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Ken Burns, George Will, and Public Arts Funding

[ 140 ] March 20, 2017 |


That the NEH, NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides a lot of benefit to society for very little money and that closing these agencies down does nothing meaningful to change the federal budget is clear to anyone who is not evil. But in case anyone is on the fence, the impact that Ken Burns’ Civil War series had is a good reason to support these agencies, especially considering that it was popular with both liberals and conservatives.

Ken Burns is probably America’s most well-known documentarian, making traditional, history-rich multi-part films about important periods in American history and facets of American culture. Anyone who’s watched PBS has probably watched one of Burns’s documentaries, which span topics ranging from jazz, baseball, and the national parks to Prohibition and the Roosevelts. At this point, “PBS documentary” is basically synonymous with Burns’s name.

Burns’s films have also received a lot of funding from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, both of which were targeted for elimination (along with the National Endowment for the Arts) in President Trump’s budget proposal. The Jazz series received funds from the CPB, NEH, and NEA, in addition to private, corporate, and foundation funding. Jackie Robinson received a grant from the CPB alongside other sources of private funding. Prohibition received funds from the CPB and NEH.

Thanks to funding from the CPB, NEH, and NEA, Burns’s documentaries are widely available to watch. A good place to start is with his seminal 1990 nine-episode documentary series The Civil War, which was restored and rebroadcast in high definition in September 2015.

The film took five years to complete, and 40 million people watched it when it was first broadcast in 1990 — that’s roughly equivalent to the number of people who watched Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. It won 40 major film and TV awards, including two Emmys and two Grammys. Both the CPB and NEH contributed funding for the project.

The film is credited with an uptick in public interest in the Civil War — though some historians have found the account of the war presented in the film by historian Shelby Foote to be romanticized and reductive. Commemorating the restored edition in Time, Jeffrey Kluger wrote that it “explained an incalculably important chapter in American history to a generation that needed the tutorial.”

Before we get to Shelby Foote, we need to talk about George Will. Burns has used Will as a talking head in multiple films. He was in the Baseball series, which OK I guess, although I don’t think we ever need to listen to Will. More infuriating was his use in the Roosevelt series. Why do I want to hear George Will talk about FDR? What possible useful thing does he have to say about the man? Given that he opposes the entire existence of the New Deal state, that’s a really weird and poor choice. And of course Will’s response to the Trump budget is to embrace destroying the NEA. And while it’s true that he doesn’t take on the NEH or CBP, you can’t deal with one without the others. For Will of course this is all about the culture wars. Piss Christ is every work of art. Will’s right-wing stereotypes of national funding of art, as limited as it is, are part and parcel with the broader attack on the very agencies that allow him to appear in Burns’ series.

Of course a big part of the problem here is Ken Burns. He is strongly attracted to conservative figures for his films, even if they are often more cultural conservative than politically. Will is of course outrageous for a series on the Roosevelts. But this started a long time ago when he made Shelby Foote nationally famous late in life. Foote of course was a huge apologist for Nathan Bedford Forrest and provided a strong Dunningite voice in a series that was mostly pretty good at centering slavery and the African-American experience. This juxtaposition of telling stories that expand the American narrative of freedom while embracing conservative voices is typical of Burns. The repeated use of Stanley Crouch, a man who thinks hip hop is the Great Satan, in a documentary on jazz and then again when talking about Jack Johnson, who pushed all sorts of boundaries of offensiveness that the modern Crouch would find outrageous if repeated today, is another example of this. The whole Jazz series was exceptionally conservative for that matter, forcing the last 50 years into one episode where the continued experimentation in jazz was bemoaned because evidently we should all be listening to Wynton Marsalis turn jazz into a classical canon only relevant to old white people.

So while, yes, Ken Burns’ work is a huge success for the NEH and PBS and should absolutely be held up as relevant in this current political battle to save these agencies, let’s not also forget that Burns himself is a deeply problematic figure who employs people who would like to destroy the type of work he wants to create.


Comments (140)

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  1. EliHawk says:

    Meh. The funny thing about George Will is that whenever Ken Burns gets a camera in front of him, he becomes quite reasonable! Watching him in the Roosevelts, he was acknowledging their successes even if not embracing their politics. Part of it is coming into it with low expectations after years of stupid on Fox News/his columns, but he was legitimately unterrible. And including someone who might disagree with the Roosevelts politically is fine for including in a documentary about them: I would rather he include liberals if he was doing a documentary on Reagan.

    • humanoid.panda says:

      And including someone who might disagree with the Roosevelts politically is fine for including in a documentary about them: I would rather he include liberals if he was doing a documentary on Reagan.

