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Open letter from Martha Glaser to all concerned Jazz enthusiasts regarding the Ken Burns revisionist assessment of the artistry and legacy of Erroll Garner, as per Burns' quote in the L.A. Times, August 6, 2000

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.

--Martha Glaser

Reactions to Ken Burns and the omission of Erroll Garner from Jazz

From William Dufty, renowned newspaperman and author, including his book on Billie Holiday Lady Sings the Blues (by the way, Mr. Dufty is also a piano player):

Billie Holiday Inn
Floating Full Service Safe House - 883 Knox Street - Birmingham MI 48009-5772

Los Angeles Times
Letters to the Editor
Fax 213.237.4712

In Don Heckman's valuable biopsy of the upcoming PBS documentary, JAZZ (Cover Story Calendar 6 August), Miss Otis regrets have been topped by Ken Burns.

Is he telling us that in his nineteen hour PBS saga he would have to have pushed Thelonious Monk off the piano bench to make room for Erroll Garner?

When it comes to false and desperate choices, let's hear it for Billie Holiday's injunction: "Don't Explain."

By his own testimony, Mr. Burns and his children might have to take piano lessons from here to eternity before they could fathom the singular genius of Erroll Garner.

--William Dufty

 

From Dick Katz, New York-based well-known pianist, composer and educator:

Burn's upcoming mammoth history of jazz on [PBS] will no doubt be a fascinating and absorbing series. And it is understood that many important and influential musicians will necessarily be left out. However, to omit Erroll Garner is an artistic crime.

Burns has been quoted as believing that Garner was not a "seminal" figure. Well, my dictionary says, among other things, that seminal means "innovative, new, unprecedented, important and influential." These terms fit Garner perfectly.

I can't think of a single jazz musician who wouldn't agree that he was one of the all time greats, regardless of instrument.

To omit Erroll Garner from any list of jazz piano icons would be like not including William Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe in a discussion of great American writers.

--Dick Katz
New York, N.Y.

 

It only seems appropriate to close with a few quotes:

"The essential musicians who are ignored completely include... Erroll Garner, a true and brilliant primitive who left his pianistic prints all over jazz."
-- Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker review of Jazz, December 25, 2000

"To leave someone like Erroll Garner out, is like forgetting Mr. J. F. Kennedy in a series about U.S. presidents."
-- Arnold van Kampen, Dutch jazz critic, writer, historian, radiomaker and author of The Oscar Peterson Discography

"The genius Erroll Garner belongs to the 'all time greats' of jazz (along with Armstrong and Ellington). It's a doggone shame and an artistic and historic crime of the first order that Mr. Ken Burns and his advisors -- especially Wynton Marsalis -- had the nerve to leave him out of their TV series about the history of jazz."
-- Jan Van Diepenbeek, major European Erroll Garner afficionado and collector for more than 45 years

"In my opinion, Erroll Garner was the greatest popular pianist of our century."
-- Steve Allen, Village Voice

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