Ken Burns Brand Sparks Leap In 'Jazz' Sales

PBS jazz series accounts for 16 of 25 best-selling albums on Billboard chart.

The Ken Burns "Jazz" juggernaut is rolling from the TV screen to CD charts.

Sales reports were astounding only one week into the 19-hour PBS documentary. Compilations with the Ken Burns imprint take up 16 of the 25 spots on the January 27 Billboard magazine Top Jazz Albums chart, led by the The Best of Ken Burns Jazz and the five-CD box The Story of America's Music, which was just certified gold.

Jazz sales were up 20 percent for the week, compared to a 6 percent downturn in overall CD sales, said Michael Kauffman, senior vice president of sales and catalog for the Verve Music Group, which issued 24 Burns-associated releases in a rare joint venture with Columbia Legacy in November.

"We're even seeing sales in Middle America," Kauffman said. "We're connecting in places that don't usually see jazz sales, in places like warehouse-type clubs where people buy a year's supply of toilet paper."

"Everything associated with that documentary is doing well," said Victor Smith, jazz buyer for Tower Records in Boston. Smith noted that pre-Christmas sales lent a head start and added, "In terms of catalog, we are seeing sales by some artists — Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington being the main ones. But it's kind of too soon to see the full impact of the show."

"We're hoping to eventually dovetail this into catalog sales," a Columbia Legacy spokesperson said. "With all the focus on jazz history [in the documentary], I have no doubt it will have a positive impact."

Even the competition finds a silver lining in Burns' domination of the jazz chart.

"A lot of people in the industry are putting attention on the negative side of this piece of work," said Blue Note product manager Mantis Evar. He noted a slight increase in sales in general at his label, even if it can't yet be linked to the Burns documentary. "Personally, I see nothing but glorious things about the series because of the attention it's bringing to our genre."

"We've got a lot of challenges," said Verve President Ron Goldstein. "The Ken Burns thing is incredible, but we also have to look beyond. How can we use that interest as a platform for people to buy artists who are releasing records now."

Thane Tierney, director of catalog development for WEA Distribution (representing Rhino Records, which has a few artists noted in "Jazz"), said his labels have even seen an "up-tick" in sales of contemporary jazz.

"The Ken Burns stuff obviously is selling very well, but there's an opportunity for people to dip a toe into a pool where they haven't been before, and that bodes well for all forms of jazz," Tierney said. "This is really the biggest exposure for jazz as a genre, at one time, almost in living memory."

"Fortunately for us, Ken Burns was an established brand name because of his Civil War and baseball series," Goldstein added. "Not only were they successful on TV, but the products went beyond that. It's like 'Star Wars.' The products were first-rate, and people believed in him."

The Best of Ken Burns Jazz and The Story of America's Music charted at number 2 and 3 respectively (behind Pure Jazz, a Verve compilation of classic songs). Each sold between 8,000 and 10,000 copies that week, Kauffman said. Other Burns titles in the top 25 were (in order) individual discs of work by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. The Louis Armstrong disc also cracked Billboard's chart of the country's overall top sellers, at #139.

"Jazz in general seems to have picked up, but not as much as the Ken Burns discs," said Beth Dube, vice president of music purchasing for the Boston-area chain Newbury Comics. "But I think it's increasing the awareness generally."