In recent times, the media have been inundated with articles about the Ken Burns Jazz marathon on TV, purportedly a documentary jazz history. Preview comments have been very laudatory. With a reported thirteen million dollar budget from GM, and all those film and video clips of those wonderful jazz artists, how could it not be good?
Why am I writing about this opus, when heaven knows, there is saturation publicity on it, and they don't need my exposure? Let me explain. In May of last year, a Mr. Peter Miller, a staff member of the Burns project, wrote to advise us that Erroll Garner would not be included in this video marathon.
At the time we received Mr. Miller's letter, we felt "dissed", but decided to ignore the "slight" and omission. However, since then, Mr. Burns in various print interviews singled out Mr. Garner as an "omissionee." Which brings us to the why of this letter. In the August 6th issue of the Los Angeles Times, in a four page cover story interview written by Don Heckman, a long-time top jazz writer, Mr. Burns made a statement about Mr. Garner which could not go unaddressed. Following from the article:
Don Heckman: "Burns himself expresses regret that pianist Erroll Garner, the composer of Misty who was highly visible from the mid-'40's to the mid-'60's, didn't make the cut. And it is, indeed, a bit difficult to understand why there was no room for one of the great individualists of jazz piano playing."
Quoth Burns, by way of rationalizaing Garner's omission: "Great as Garner is," says Burns, "you don't want to take away space from a Charlie Parker, a Miles Davis or a Thelonious Monk to support somebody who wasn't a seminal inventor, even though he was very popular and did wonderful things."
I only want to know one thing: where does Mr. Burns come off defining Erroll Garner either historically or creatively? And this question is why I have gone public with this matter. I deplore historical revisionism and must wonder about how accurate Mr. Burns' focus is. He cops out in some recent interviews, stating he didn't know anything about jazz until six years ago, and is still learning. That's cool. But what about you, Wynton? What about you?
Wasn't a "seminal inventor"! How about that? Mr. Burns is saying that Garner was not an original and not an influence. Not an original? Wow! We will be running more data on the Garner Web-site about his original stature and legacy. Not seminal? Who are the scores of pianists, many of them famous, who show Garner's signature style influence? Where did they come from? As the late Jimmy Rowles said: "Erroll laid it on all of us."
As I said, we intended to ignore the omission of Garner in the seventeen-and-a-half hour program. No one suffers from that omission except perhaps the public. That Burns and his coterie of jazz experts (Crouch, Murray, Giddins, and co-director Wynton Marsalis) opted to omit him reveals more about them -- their aesthetics, their knowledge of jazz history, perhaps their agenda -- than it does about Garner.
We have been receiving calls, email, and mail pieces from persons both here and abroad who are indignant over the omission of Garner. We will try to print some of them on the Erroll Garner Archives Web site. If you wish to send your comments, please do so by email. No doubt, the Jazz series by Burns will be well received. We have no quarrel with that, nor do we intend to write about the many other omissions we hear are noteworthy. I do not claim to have the expertise of Messrs. Crouch, Murray, Giddins, Marsalis. I can only address what I know about Erroll Garner, with whom I had the privilege of working for some 27 years as a manager, record producer, composition book producer, and was his friend until his untimely death in 1977.
I repeat: Mr. Burns, what makes you think you have the first hand knowledge of Erroll Garner whereby you elected to define him historically and creatively? Good luck with your multiplex projects, but please keep off Garner's turf until you're better qualified and better informed to assess his artistry and place in history.