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America's Classical Music

A preview of Ken Burns' epic PBS series Jazz



Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns starts its epic run on local PBS stations on Jan. 8. Ten episodes long, running nearly 18 hours, Jazz explores the personalities and historical trends that shaped the quintessentially American art form called jazz. Similar in style to his previous PBS series The Civil War and Baseball, Jazz is a beautifully rendered celebration of the first half-century of what some have called "America's classical music."

Given that praise, now it's time for the caveat: Despite Jazz's encompassing title and the assertion that its tale runs up to "the present," the film's comprehensive examination of jazz only goes up to 1945, when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie created bebop and revolutionized jazz. Burns dedicates seven of the 10 episodes to the years before 1945, leaving only three episodes to cover the last 55 years.

Episodes eight and nine cover the years from 1945 to 1960, arguably the most prolific era of jazz, and the final episode hits the highlights (or lowlights) of the 1960s while merely tipping the hat to today's vibrant jazz scene. These last three episodes offer little more than a series of brief vignettes that don't adequately portray the wide range of music being created. Jazz, then, is not a definitive story of the music. Yet even despite its sins of omission in the later episodes, Jazz is certainly the most beautiful and engaging attempt to tell this story to date.

This compelling beauty comes from Ken Burns' artistry as a documentary filmmaker. He's a master of the realm, as he demonstrated so effectively in The Civil War and Baseball, blending interviews, still photography, film clips and voice-overs to create a finely paced dramatic narrative. Each episode is divided into short chapters dedicated to a particular musician, movement, theme or event. The result is an aesthetically and emotionally engaging production.

Roots and early development

From the very first episode, titled "Gumbo," Ken Burns pulls you into the series. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the port city of New Orleans witnessed the influx and intermingling of disparate African, Caribbean and European musical styles, which influenced the vibrant, creative culture in the New Orleans African American community. Burns paints a portrait of New Orleans, then adds the crucial elements of ragtime, spirituals, brass bands and the blues -- the raw material from which the illusive coronetist Buddy Bolden and others created jazz. After emerging from New Orleans, jazz soon spread to Chicago, New York and, eventually, the entire country.

Burns establishes narrative and stylistic patterns in the first episode that run throughout the series. The film's greatest strength is Burns' insistence on showing, again and again, that jazz is primarily a product of African-American culture. To this end, Burns unflinchingly portrays the lynchings, racism and gritty determination of the Civil Rights movement that helped shape African-American consciousness. He examines the cultural flowering of Harlem in the '20s and '30s, and the decline of the inner cities in the '50s and '60s. As he consistently intones, jazz was there to reflect it all.

The film's narrative is anchored by two main commentators, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins. Marsalis is enthusiastic, but his zeal often overcomes his analytical skills, and sometimes his comments are little more than, "Gee whiz, this musician is great." Giddins, on the other hand, is succinct, insightful and analytical -- he's the most knowledgeable and perceptive jazz writer working today. Always eloquent, Giddins provides in-depth musical analysis and offers cultural and historical context throughout the film.

Jazz's first great innovators were Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and their personal stories and artistic development form a constant narrative throughout all 10 episodes. Burns spends significant time on both, describing their personal lives, their musical challenges, and most especially, the social, political and cultural background to their music. Ellington asserted that his music was inspired by "my people," and Burns takes this to heart, consistently framing his musical examinations within the context of historical events.

While Baseball, The Civil War, and Jazz are stylistically similar, it is this historical context that provides the strongest thematic link between the three. In an earlier Burns production, one commentator claimed that America's three great contributions to the world were the U.S. Constitution, baseball and jazz -- each because it embodied some aspect of democracy. This idea of jazz music as a democratic art form that incorporates both individualism (the soloist) and cooperation (playing together as a band) is a consistent theme in the film. And most often, this theme is explored through the lens of oppressed African Americans and their struggle for freedom.

The soloist, or "the improviser who creates spontaneous musical ideas," is a key element in jazz. Louis Armstrong was the first to define this individualistic element in the music, and ever since, specific individuals have shaped the art form. Consequently, Burns presents dozens of biographical portraits, often blending in personal anecdotes and artistic analysis as he presents key players like Armstrong, Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.

Over 75 interviews provide insight into the lives of various key figures. Actor Ossie Davis reveals a poignant encounter with Louis Armstrong that shattered many of the misconceptions Davis had held of Armstrong as an "Uncle Tom"; bassist Charlie Haden discusses his revelatory first encounter with Ornette Coleman as they developed free jazz; and Miles Davis' former wife Frances remembers Miles' insecurities as a "black man in a white man's world," while recounting his abusive behavior.

Burns spends two entire episodes on the swing era. Jazz was never more popular in American culture than when "swing was king," providing a danceable soundtrack that flooded the airwaves, record players and dancehalls during the Great Depression and into the second world war. While white band leaders like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Harry James are best remembered, Burns takes care to describe how the swing era's best music was the product -- directly or indirectly -- of African-American jazz bands. Goodman's hits were based on charts from black bandleader Fletcher Henderson, and Harlem's Savoy Ballroom was the mecca of the swing era. The swing episodes are highlighted by memorable interviews with bandleader Artie Shaw and Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, two dancers at the Savoy who witnessed much of swing's greatest moments as bandleader Chick Webb had "battle of the bands" contests with Benny Goodman and Count Basie.

