Ken Burns Documentaries

Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns: History, Music and Message in 19 Hours or So

Ken Burns has become the leading maker of documentaries in this country in the last twenty years. After viewing his series on Baseball, I knew by a quote at the beginning of that documentary that he would turn his head toward jazz music eventually.

There are three things America will be known for: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz music…

The 19-hour documentary Burns created, simply titled Jazz is a study of that music as well as of the times. You can’t really have one without the other, just as popular music and events were so intertwined in the 1960s, the same can be said for jazz throughout much of its history. This documentary is both a celebration and history of an American art form, Jazz.

Burns starts pretty much at the beginning; in New Orleans around the turn of the century. The precursors to Jazz – Ragtime and Blues – are also talked about in great detail. Jazz started as mostly improvisation so the “art” was created as the musicians played, but was also forever lost once the notes were played. The first jazz recording was released to the public in 1917.

The soldiers coming back from WWI had been hearing jazz overseas in the live bands which entertained the troops. They came home to an era that was primed for it. The fact that “the dumbest law in American History” was passed soon after – Prohibition – forever linked jazz music with the underground clubs which sprang up to flaunt the law.

The issue of race is also a prominent one. As the popularity of the music grew, white musicians soon were capitalizing on it. Although some of these musicians wanted to work with the African-American artists who had inspired them (and were often more talented), they were held back by the constrictions of society and the laws of their time.

Biographies and backgrounds of many well-known artists are covered. Louis Armstrong’s future seemed to be one of crime until he found his place in the band of the “colored waif’s home” he was sent to. Many other jazz notables throughout the century are also talked about and I began to see it as a shame that I never learned about these musicians in all of the music classes I had during my school years. I knew about Billie Holliday, but there was so much more to her as well as to Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and more. We are taught about American History, so why not about “American music”?

First aired back in 2001, there are parts of the series that are especially poignant now, as so much of the history of this music happened in New Orleans. There’s also commentary by the late Ossie Davis.

The trademarks Burns has always used in his documentaries are also put to good use here. Through extensive research, he’s brought together a wide collection of photographs which he lovingly pans the camera over as music plays in the background. Especially in the beginning at a time before moving pictures, there are old photographs or paintings to the backdrop of African spirituals as various musical styles from Africa, the Caribbean, and the southern states combine together. The music always seems to suit perfectly what is going on, whether it’s a dance hall filled with people during the Great Depression or a bus filled with band members huddled by the side of a road on a cold night.

Burns has brought out not just the music, but also the culture that took off with the jazz bands traveling around the country in busses, something that was a new phenomenon. Recordings, radio, and television also had an impact on the music and changed the way musicians saw themselves. Some adapted, some resisted, but the change always went ahead.

There are live interviews of some of the greats detailing the early days of jazz, as well as people knowledgeable in the field of music. At times I felt these “talking heads” detract from the material, but there are also moments captured here that are wonderful as some of these artists open up in a way they never have before.

I can’t recommend this enough and I think most high schools should have this on hand to teach students about the history of music in the country. It may seem frivolous to some, but there’s so much our culture expresses in terms of its art and music has been one of the greatest forms of expression. Jazz, the documentary, is so informative and gives such a great perspective on the 20th century that seems to often be missing from our history books that it’s well worth it from that perspective.

Jazz aficionados will likely love the recordings and some of the old clips which haven’t been seen for years. Burns puts so much work and dedication, and it shows. I watched the series over the course of about two months as it is a lot to absorb. Pace yourself and enjoy it.

Episode One – Gumbo Beginning to 1917
Episode Two – The Gift 1917 – 1924
Episode Three – Our Language 1924 -1929
Episode Four – The True Welcome 1929 – 1934
Episode Five – Swing: Pure Pleasure 1935 -1937
Episode Six – Swing: The Velocity of Celebration 1937 – 1939
Episode Seven – Dedicated to Chaos 1940 – 1945
Episode Eight – Risk 1945 -1955
Episode Nine – The Adventure 1956 – 1960
Episode Ten – A Masterpiece by Midnight 1960 – 2001

Special Features
– Music Information Mode – allows a screen prompt for viewers to click on with the remote and learn more about the music being played at the time
– View Music Information Cards – this allows the viewer to view the music information without having to click on the prompts throughout the documentary
– Record Companies
– Music and Photo Credits
– Making of Jazz
– “I Cover the Waterfront” by Louis Armstrong

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