      This is exactly the point I was trying to make below, clumsily…

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The similarities between this comment and a David Broder-esque column about bipartisanship in Washington are quite striking.

      • humanoid.panda says:

        You don’t assign conservative texts to your students?

        • Dennis Orphen says:

          Considering how pervasive the BULLSHIT (sorry for yelling, it’s not at you HP) is in our ‘society’, requiring students to parse anything with a conservative view is like giving fish a bowl of water because they might be thirsty or dehydrated or something.

      • ploeg says:

        The wonderful thing about George Will is how self-refuting he is. Federal funding for arts and humanities being one instance, of course, but also his diatribe last year about how awful Amtrak is (with pictures of him riding Acela popping up all over the place soon afterwards).

        • efgoldman says:

          The wonderful thing about George Will is how self-refuting he is

          Working by and for, and seeing the election of, Sanctus Ronaldus Magnus, moved him along the spectrum from “conservative” to “RWNJ kkkrazy.” There may be an (his) age component, too.
          In the 70s, he regularly wrote columns on the general outline: “Well, I hate what government does, and I hate taxes, but since the people clearly want all these goodies, we have to collect the taxes to pay for them.”
          The Ronaldus. David Stockman and Arthur Laffer happened.

    • Lost Left Coaster says:

      And including someone who might disagree with the Roosevelts politically is fine for including in a documentary about them: I would rather he include liberals if he was doing a documentary on Reagan.

      Agreed, but let it be an expert, not a hack political columnist.

    • Turangalila says:

      I seem to remember Will being used in the Roosevelt series primarily to defend TR’s imperialism. At any event I don’t think he was quite as insufferable in that series as he was in the Baseball series.

    • Phil Perspective says:

      Does no one remember Will’s actions re: the 1980 election? Why does a supposed liberal give that scumbag Will the benefit of the doubt?

    • bobbo1 says:

      Will’s most hilarious (and by “hilarious,” I mean “infuriating”) comment in the Roosevelts documentary was when he said the New Deal was going great until FDR tried to balance the budget in 1937. This is, in fact, true. But Paul Krugman had to explain this very point to Will on the TV in 2008, when Will said the New Deal was an utter failure and the only thing that got us out of the Depression was WWII.

      • Linnaeus says:

        the New Deal was an utter failure and the only thing that got us out of the Depression was WWII.

        Which amounts to an admission that a ton more government spending – the kind of thing Will thinks government shouldn’t do – helped get the US out of the Great Depression.

        • efgoldman says:

          Which amounts to an admission that a ton more government spending – the kind of thing Will thinks government shouldn’t do – helped get the US out of the Great Depression.

          It’s only certain kinds of spending… on certain kinds of people.

        • BiloSagdiyev says:

          Annnnd guess which types FDR was trying to please with attempts at budget balancing in 1937?

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        until FDR tried to balance the budget in 1937.

        Since this was the Golden Age of the Democratic Party before it was hijacked by neoliberals, this is plainly unpossible.

    • John Revolta says:

      The funny thing about George Will is that whenever Ken Burns gets a camera in front of him, he becomes quite reasonable!

      I hear there’s a thing called editing

  2. humanoid.panda says:

    Here is a difficult question: a national narrative project like Burns’ is going to inevitably to deal not only with the past, but also with the way we ,as a nation, conceptualize the past. And as such, shouldn’t it give a representation to conservative voices? I mean, Shelby Foote is terrible, but he does represent how millions of Americans conceive of the civil war.

  3. Joe_JP says:

    I didn’t see the documentary but read Burns’ daughter book on the Central Park Five case. Well recommended.

  4. Aardvark Cheeselog says:

    If CPB is destroyed I will play a dirge on the world’s tiniest violin.

    Seriously, public broadcasting has been whipped into such a permanent defensive crouch that it no longer understands that it isn’t standing up straight. It has failed, utterly and comprehensively, in its mission to provide an alternative to the Establishment Conventional Wisdom. If it is completely wiped out, and the careers of everyone involved ended, that would make space for something to eventually arise that would fill the role it’s supposed to fill. But as it is, it does more harm than good.

    • LeeEsq says:

      Those contradictions won’t heighten themselves. Gutting PBS will not lead to an American BBC or a better, tougher, and leftist PBS.

      • Aardvark Cheeselog says:

        It’s not about heightening contradictions, thankyouverymuch.

        And I agree that it “will not lead to an American BBC.” But it’s a precondition.

    • Karen24 says:

      Is there any evidence that anything you suggest here will actually happen? The most likely result is that we will have far MORE anti-science fact-free crap from the right wing and far more WWF and NASCAR.

