I recently watched (part of) one episode of Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz — Part 5: Swing — and it was pretty good, had interviews with people who knew what they were talking about (Wynton Marsalis, Artie Shaw), lots of great stock footage and period photographs that were unfamiliar to me.
Well, two buts, really, but right now I’ll only deal with one.1
This time… good god could the doc have been any more clichéd in how it dealt with “The Business Part”?
About halfway through, the screen goes black, the opening strains of Artie Shaw’s recording of Gershwin’s “Summertime” play, and the title “The Business Part” comes up. Despite the rather trepidatious mood of those opening notes, I think “Oh, good! Documentaries on artists never do justice to the business side of their business!”
Alas, they still don’t.
Do we get an examination of the economics of big bands, how they balanced recording and playing dates on the road?
A study, however shallow, of how the musicians’ union affected their lives, for good and ill?
A comparison of how affordable live music was to regular joes then to how unaffordable it is now, and informed speculation on how this came to pass?
Yeah, not so much.
“The Business Part”, in its entirety, was about how Artie Shaw didn’t like playing the same songs over and over again, how audiences were too stupid to understand that, and how he quit because “the business part” had nothing to do with music. (He also apparently was irritated with having to make payroll every week.)
That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing. At. All.
I stopped watching the moment that segment ended, because I didn’t want to break anything.
Look, I like Artie Shaw. Respect the hell out of him (albeit less now than before). Once he’d made his pile, he quit music to make himself an autodidact, studying western history simply because it interested him. Given my own introversion and tendency to read history for no better reason than because it’s interesting, I get that.
But this was a documentary, and it should have documented its subject, dammit. And the subject was not Artie Shaw’s antipathy toward the process by which he got rich and never had to deal with that process again. (Hell, if it had even done the minimal work to show that much, it would have been something.)
Once upon a time, dozens of big bands roamed the nation, playing one and two-night dates everywhere. Not just the coasts, not just New York and San Francisco, but Fargo, North Dakota and other non-metropoolitan locales, everywhere.
People came not just to listen to them play, but to dance to them. In numbers large enough to make this activity not only economically viable, but lucrative. It supported not only the bands, but the aforementioned musicians’ union, managers, booking agents, the ballroom venues where the performing and dancing was done, and so forth. This in the days before the interstate freeway system, reliable long distance telephone service, and so many other things we take for granted now.
Take a moment and try to wrap your head around how that could have worked. During the Great Depression, of all times!
The documentarians find all of this boring, unworthy of documenting, except insofar as it incidentally impacts upon the magical artists and their magical talents, who supported themselves through magic (and a little bit of dirty commerce, but that’s not their fault).
This is a contemporary problem. Our culture used to give a damn about how things worked. Process was important, even if it remained in the background. Business was important, not dirty or disreputable. (It could be run in dirty or disreputable ways, of course — any fool can see that — but it wasn’t inherently that way.)
In case you think I’m joking or exaggerating, go back and watch The Glenn Miller Story.3 The movie’s main thread is how Miller tried to find his sound, the thing that would make his work unique. But an important secondary thread is the business aspect, and it’s not treated like poison or cooties, the way it would be today. It’s there, it’s got to be dealt with, and it’s a point of honor for the most part.
There’s a scene where his wife (the very under-rated June Allyson) reveals she’s been secretly saving money to help him get a band started. Another where his first go at having a travelling band has fallen apart so disastrously that one of his friends had to sell his car to help make the final payroll — the friend, Chumley, is played by Harry Morgan, and he does it without any recrimination or manipulation, or emotional blackmail of any kind. The payroll has to be met, and he does what must be done. Miller feels awful about it, but accepts it as necessary. Then, again, after the band’s success, Miller explains the economics of a single recording to his father, which also explains the rather palatial house they’re having the conversation in.
“The Business Part” in The Glenn Miller Story is integral (though not central), and not dirty or regrettable in the slightest. It’s just part of the life of the musician. Important. Necessary. And in no way a moral failure for being such.
Contrast this with a more recent film dealing with artists, Rent. This is typical of today’s culture. Rent presents Real Artists, who don’t care about money or business at all, and prove it by sponging off of their friend who owns the building they live in, refusing to pay rent. Their friend, whom they are using and abusing egregiously, is the bad guy, because he has to make money, and insists they stop sponging and start paying their way. This is presented without (intentional) irony.
What a difference fifty years makes, eh?
But back to the Jazz documentary. I’ve only watched half of one episode, but it’s easy to surmise that the business aspects of jazz’s rise and fall as popular music are neglected, overlooked, or grossly distorted. That’s not just a pity, it destroys the value of the documentary as a document.
Because it does not give the viewer even the most cursory understanding of how jazz functioned commercially, it presents jazz as what Ayn Rand called a “floating abstraction” — you get the music itself, and are told it was popular, and then not, but you get no understanding of the understructure supporting it, enabling its rise and facilitating its fall.
I am sure that the process of recording, pressing, and selling records gets at least lip-service. The marketing and charting of them probably gets passing mention, without any explanation (or, perhaps, even understanding) of how it worked. How did radio play support marketing efforts of big bands? How were live shows promoted? What did a typical ticket cost, in Fargo versus New York? Did this variance in prices affect bookings? Who owned the tour buses, and how did travel costs affect things?
I’m guessing that if any of this gets mentioned, it is done in a non-integrated fashion, leaving the viewer no more aware of the interconnection of these things with the music than he was at the beginning. In fact, given “The Business Part” section, he’s likely to think that all of the above hurt the purity of the music or somesuch.
If jazz had not been commercially successful, if it hadn’t been good business, it wouldn’t be getting laudatory documentaries lamenting its passing by anti-business academics today.
The business part shouldn’t be the entirety of the documentary, nor half, perhaps not even a tenth. But it should be a part, and it should give the viewer the grounding he needs to understand jazz’s rise and fall in context of the larger culture. Leaving it out, or spitting on it, does no one any favors in understanding jazz as a cultural phenomenon.