Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ken Burns, Jazz, and the Beat Poets

Dear Mr. Burns:

In preparation for your upcoming documentary on America’s National Parks, my wife and I have been reviewing your excellent series on Jazz. In part 10, which focuses on Charlie Parker, I noticed a dismissive attitude in both the narration and commentary toward Allen Ginsberg and the so-called “beat” movement. This is due to Ginsberg’s statements about the spontaneity of be-bop, when of course it is quite obvious to a practiced listener that be-bop requires incredible technical proficiency.

It is certainly possible that Ginsberg and his friends heard in be-bop what they wanted to hear. Don’t we all! But if so, it is a historical irony that “beat” poetry is also called “spontaneous” and lauded for it, when in fact the best of it, especially Ginsberg’s poems, also use very complex, syncopated rhythms, and require a similar technical skill to great jazz.

Perhaps it is possible that Ginsberg is referring to the spontaneous spirit of jazz, something that the documentary itself focuses on when comparing the strict “swing” music with, say, Count Basie’s version. It seems an oversight not to explore that angle more, rather than dismissing the author along with a generation of young be-bop listeners. Of course, I would love to see that oversight remedied in a documentary on the history of American Literature!

It is a rare false note in an otherwise spectacular documentary on the history of Jazz. Keep up the good work as America’s greatest documentarian and thank you for your time.


Eric D. Lehman
English Department
University of Bridgeport

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