    • Just_Dropping_By says:

      Since when was PBS’s mission to “provide an alternative to the Establishment Conventional Wisdom”?

      • Aardvark Cheeselog says:

        I’m not even going to try to find a cite. But if you were alive in the 1970s, or even the early 80s, and paying attention to media, I don’t think you’d be asking this.

        Seriously, why would there even be a public broadcasting organization if somebody didn’t think there needed to be an alternative to commercial media? Does the question not answer itself?

        • LeeEsq says:

          PBS originated in some very dry educational programming. Its goal wasn’t to provide an alternative to Establishment Conventional Wisdom. Its goal was to deliver lectures to people. The format as we know it today ordinated in Pittsburgh when somebody with a better sense of showmanship took over and started doing things like cooking shows, kid’s shows, and airing British shows.

          • Aardvark Cheeselog says:

            Sorry, “alternative to commercial media” would have been a better choice of words in the original screed.

            I am unrepentant about the claim that public broadcasting pretends to have a role informing the public about important things that commercial news media doesn’t cover (or covers only in a way calculated not to interfere with commercial interests), and that today this claim is an empty one. Whereas I can recall a time when it at least seemed otherwise.

        • LeeEsq says:

          TV Tropes has a nice summary. The parent of PBS was that front of anti-capitalism and establishment knowledge, the Ford Foundation. John F. White, President of Pittsburgh’s public broadcast station, was the one that created the modern PBS format. PBS’ content and ideology reflects that sort of well-educated upper-middle class white professional that gets excited about education and likes to show how cultured they are. They type that Get Out turns into horror movie villains.

  5. SausalitoSurfer says:

    And during the 70s and early-80s, George Will was a fixture on PBS’ Friday night pundit show Agronsky and Company.

    • efgoldman says:

      during the 70s and early-80s, George Will was a fixture on PBS’ Friday night pundit show

      That was the least of their sins. They had that sleazy ex-priest McGlaughin on for about 90 years, and he in turn had the likes of Pat (Goebbels) Buchanan, Kondracke, and Mona Charen on regularly to tell lies.

  6. Peterr says:

    On the plus side, Ken Burns introduced the world to someone beloved in Kansas City for decades: Buck O’Neil.

    Said Burns later (from the preface of Buck’s autobiography):

    There is nothing you can say about Buck O’Neil that one second in his presence won’t prove a hundred times over. It is impossible to resist the positive force that lights him from within and then spreads out and lights and warms you, too. No one is immune to him; only the inattentive miss what is special about him.
    One time, early in the interviewing process for Baseball, we brought Buck up to lily-white Walpole, New Hampshire — lily-white in every sense, from the population to the snow-covered Currier & Ives setting — where we filmed some more interviews and he got to meet some of our editing staff. We all went out to lunch at a little pizza place; it was the first time the staff, who’d seen him on film, had spent any time with him in person. (I always envy people who are meeting Buck for the first time; whether they meet him in a bar or are sitting next to him on a plane, they may not know who this elegant older gentleman is at first, but by the end of their passage they’re converts.) A woman who’s been with me from the beginning of my work, Susanna, went up to Buck at the start of the lunch and said to him, very formally, “Mr. O’Neil, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” shook his hand and went back to where she was sitting. So we all had our pizza, and we talked, and then at the end of the meal Susanna went over to Buck again, stuck out her hand, and said, “Mr. O’Neil, it’s truly been a pleasure.” Well, Buck didn’t move, just looked at her, and there was a mortifying pause as her hand stood there in midair, with Buck making no move to take it in his. And then, slowly, gracefully, he stood up, smiled, and opened his arms to her and said “Give it up.” And she just flew into his arms. “Give it up.”–that’s Buck’s way. “Give me a hug,” yes, but also don’t be so formal, don’t hide behind polite conventions, don’t be afraid to show someone some love. Show what’s in your heart, always; don’t keep it inside. Give it up.

    Putting Buck in Burns’ miniseries on baseball made the world a better place, even if the price was to have to put up with some George Will and Shelby Foote.

    • EliHawk says:

      Also, Will was a huge fan of Curt Flood’s crusade against the Reserve Clause, once dubbing him “Dred Scott in Spikes” and eulogizing him at his funeral (alongside Jesse Jackson, of all people). Given the focus Burns placed on the rise of players’ power as employees and the fight for free agency, including him worked really well. And again: You get a Ken Burns camera in front of Ken Burns, and he gets a lot more interesting. (The cynic would say: Will is smart enough to play to his audience whether on PBS or Fox News. But he’s also smart enough to be useful for Burns’ films.)

