Looking an outright gift horse in his downright mouth: Ken Burns' "Jazz" 

Jazz fans, like members of the Democratic Party in the United States, can't often decide the difference between a gift and an entitlement. Because of that peculiar fact, much hot wind is wasted in arguments over doctrine.

That's why I feel sorry for poor Ken Burns.

The well-respected filmmaker, whose widely anticipated "Jazz" will run in installments through the end of January on PBS, already has taken some critical shrapnel for the film's perceived flaws. Many, perhaps most, of us who care about jazz have seen the reviews by critics who sparked between the wide poles of fuzzy adulation and downright contempt after they previewed the work.

Those who canonize probably are uncritical; those who demean most certainly are ungrateful. And here's why: Burns' work in the two previous chapters of his American trilogy -- "The Civil War" and "Baseball," both highly acclaimed -- was so utterly engrossing that it captivated even those of us who can be called neither buffs nor fans. The side-effect of Burns' fine performance is that his idolaters, driven by genuine admiration and a good deal of sloppy thinking, regard his present and future work as uniformly marvelous while the detractors, fueled by purist impulses and partisan tastes, are looking for an idol to topple. As in all things, the truth probably struggles in the swampy great divide that separates these two camps.

However, it bears noting that jazz lovers, myself included, have groused for decades that our music is entitled to the same reverence reserved for the classical musical tradition and does not get it. This truth would seem to put the idolaters and the detractors in the same tent, but it doesn't, because they're very busy rushing to the jazz community with pronouncements that have little claim on the public's attention except immediacy.

As I write, I have not seen "Jazz," but I expect to study it. And study it. And study it. When I'm finished doing that, it will be "once more from the top," because I have seen the accompanying book and it is a glorious piece of work.

Here are the classic photos of New Yorks City's "The Street" -- 52nd Street -- which, during the bebop era, housed jazz club after jazz club, cheek by jowl, so raucous and rowdy a midway that even the most jaundiced of modern jazz fans must envy their elders who visited those smoky dens.

Here is a pre-teen Satchmo in a Louisiana orphanage, sent there after firing a gun into the air on an early 20th century New Year's Eve, one small black face among many in the home where Louis Armstrong would get the instruction and encouragement that set him on the path to jazz immortality.

Here is dapper Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, charming the ladies and fascinating their escorts with his artistry and elegance and invention.

And here is Dave Brubeck, bending time signatures into faux equations that don't balance, but which, inexplicably, swing anyway.

And here a teenaged Miles Davis plays earnest last-chair trumpet in Eddie Randle's Rhumboogie Orchestra before that chrysalis emerged as the brooding and controversial prince of darkness and theoretician of silence.

And Bix Beiderbecke, fresh from the Midwest, before the ravages of alcoholism did him in. And Ornette Coleman with a plastic alto saxophone, ready to set the boppers and cool jazzers back a step or two.

Even the niggling criticisms of the film have piqued my interest. I'm sure most of my readers are aware of some of them: Why so much Louis Armstrong? Why Charlie Parker but no Stan Getz? Why Wynton Marsalis as a provider of historical perspective instead of older musicians who survived to talk about their various movements within the jazz fraternity?

There is a simple answer to these questions and the many others that have been raised about the alleged incompleteness of the film. Jazz is so vast and fertile a plain that it is impossible to fence it. It can only be wandered, its main stream followed, its tributaries explored, its forests plumbed only at the expense of missing close study of other regions in the landscape.

The huge point missed by many of the disparagers is that the only complete history of jazz exists discretely in the individual experiences of its musicians, its fans and its chroniclers, both living and dead. The other huge point, missed by the breathless fans of Ken Burns, is that the filmmaker himself has admitted to ignorance of the music before he began this project. Implicitly, that means there will be flaws, because the work is a log of its creator's journey of discovery.

But my listening post is festooned with gratitude that someone of Burns' stature has recognized the importance of jazz in the American experience and placed it in a trilogy to capture some of that experience.

Surely there will be portions of the film that I'll like less than others, and there will be omissions of some my favorite musicians and, if past experience is a reliable predictor, I'll probably have a bone to pick with Wynton before the show is over. But being from New Orleans carries with it certain responsibilities, and I'll cut Marsalis a lot of slack on that score alone.

In the meantime, I resolve to write no more about the matter until I have seen the entire production. Because I regard the very fact of its existence as a gift outright, it would be downright inelegant and ungrateful to do otherwise.

So let the critics beware. Like the music it treats, "Jazz" will stand or fall on its own.