Bebop and beyond

During the second world war, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop musicians were developing an artistic aesthetic that made demands on the listener and the musician. Tough to play, and nearly impossible to dance to, bebop music was made purely for art's sake. It appealed as much to the intellect as to the senses, and it had little to do with entertainment per se. If you dug it, great. If not, too bad.

Bebop's artistic aesthetic opened up the gates for a wide range of artistic expression, and jazz after 1945 became more complex and widely varied as individuals sought their own means of creative expression. It is at this juncture that Jazz loses its in-depth historical narrative and begins to present a series of loosely linked artistic portraits.

Burns is left with little more than hitting the highlights of this immensely productive time in jazz's history. He spends a significant amount of time on the various stages of Miles Davis' career, including individual chapters on the birth of the "cool era" in 1949 and the late '50s' Kind of Blue sessions. He also examines how the culture of heroin became prominent in the jazz world in the early 1950s, as musicians sought to emulate the destructive traits of the iconic Charlie Parker.

He includes chapters on Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Dave Brubeck and Art Blakey.

The last episode is especially weak, as Burns rushes to summarize free jazz with portraits of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, while bringing in brief chapters on Stan Getz and the bossa-nova scene.

Burns then spends a mere 30 minutes summarizing jazz since 1975. And while he credits a number of young players with reinvigorating the art form, spending some time on the wide ranging talents of musicians like saxophonist David Murray or the dazzling works of Don Byron or Dave Douglas might have enriched the final outlook for the present and future.

While presenting an optimistic picture of the present state of jazz, the series leaves a lingering impression that jazz is more about the past than it is about a creative move into the present. This highly controversial assumption is held by the series' creative consultant Wynton Marsalis, but it's an idea that's scoffed at by many contemporary jazz musicians and critics, and would certainly be laughed at by Ellington, Parker and, most certainly, Miles Davis.

Lost in the shuffle are influential and important musicians like bassist Charles Mingus, who gets a brief chapter that focuses on his anti-racist attack on Arkansas governor Orville Faubus, while briefly mentioning that Mingus was the one of the most important jazz composers since Ellington, not to mention being the greatest bassist in jazz. Bill Evans, one of the most influential pianists in jazz, only receives a brief mention as a band member on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album.

While certain omissions are necessary for space considerations, Burns found it necessary to include a lengthy segment at the end on Louis Armstrong's Hello Dolly hit and Armstrong's death at the expense of Mingus and Evans. It's as if Burns was simply overwhelmed by the diversity of the jazz world after 1945, slapped together the highlights as best he could, and relied on old favorites like Armstrong to fill out his narrative.

Great, yet flawed

So where does this leave the series? Overall, it breaks down like this: The first seven episodes are brilliant, digging into detail and reveling in jazz's origins and pre-bebop development. Episodes eight and nine merely hit the highlights, and suffer from a lack cohesive narrative flow. The last episode is a hurried, fragmented mess that gives the inaccurate idea that jazz more or less died in 1975, but is being brought back to life now by a small group of players.

One of the most important aspects of Jazz is the potential audience that it might reach. Burns' Civil War and Baseball were the most successful programs in PBS history, each drawing around 40 million viewers. It's probably no exaggeration to say that, thanks to Ken Burns, more Americans will be listening to jazz this year than at any time since the swing era, when jazz records accounted for 60 to 70 percent of all record sales.

With jazz CD sales capturing less than 3 percent of today's music market, it's nothing but good news for the genre that Burns' Jazz will echo in American homes this January.

Entertaining and educational, Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns is a major event in the history of jazz, blemishes and all. It's hard not to be enraptured by Burns' gift for creating visual beauty and entertained by his well-paced narrative. With over 500 pieces of music, 2,000 film clips and 2,400 still photos, this rich trove of images and music will leave you with scores of indelible impressions. When Coleman Hawkins plays the beautiful "Body and Soul," for instance, Burns shows still photos of kids playing in the city streets and men working, powerful and poignant scenes that solidify the place of jazz within American culture. Jazz, Burns shows, celebrates life's joys and bemoans its blues. In this very essential way, this film is a pure joy to experience.

Series Schedule

  • Monday, Jan. 8: "Gumbo" (Beginnings to 1917)
  • Tuesday, Jan. 9: "The Gift" (1917-1924)
  • Wednesday, Jan. 10: "Our Language" (1924-1928)
  • Monday, Jan. 15: "The True Welcome" (1929-1935)
  • Wednesday, Jan. 17: "Swing: Pure Pleasure" (1935-1937)
  • Monday, Jan. 22: "Swing: The Velocity of Celebration" (1937-1939)
  • Tuesday, Jan. 23: "Dedicated to Chaos" (1940-1945)
  • Wednesday, Jan. 24: "Risk" (1945-1955)
  • Monday, Jan. 29: "The Adventure" (1956-1960)
  • Wednesday, Jan. 31: "A Masterpiece by Midnight" (1961 to the present)

Related CD Marketing

Record companies have joined forces in an unprecedented collaborative effort to offer CDs to accompany the series. Gathering music from various labels, Columbia/Legacy has produced a five-CD box set that features nearly 100 songs from the series, along with annotated liner notes. It's a great place to begin a jazz collection. Verve Records has created a series of 22 CDs, each featuring some of the best music by an individual artist. Musicians featured in this series include Ellington, Parker, Armstrong, Davis, Goodman, Fitzgerald, Holiday and others.

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