  7. Joe_JP says:

    One thing about Shelby Foote was that he was so darn perfect as a talking head in a dramatic sense. I’m sure you could find someone else with talents in that sense with different views. But, that was one thing so attractive about him.

    One other thing. Know a history teacher in a high school and she noted she and her students weren’t really overly impressed with the Civil War series. Found it boring or some such. This was a year or so ago. Kids today are so critical.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      To be fair, it has the production values of 25 years ago.

    • UberMitch says:

      Came here to say this re Foote’s telegenicity. I gave The Civil War a rewatch just after the inauguration—I think I wanted to hear the story of our lowest point as a nation to keep things in perspective—and by god that drawl still gets me every time. And it’s totally obvious the whole time how noxious what he’s spreading is, but dammit if I don’t want to just have a mint julep and hear him tell colorful anecedotes. It makes me feel dirty, born and raised in New England as I was.

      • imwithher says:

        Meh. Foote makes me want to puke.

      • nemdam says:

        Ha, I basically did the same thing. The series was on my list to watch, but after the election I finally got around to doing it. While Foote doesn’t go totally Dunning school and blame the North for everything bad, he certainly romanticizes the struggle of the South. But goddamn does the Confederacy wish they had Foote around during the war as he would’ve been their best propagandist. He almost made me sympathize with the South for a few moments here and there.

    • delazeur says:

      I agree with those students, and I don’t think it’s because of production value. I would much rather watch university lectures on YouTube than a Ken Burns documentary; his stuff is just slow — I’ve never felt like I learned very much compared to the amount of time I spent watching.

    • MaxUtility says:

      Foote is a excellent spokesman for what is one of Burn’s great strengths/weaknesses. He is in love with nostalgia and pathos. He does have a rare ability to make history moving and interesting (high school students current tastes aside.) And I really give The Civil War credit for communicating the sweep and personal costs of the war. But there’s always an air of deep nostalgia in Burn’s work. Everything is past and sweeping and gorgeously moving or painful. It makes it hard for him to place things in context or connect them to history that occurred before or after the specific events he covers. Jazz really suffered from this heavily. It’s a great overview of canon jazz history and a great introduction to the joys of that musical movement. But good god it tried hard to crystallize a sanitized and dead view of an ongoing movement. Wynton Marsalis’ nostalgia for a long lost time (that never really existed) is palpable.

      • AlanInSF says:

        “…forcing the last 50 years into one episode where the continued experimentation in jazz was bemoaned because evidently we should all be listening to Wynton Marsalis turn jazz into a classical canon only relevant to old white people.”

        Yes! I’ve been thinking that for, what, 20 years now. “And then, jazz ended.” ‘Cause it’s not like any notable rock guitarists ever cited Coltrane or Miles as a major influence, or that young players created a new jazz language on electronic instruments, or any of a million examles of living jazz.

    • NewishLawyer says:

      Ken Burns does a very polished but very traditional documentary style which is very much at odds with the modern culture in many ways. The modern form of non-fiction storytelling is supposed to be more personal, memoir, imperfect. Even when it is not a personal/autobiographical story, the narrator-journalist is supposed to inject their thought process along the way. Think of how Sarah Koening did it in Serial.

      Historical subjects are also not really captured in a grand style. The true crime narrative is the reigning example of what is popular now or the family secret story.

      The production values are supposed to be rough to, to show a here and now kind of filming.

      That being said, Ken Burns style is so well known and distinct that he is easily parodied. Marvel did this in a preview for Captain America: Civil War.

      • LeeEsq says:

        Modern documentaries also like to include dramatic reenactments of events if they can afford it or at least the actors playing different historical characters and acting as taking heads. So instead of a picture of Frederick Douglas with somebody reading his words, you would get an actor dressed up as Frederick Douglas and reciting his words in a modern documentary or a re-enactment of an encounter between Douglas and Lincoln.

        • UberMitch says:

          These actual reenactments of Douglas are no doubt why his amazing job is getting recognized more and more.

        • NewishLawyer says:

          I never liked this sort of thing and we can blame the History channel for them.

          Insert semi-OT rant about the horrible ness of the History channel and why can’t we have nice documentaries like the BBC. BBC documentaries tend to be a nice middle ground between LCD but not too academic and dry. They are like Open University courses.

          • LeeEsq says:

            Many BBC documentaries also include historical re-enactments or historical talking heads. The BBC documentaries depend on the BBC’s immunity from commercial and political pressure. They are probably less well-watched than a lot of PBS documentaries.

