Originally created 01/07/01

All that jazz

NEW YORK - The seed for Ken Burns' 10-episode, 19-hour documentary Jazz was planted back in 1991 when jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis came up to the filmmaker after a speech at an awards dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mr. Burns had just completed his acclaimed history of the Civil War, and he "was talking about the democratic spirit and his speech was so full of the feeling that imbues jazz," Mr. Marsalis recalled. "We had a conversation, and I remember saying he would do a great service to our country by doing a film on jazz."

Nearly a decade later, the epic series will be broadcast on PBS, beginning Monday night.

"I think it's going to have a great impact to just make more people aware of the riches that are in this art form," said Mr. Marsalis, the film's senior creative consultant.

"This art form is an indelible part of what it means to be American."

Mr. Burns said that working on his 1994 Baseball documentary only hardened his determination to make Jazz. He found jazz worked best as the soundtrack for the episodes covering the 1920s-1940s, and he was struck by something essayist Gerald Early said in an interview used at the opening of Baseball:

"When they study our civilization 2,000 years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz."

"It was like another light went off," Mr. Burns said: "Improvisation is our genius as a people." He decided that a history of jazz would be the logical final chapter to his American trilogy that began with The Civil War.

"The Constitution is the greatest piece of improvisational writing that's ever been done," he said. "Baseball is a simple children's stick-and-ball game with infinite chesslike combinations.

"And we have the only art form that Americans have invented - jazz - that has at its heart this insistence that I play what I feel, not what's printed on the page in the European tradition. It's the great genius of this country: the sense that you can trust the individual to make decisions."

What also links his trilogy, Mr. Burns says, is race.

"Jazz was founded by people who had the experience of being unfree in a free land," Mr. Burns said. "It is American music, born in the African-American community and shared with everybody. Jazz is an utterly American story that at its heart celebrates affirmation in the face of adversity."

Throughout its history, jazz has been ahead of the curve in breaking down racial barriers, Mr. Burns said. Rather than dismissing Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and other early white jazzmen as "ripoff artists," he views them as members of a vanguard who defied a segregated society to embrace black culture.

In one of the film's most emotional moments, pianist Dave Brubeck talks about playing for troops on the European front during World War II with his integrated Wolfpack Band, only to return to Texas to see his black bandmates refused service in a restaurant. He reminisces about the first black man he ever met - a friend of his father's in California - who bore a brand on his chest. Mr. Brubeck breaks down and cries as he recalls his father saying, "These things can't happen."

A surprising find

The 47-year-old Mr. Burns - a self-described "child of rock 'n' roll" - had little knowledge of jazz when he started work on the film. His minimal exposure came from records his father played at home and from a high school job at a record store. For Mr. Burns and the rest of his Walpole, N.H.-based Florentine Films crew, making Jazz was a six-year "process of discovery."

The biggest surprise, he said, was how touched he was by Louis Armstrong.

"Before I began this project, Armstrong to me was a man with an easy and winning smile, a wonderful gravelly voice, a handkerchief, and a transformer of popular songs like Hello Dolly," Mr. Burns said. "What I quickly realized is that he is the most important person in American music in the 20th century. He not only transformed jazz into a soloist's art, influencing every instrumentalist, but he ... just rewrote the book on how you used the human voice."

To Mr. Burns, Mr. Armstrong and Duke Ellington "are the double helix, the DNA strand that unites this history and propels our narrative."

Historical lives

The film explores the lives of Sidney Bechet, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other jazz legends. But Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Ellington are the only ones whose stories are intertwined through all 10 episodes.

Jazz opens with an image of New York's skyline at night, with Mr. Armstrong's 1931 version of Stardust playing in the background - a performance that pointed to a new way of imbuing a popular song with a blues feeling, improvisation and swing. The first episode explores how black musicians in New Orleans created a new music out of what Mr. Marsalis calls a "gumbo" of ingredients: European concert music, brass bands, Caribbean rhythms, ragtime, spirituals and the blues.

In the last episode, one of today's stars, saxophonist Joshua Redman, observes that jazz remains "as alive and well and as active and creative as it's ever been," incorporating sounds from America and around the world: R&B, hip-hop, Latin and West Indian music. The film closes with Mr. Ellington's theme song, Take the `A' Train, played by Mr. Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, a symbolic passing of the torch from generation to generation.

In between, there are exhilarating moments: dancers doing the lindy hop to the hot rhythms of Chick Webb's Orchestra at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s, when jazz was America's popular music. There are poignant moments: Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young, both at the close of their careers, teaming up one last time to play the blues for a 1956 television broadcast. And there are tales of flawed heroes: Charlie Parker, the risk-taking saxophonist, who launched a musical revolution, bebop, and then destroyed himself with heroin, leading many of his disciples down the same perilous path.

