American office holders. So it’s always here. It’s our original sin. We were born under the sign, as Thomas Jefferson said, that all men are created equal. But he also owned, as he wrote that sentence, more than a hundred human beings. And that’s the horns of the dilemma.
It seems that slavery is right at the core of everything about America …
This is it, this is what I’m saying. If you are articulating for the first time in human history and applying it practically to a government that most of us think is the greatest invention on earth, The United States of America, but in the articulation you’ve left … you’ve articulated the idea that all men are created equally but you are still tolerating chattel slavery, well I can tell you that fourscore and five years later you’re going to be in a whole world of hurt having to deal with it. And it’s still to this day … Look who stays at this hotel and look who works at it. Just sayin’ it.
It’s true. It’s a great service that you’re trying to put that out there because it has still not yet been dealt with fully.
It’s never really dealt with fully. People embrace it at times. We look at it when Trayvon Martin is killed, but then we look away. But if you do it in a historical way it doesn’t seem to have the immediacy and urgency of contemporary documentaries. But then it doesn’t have the small shelf life. History is a table around which we can still have complicated conversations with people who might believe the opposite of us. So I don’t know a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican who doesn’t hold Abraham Lincoln as a hero. So there’s a good place to start.
I just read an article about Lincoln from the standpoint of Marxism and his relationship to what was going on in Europe at the time. He was a very scholarly, very well read man, read all the newspapers all the time. He was well up on what was going on, one of the great intellectuals of the world.
Yeah, very much so. And a lot of the people, the big complaint about Lincoln is that he was tardy on slavery and emancipation. And he was in a purely moral sense. In a political sense he sort of managed it pretty well. So this is what we find in our leaders, Franklin Roosevelt, the debates over Barack Obama today, which won’t be resolved until historians look back over many decades to try to understand what took place.
America today is going through another very difficult time, and I think this music, having been created by an enslaved people who knew a degree of problems beyond what most of us can imagine, offers tremendous spiritual strength.
That’s exactly right. This is affirmation in the face of adversity. This is a kind of forbearance and resilience. This music is about that. Another way to understand it is that this is an art form born in a community of people of a peculiar experience of people being unfree in a free land. So one of the geniuses of America is improvisation. We are given very little to work with. Our Constitution is only four pages, the shortest constitution on the earth. And so we are constantly improvising. This is what the genius in our business world is. It’s the genius in so many aspects of our life and wouldn’t it stand to reason that those people who were unfree in a free land would have to improvise therefore that much more. I rest my case.
Definitely. How do you expect your career in the future to differ from the past?
I feel that I’m entering a period of experimentation. A lot of the projects that I’ve described that I’m going to do are in the – shall we say – traditional mold, if there was one. Each film has its own set of problems and obstacles and challenges and we meet them in unique ways. But “The Central Park Five” has no narration. It has an editing pace at least in parts that’s quite different from anything we’ve done. I’m working on this film of the boys reading, memorizing the Gettysburg Address in cinema verité, which is no narration and then just watching things take place. So that’s a different sort of thing. I feel right now incredibly excited and enthused by things at a time when most people are winding down. I’m winding up, getting excited about things.
What work are you most proud of?
Well, I’m most proud of my four daughters. My job is, I’m a producer and a co-producer of four daughters and now a granddaughter. So I am most proud of ... more than anything else I would like to be remembered as a good father.
I was going to ask what you would like your legacy to be. I guess that’s the answer.
Yeah. Good dad.
When did you first know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
When I was 12 years old. My mother had died of cancer just a few months before my 12th birthday. She’d been sick my whole life. There was never a moment when I was not aware of a sort of literal sword of Damocles hanging over the family. Afterwards my father had a pretty strict curfew, but he showed me a lot of films. And the first time I ever saw my dad cry – ever – not at my mom’s funeral, not in other aspects of our life, which was so difficult and complicated as you can imagine – he cried at a movie. And I knew instantly the power, and the protection it gave him. That these sort of shared cultural things that we call movies provide a lot of things: distraction, action, outlet, whatever it is, but also quite often shared emotional territory. And to see my dad cry, I understood instantly the power of it and I understood that this was the only place where he could sort of express himself. And I said, “Wow! I want to do this.”
I’m not a film scholar, but it seems to me that you changed or enlarged the documentary film form. Is that true?
Well, you know, I think there was a moment where – there was always a kind of advocacy/political documentary world. There was also, for lack of a better word, an educational world. And the educational world seemed like homework. I had always believed in the art of documentary and I always believed in telling complicated stories. I just didn’t know that my interest would intersect with something I’m untrained in, which is history, and that it would sort of change the way people saw the presentation of history that didn’t need to be expository. It wasn’t homework, but could be complicated, nuanced stories. And the success of “The Civil War” was phenomenal in 1990, a kind of watershed moment, not only because it’s still the highest rated film in the history of PBS, but it woke people up to something. And I think it made room for lots of other films to be made, not just the ones that I’ve done, but lots of other great films and also not-so-great films that others have made.
Did you use techniques that you would call innovations?
Yeah, I think … We all stand on the shoulders of other people, but I really pioneered a kind of restless and exploring camera over the surfaces of still photographs, rather than holding them like a slide show at arms’ length, sort of treating them the way a feature filmmaker might. I also think that using first person voices instead of the voice of God/third person narrator also helped add something to it, and the complicated sound effects tracks, period music, live cinematography that owed itself as much to painting … It’s interesting. I wanted to take the motion pictures and treat them like paintings and take the photographs and treat them like they were alive, and we’ll listen to them as well as look at them and explore them. All of those things together changed things.
-- David Cogswell