        • so-in-so says:

          What’s very weird about these comments on Burns’ style is that they are backwards! The standard before Burns for documentaries about periods pre-dating readily available moving images was exactly having costumed recreations of the events (if you could afford it). After “The Civil War” is when everybody discovered the idea of panning around a still photo with sound effects to provide an element of drama and life to an otherwise still image.

          Probably it became over-done, and people moved on. Today you can probably find a video game to get CGI footage off of without needing the re-creators. At the time of “The Civil War” Burns’ technique was considered very innovative.

      • Dennis Orphen says:

        This comment is best experienced by panning over it as it is read aloud.

        Thank you.

    • heckblazer says:

      I read somewhere that Burns originally planned to use much less of Foote, but after seeing how damn telegenic he was he couldn’t help but keep adding in more Foote.

    • Dennis Orphen says:

      Whenever someone takes an undesired interest in what I’m doing (which happens more than you might think), I always discourage it by explaining exactly what I am doing in clear, unambiguous measured, academic tones. It works every time.

    • Dennis Orphen says:

      I know who Shelby Flint is. I know who Barry Foote is. I don’t know who Shelby Foote is and I plan on remaining blissfully ignorant in his case.

    • N__B says:

      There’s a weird aspect to Foote’s presence in the series: I’m not sure of how much of the confederate nostalgia and Forrest apologia is Foote and how much is Burns. I received as a present the boxed set of disks and Mrs__B had never seen it, so we watched. This set had out-takes – basically interview scenes with the same group of historians that are on screen in the as-aired episodes. Most of the historians are saying the exact same thing in the out-takes that they are in the aired clips. Foote, on the other hand, is discussing the brutalities committed by the CSA army, including specifically Forrest, in his outtakes. Those clips have a completely different feel than the ones that aired.

      I have the same problem with Foote as pretty much everyone else here, but those outtakes got me wondering if Burns used Fox News style framed questions and editing to create something that wasn’t there, or if Foote said completely different things on different days and Burns had to decide which Foote he wanted to show, or what the hell happened.

      • John F says:

        I never watched Burns’ Civil War series, but I do have one of Shelby Foote’s Civil War volumes… my first sign that something was “off” was how his description of Lincoln’s and Jefferson Davis’s respective elections devolved into outright hagiography of… Jefferson Davis.

        I mean he couched it as being how Southerners regarded the two men at the time but still…

    • efgoldman says:

      she and her students weren’t really overly impressed with the Civil War series.

      My kid was 9-10 in 1990-91. She loved stuff like James Burke’s Connections series (we watched it together), and she ended up a history major. But she couldn’t abide the Civil War series then, in high school, in college, or now.

  8. Scott P. says:

    It’s not so much that, for whatever reason, Piss Christ has come to symbolise the NEA, but that conservatives completely fail to understand the message the the work was trying to convey. They see it as some kind of simplistic anti-religious screed when it is more nearly the opposite.

    • NewishLawyer says:

      Pretty much. The NEA is seen as an artist version of “Welfare Queen.”

      Right-wingers just imagine a lot of decadent artists living off the hog in SOHO lofts when they think of the NEA.

      Also Sesame Street is very urban for kids programming and the original core audience was the urban preteen. Sesame Street has tried to stay true to this mission even if it does things like make unbearable toys featuring Elmo.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Conservatives can’t really comprehend any art other than Thomas Kinkade or John McNaughton.

    • efgoldman says:

      conservatives completely fail to understand the message the the work was trying to convey.

      They’re entitled not to like it. Hell, I’m not crazy about it, but I’m not a visual arts person (music major). They’re not entitled to say “I don’t like it, therefore the whole NEA/NEH project must die now now now.”
      There’s no goddamned institutional memory in this country but I’m knowledgeable enough to know how may fantastic musical, theatrical, and art projects were funded by the WPA during the depression.

      • NewishLawyer says:

        The right-wing wanted to shut the WPA down as well.

      • John F says:

        conservatives completely fail to understand the message the the work was trying to convey.

        They’re entitled not to like it. Hell, I’m not crazy about it,

        I’m not crazy about it either, it was basically about giving certain religious adherents the finger* (cue someone claiming that’s not what it was – that’s EXACTLY what it was**) – which was Serrano’s right, just as it’s someone else’s right (IMHO) to portray Muhammad as an porcine pedophile- but a having a right to do something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do (in a right and wrong sense)

        *Yes, some people should get the finger (figuratively) but there are much better ways to give “Christians” the finger… And if your goal is to comment on the commercialization of Christian icons as Serrano has claimed, much better targeted ways of doing that.

