Features & Advice
Ken Burns, Documentary Filmmaker & Tauck Partner
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns gave the keynote address at the Tauck Ken Burns Jazz Event in New Orleans last month, an event that he helped to create. Burns has made a long list of documentary films, such as “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz,” exploring American history in search of answers to the question: What does it mean to be an American? We spoke with Burns in the library at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans.
What was the role of travel in your life before your partnership with Tauck? Immediately in my professional life I do a great deal of travel in the United States and I have known and seen every corner of the United States just about. So when Tauck approached it seemed a really logical thing. Their process and their insistence on excellence reminded us of our desires and our wishes within our own processes. They seemed strangely enough very similar and we thought that we could sort of meld our expertise in seeing a different side of the location, one that we had learned in the course of intense study for a film, and it would benefit the people who would come to these tours. For the last several years it’s been a really wonderful relationship. So I hadn’t really thought of it so much as travel as just sort of learning the country. It was like being a blood cell in a body and that as a citizen I was obligated to know as much of this corpus as possible. I’ve spent most of my professional life understanding the United States, or trying to.
Had you ever thought previously of being involved in a travel industry project? No, of course not. I’m a documentary filmmaker interested in doing films on American history. The fact that it required a lot of travel wouldn’t have suggested to me ever that I would have been in the travel business. In fact I’m still surprised. But as I said, the Tauck people were so impressive in their insistence on excellence, their insistence on understanding what the ingredients of an experience were that Dayton Duncan, who is one of my producing partners, and I just felt that “wow”!
Is it an extension of the kinds of messages you put out in your films? Not really. Our films are our films. They are complicated narratives about America. They have at their core a deceptively simple question about who we all are. I suppose the oddest question is, who am I? This is the great question that each individual has. But what we’ve learned in the course of pursuing this complicated stuff was aspects of places in this country, such as the national parks, Civil War battlefields, jazz in this extraordinary city of New Orleans, baseball. This has given us a unique access and perspective in how you negotiate these things. So the partnership with Tauck was sort of unexpected and it has been wonderful.
What role did jazz play in your life before you made “Jazz”? My father enjoyed jazz a great deal. He played some around the house. I was aware of his things. But I was born in 1953 and I’m very much a child of rock and roll and R&B. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, outside of Detroit, so R&B was a huge part of growing up. But I worked in a record store, which sold a lot of jazz, but I didn’t know a lot about it. When I became a filmmaker I began looking for music that would bring to life certain eras -- the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s and 1950s. Again and again I was coming back to jazz and realizing how much I didn’t know and how much I wanted to know. I developed a friendship with Wynton [Marsalis], who just as “The Civil War” was over said, “You ought to think about doing jazz.” No filmmaker likes to be told what the next film will be, yet he was right. I was drawn inexorably to it and now it’s the only thing I listen to.
Would you do anything differently if you made the film today? No. It’s interesting, what you do professionally -- it would be like saying to Wynton, “If you could play that tune you played at that jazz club on Thursday, April 20,, 1995, would you do it the same way?” To which the answer is, “Of course not.” But at the same time you can’t redo that. It’s like looking at an old photo album and seeing yourself in some god-awful paisley shirt with a hugely wide collar. You might say “yuk,” but you don’t tear the photograph up. The films are what they are. They were made at that time. We’re all in the business of practice. We’re just practicing. Hopefully we’re trying to get better.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East for TravelPulse.com.
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