The documentary process

Mr. Burns and his longtime writer Geoffrey C. Ward rely on techniques familiar to viewers of their earlier documentaries: voice-over narration (by actor Keith David), readings from primary sources (by Samuel L. Jackson, Delroy Lindo and Matthew Broderick, among others) and 75 one-on-one interviews (with critics Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch; musicians such as Mr. Marsalis, Jon Hendricks, Artie Shaw and Charlie Haden; and devoted listeners, including actor Ossie Davis and baseball player Buck O'Neil).

Mr. Burns uses 2,400 still photographs and more than 2,000 archival film clips - some never before seen - including home movies of Mr. Ellington's band on the road and a clip of trumpeter Clifford Brown playing Oh, Lady Be Good on Soupy Sales, a 1950s TV show.

But Jazz posed a new challenge for Mr. Burns, who in previous films had used music only as the soundtrack. This time, he had to move music to the foreground, incorporating nearly 500 pieces.

He came up with one novel technique for making the music come alive. Violinist Matt Glaser, a session musician on Mr. Burns' earlier films, showed up at the director's house one day, put on a recording of Mr. Armstrong's Lazy River and started talking and singing while the music was playing. Mr. Burns asked Mr. Glaser to repeat his performance before the camera.

"It was one of the most exhilarating interviews I've ever done," said the shaggy-haired, bearded Mr. Burns, interviewed at his publicist's New York office behind a table piled high with copies of the Jazz companion coffee-table book.

"Matt takes apart Armstrong's solo and in this joyous fashion takes all of us into the moment of creation that Armstrong had way back in the '20s. It's goofy, at moments awkward. We don't know whether we are laughing at him or with him, and ultimately it is so beautiful and satisfying that you feel Armstrong's genius is undeniable because there's somebody who cares so much about it."

In a few instances, Mr. Burns stops the narrative completely to play the entire version of a classic recording, such as Mr. Armstrong's 1928 West End Blues or Ms. Holiday's empassioned anti-lynching ballad Strange Fruit.

Road to the future

Mr. Burns sees his film as something more than a documentary about music. For him, jazz is the soundtrack for American life in the 20th century.

"Jazz is the opportunity to look through the music and beyond at great themes like race, civil rights, migrations, cities, drugs and sex, and also little things: how people dressed, what kind of cars they drove - this incremental sense of how Americans lived."

He deliberately avoids getting entangled in the factionalism and squabbling that divide many jazz musicians and critics. Some jazz writers have questioned his decision to focus on the first 60 years of the music, leaving the last 40 years to be covered in the final episode. The director defends himself by saying he sees himself as a historian rather than a journalist.

"I cannot have the presumption to tell the present what's going on," Mr. Burns said. "I can only use the advantage of distance and perspective to tell the story."

The story he tells is of a musical form that overcame its outcast origins to become, for a time in the late 1930s, the most popular music in the country, only to see its fortunes decline as it split into different genres. Despite a recent resurgence, jazz today accounts for less than 5 percent of the record market.

Just as The Civil War, one of the highest-rated series ever on American public television, led to an increase in battlefield visits and sales of Civil War books and memorabilia, Mr. Burns hopes his new film will lead to a renewed interest in jazz.

"I think there is a curiosity about jazz, but for too long people have felt resistant to approaching it because it's been seemingly so esoteric - that you needed an advanced degree to get it," Mr. Burns said.

"I've made this film for every person who says, `I'm not into jazz.' I think we've got something that's going to keep your toe tapping during the cold month of January. I would love to see the letter from the farmer in Nebraska who says I never listened to jazz but I can't get enough of Louis Armstrong now. Because that's what happened to me. I wasn't into jazz, but now I am and I love it."

Total immersion

He has lined up some major partners to help spread the word. Music from the film is being played in Starbucks coffee houses nationwide. The NBA is presenting halftime jazz performances at basketball games. General Motors, the show's corporate sponsor, is distributing a curriculum packet to 75,000 middle-school music teachers.

Two record labels, Columbia/Legacy and the Verve Music Group, formed an unusual alliance to release multi-label collections linked to the series. Releases include a 20-track Best Of CD; a five-CD box set; and 22 individual artist titles - from Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Ellington to Ornette Coleman and Mr. Coltrane.

Mr. Redman said he hopes the film's history lessons will turn on a new audience to new currents in jazz.

"Jazz musicians are always playing what they feel at the moment," he said, leading to a music that is "eternally fresh, timeless and modern."

On the Net





Ken Burns' Jazz - The Story of America's Music is a five-CD boxed set of nearly 100 songs. The Best of Ken Burns' Jazz is a single CD of 20 pieces. And 22 CDs under the Jazz signature feature individual artists. The home-video pack went on sale before the series came on television.


Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.    | Contact Us