        **He NAMED it “Piss Christ” he didn’t have to do that, he didn’t have to name the medium the crucifix was immersed in.

  9. imwithher says:

    “a series that was mostly pretty good at centering slavery and the African-American experience”

    Bullshit. The “Civil War” series sucked. And it sucked mostly because it did NOT center slavery or the African American experience. Indeed, it left those things out almost entirely. And it was the outcry over that grotesque omission that led to Burns doing better in this regard in his “Baseball” series.

    Burns in general sucks. He is a low ranking class member at the Gary Wills “I am big because my subject matters are big” School of Middle Brow Careerism. His “Jazz” series is embarrassingly stupid.

    • MyNameIsZweig says:

      it did NOT center slavery or the African American experience. Indeed, it left those things out almost entirely.

      Yeah, that’s how I remember it, though it has been some years since I last watched anything by Ken Burns.

    • Origami Isopod says:


      There are so many better documentarians out there, but Burns is a well-spoken white man with a centrist middlebrow sensibility. As MaxUtility says upthread, he’s all about nostalgia and pathos, not about challenging anyone’s assumptions. This is what sells.

    • Joe_JP says:

      It was problematic because it didn’t cover certain things enough, but the documentary was about the Civil War overall, including the battles and so forth.

      “Slavery” and “the African American experience” is obviously a large part of this, but “centering” on it is not necessarily what one needs to do to have a good accounting. Did he focus too much on battles, letters from white people etc.? I’m sure.

      As to “left those things out almost entirely,” the very first episode concerned with the “Beginning with a searing indictment of slavery, this first episode dramatically evokes the causes of the war, from the Cotton Kingdom of the South to the northern abolitionists who opposed it.”

      “Episode Three: Forever Free (1862)” covers the lead up to the Emancipation Proclamation.

      • imwithher says:

        Please. The entire series is all about false equivalence. The nobility of the lost cause. Shelby Foote apologetics. And so on. African Americans, as historical agents, figure in it practically not at all. And even as the fucking cause of the whole thing slavery is grossly underplayed.

      • imwithher says:

        And, guess what, blaming the abolitionists equally with the slave owners as the “cause” of the war proves my point, not yours.

    • Bloix says:

      His name is Garry Wills. And I have no fucking idea what you are on about.

  10. …Wynton Marsalis turn jazz into a classical canon only relevant to old white people.

    Well, PBS does know who its core audience is – old white people.

    The thing is, a lot of those old white people actually enjoyed bop and listened to Miles Davis when they were younger – which makes it that much more strange that the last few decades were not more explored.

    • JKTH says:

      Jazz does cover bop and Miles Davis’s early career somewhat. It’s the later stuff from the 60s onward that gets the yadda yadda treatment (and which still centers Davis).

      • imwithher says:

        Yes, “Jazz’ covers Bop, but mostly as if it were somehow a mistake or dead end, rather than the well spring of modern jazz that it was. Phil Schapp correctly sees Bop as “the New Testament” of Jazz. Basically, everything that has happened in jazz since Bop owes its existence to Bop.

        Burns also seems to idiotically think that, somehow, jazz would have continued to maintain its status as the popular music of America that it had during the Swing/Big Band era, if it were not for the nefarious, elitist, intellectuals who created Bop.

        Burn is moron. A know nothing, who has somehow found a way into the PBS pipeline for documentary funding.

        • louislouis says:

          That’s an interesting take. I thought their version of The Fall was free jazz/fusion tho …

          • imwithher says:

            Yeah, but the original sin, in Burns’ childish view, was Be Bop. Cuz it required people to listen intently and wasn’t easy to dance to. Cuz it placed jazz in the conversation of modern music along with Stravinsky et al. Because the long, extended solos, which actually thrill listeners with their inventiveness and creativity, somehow “exhaust their patience,” and “inundate” them, according to Dumbshit, Lowest Common Denominator, Burns. This POS thinks that Charlie Parker’s experiments with strings and his interest in R ‘n B (proto Rock ‘n Roll, if you will), show that even he knew that Bop as a “dead end.” The reality is that Bop was a new language, and that hard bop, fusion, free jazz, etc would all grow out of it. And that even Rock would be influenced by it.

            Burns is as complete a clueless fucking idiot as can be imagined.

            • louislouis says:

              Thanks for clarifying. And I agree with your views of both bop and Burns.

            • LeeEsq says:

              Bop is art jazz. Its to jazz what atonal music is to classical music or what the 1960s were to rock, especially after Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. There is something though for music you can dance to. I’m a big believer in Elijah Wald’s theory that the changes that rock went through in the 1960s represented a re-segregation of pop music. African-Americans and Hispanic Americans wanted something more danceable to while White baby boomers were migrating away from that overall.

        • NewishLawyer says:

          I don’t recall it being against Bop. If anything, it was against Rock n’ Roll. There was an episode with an African-American singer who was very angry at the Beatles and the whole rock thig and thought it was racism that made Boomer teenagers turn to the Beatles. I thought the documentary was very sympathetic to her and her style of singing was very experimental.

          Also the real decline of jazz happened way after the rise of bop. Jazz still had a cool city cache in the 1960s. Now it doesn’t even have that.

          Jazz has become a form of classical really or something you do as a tourist in certain areas.

          • imwithher says:

            It was totally against Bop. Bop is where jazz went wrong, in asshole Burns’ telling. Sure, after Bop, evil R and R took over. And that is a Bad Thing. But Bird and Diz were really to blame.

            • Bloix says:

              I didn’t see it that way at all. I saw a sort of tragedy – as jazz became more and more artistically powerful, it lost its mass appeal to people who wanted to dance, and R&B filled that space.
              I think that’s a fair view, actually.

          • imwithher says:

            Also, it is pretty stupid to think that jazz would be any less of a merely “classical” or “tourist” music if Bop and the innovations it led to, including those of the Sixties (ie avant garde jazz, free jazz, fusion) had not happened. On the one hand, jazz has been reduced to a “classical” or “tourist” music (one imagines a Preservation Hall type band playing “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” on Bourbon Street, over and over again), on the other hand, that is all Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s fault for innovating beyond the Armstrong, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Count Basie tradition in the 1940’s.

            Yeah, all those racist white folks in the Sixties would totally NOT have loved the Beatles, and would still have been jitterbugging to Bennie Goodman, if it were not for Bird and Diz, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and so on!

            • John F says:

              Yeah, all those racist white folks in the Sixties would totally NOT have loved the Beatles,

              Those racist white folks in the 60s were not the ones who loved the Beatles, they were the ones who listened to Country and stuff like the Ballad of the Green Berets…

    • efgoldman says:

      Well, PBS does know who its core audience is – old white people

      And kids. They’re kids’ programming, and not just Sesame Street and [the late] Mr Rogers, is excellent.

  11. Blanche Davidian says:

    Frankly, I put Jazz aficionados one rung above libertarians on the ol’ ladder of insufferables. My rule of thumb (and I possess a thumb with the artistic backward curve) is that once you’ve acknowledged the virtuosity of any practitioner of Jazz, you need never listen to them again. This has the beneficial side effect of sparing oneself the self-important bloviations of the Jazz aficionado as well!

    • MyNameIsZweig says:

      We deserve at least a few more rungs than that between us and the Libertarians. I mean, we may be boring, but at least we don’t want to actively fuck up other people’s lives for nonsensical ideological reasons.

      • John F says:

        What about a Jazz aficionado who is also a Trumpista? (Father of a friend, I almost was motivated to unfriend him on Facebook a few months ago, but first I had I had to figure put how to do that… and in the meantime someone- his wife I assume- took away his internet access…)

        • MyNameIsZweig says:

          Doesn’t matter what his other interests are – being a Trumpista is damning all on its own.

          But if we are reducing people to a single aspect of their personality – as Blanche Davidian was in their original comment – then jazz aficionado-hood is far more benign than Libertarianism, and its standing on whatever ladder BD refers to should reflect that.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Meh. They’re annoying but harmless overall.

      • efgoldman says:

        They’re annoying but harmless overall.

        Yeah. They tend to slag each other and leave the rest of us alone.
        It’s not like they were leftybros or something.

  12. louislouis says:

    I suppose because of Foote’s accent, which I first saw The Civil War (aged 11) I just thought he was the spokesman for the Confederate side.

    I was older when Jazz came out and I was legitimately shocked how Burns gave Wynton Marsalis an unchallenged platform to shit on Miles’ entire electric period with some half-assed and completely condescending “midlife crisis” explanation. The idea that anyone would prefer one of Wynton’s museum pieces to Bitches Brew still strikes me as insane.

    But Miles was already dead. Cecil Taylor was alive – could he at least have been invited to provide counterpoint to Branford Marsalis getting ANGRY about something Taylor had said? Maybe this was before teach the controversy became a thing …

    • Q.E.Dumbass says:

      It can’t help that songs from Davis’ electric period are a favorite of folks in the hippity-hoppity (and his final album has the additional perceived discredit of being co-produced by such a figure, Osten “Easy Mo Bee” Harvey).

      BTW, ever listen to any of David Axelrod’s music? (RIP)

      • louislouis says:

        Yeah it has to burn that On The Corner at 45 years of age sounds a million times more relevant than Wynton’s entire career output combined.

        Axelrod is great – his Electric Prunes productions and Songs of Innocence remain favorites of mine. Oh, and if Miles was too “hippity hoppity” once can imagine what Marsalis would think of Axelrod given the roster that’s sampled him.

        Btw not the discussion I’d imagine I’d be having about “David Axelrod” on a political blog!

        • Q.E.Dumbass says:

          He died the night of the Super Bowl, and I’m still upset over it being neglected in the music notes. He totally should have done a collaboration with Scott Walker, BTW. (I actually have his Requiem album, which is a European import).
          Also worth noting that Wynton’s brother Branford worked with DJ Premier in Buckshot Lefonque.

    • MyNameIsZweig says:

      The idea that anyone would prefer one of Wynton’s museum pieces to Bitches Brew still strikes me as insane.

      Literally the only Marsalis album that holds any interest for me at all is Live from Blues Alley, and that’s probably because it was the album that opened up my interest in jazz in the first place when I was 17 or 18 (I moved on to better and more interesting stuff soon thereafter). I’ve never ever fully understood the stature he has in the jazz world.

      • Q.E.Dumbass says:

        I’ve mentioned this before, but for me it was David Axelrod’s “A Divine Image” and its album Songs of Experience.

      • louislouis says:

        “I’ve never ever fully understood the stature he has in the jazz world.”

        Probably the cultural nadir jazz found itself in by the 80’s – where its major figures either dead or aging and it’s contributions being merged into other genres – funk, R&B, hip-hop. The idea of a kind of restoration probably seemed appealing, with few realizing that a cage was on offer.

        Around the same time you started to have the rise of the “jazz as America’s classical music” crowd that became Wynton’s target market. At the time it probably seemed like a bid for respect though in retrospect it seems about as condescending at “[insert other culture]’s Shakespeare

  13. Moondog von Superman says:

    “When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
    — White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” March 16, 2017

    • efgoldman says:

      White House budget director Mick Mulvaney

      Some people think there is an evil–stupid axis. I don’t – I think they’re two parallel things. But if there were, Mulvaney would be all the way to the evil end.
      Or, the universal New Yorker caption.

  14. Colin Day says:

    Perhaps I should accede to your authority on this, Prof. Loomis, but how much of a historian is Shelby Foote?

    OT Congrats for Oregon.

  15. LosGatosCA says:

    Sorry to be late to the thread but you all are doing it all wrong.

    PBS made WF Buckley a household name, beyond the ugly right with Firing Line.

    If PBS was good enough for that low life conservative Republican piece of shit, it’s certainly good enough for any current POS Republican.

    No other argument needed.

    Also, too, Aslan Colmes prototype, Kinsley.

  16. CraigMcMahon says:

    By odd coincidence, I’ve been re-watching the Civil War on Netflix. I’m far from a historian, but I don’t see the Foote hate- and I’m the type who gets to frothing at the mouth when I read Lost Cause nonsense. A quote:

    “Right now I’m thinking a good deal about emancipation. One of our sins was slavery. Another was emancipation. It’s a paradox. In theory, emancipation was one of the glories of our democracy — and it was. But the way it was done led to tragedy. Turning four million people loose with no jobs or trades or learning. And then, in 1877, for a few electoral votes, just abandoning them entirely. A huge amount of pain and trouble resulted. Everybody in America is still paying for it…”


    “This country has two great sins on its very soul. One is slavery, which we’ll never get out of our history and our conscience… the marrow of our bones. The other one is emancipation.

    They told four million people, ‘You are free. Hit the road.’ Two-thirds of them couldn’t read or write. Very few of them had any trade except farming, and they went back into a sharecropper system that closely resembled peonage. I’m not saying emancipation is a sin, for God’s sake… but it should have been an emancipation that brought those people into society without all these handicaps on their head.”

    My working-theory of Foote is that as a Southerner, as a native of the Mississippi Delta, raised in the fetid stink of Lost Causism, he was absolutely more sympathetic to the Confederacy than is acceptable to us. But for a man raised in the Delta, born in 1916, and therefore a young child/adolescent during the height of the resurgent Klan in the 20s, he was remarkably open-eyed about the stain of slavery on the American conscience, and was also highly critical of our great moral failing after the Civil War, when most of our leaders valued reconciliation with the South over economic justice for blacks.

    I’d love nothing else for the entire country to agree with me about the Civil War: that it was the fault of a greedy and inhuman Southern aristocracy. But failing that, if a proud and native Southerner can admit that slavery is a stain on the American conscience and the gutless half-measure of Reconstruction still has a broad impact on all of us today, I find it difficult to condemn him.

    I can and do, however, sneer whenever he talks about how noble Robert E Fucking Lee was.

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