In Ken Burns’ Jazz, a documentary film series on the history of jazz music, we learn how this music form is truly “an improvisational art.” It is “America’s music,” as restless and yearning as the country itself since its beginnings and as much a multicultural melting pot.
Jazz is filled with contradictions: both self-expressive and collaborative, anchored deep in the blues of the 19th century but always changing, steeped in its own particular traditions but reborn as something different every night, on every stage. Simple and complex, dressing up or dressing down depending on the moment, losing everything but still reveling in the power of love.
Jazz also gave America its own collection of royalty: a king (Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing”), a duke (Duke Ellington), a count (Count Basie), a lady (Billie Holiday, “Lady Day”), a prince (Miles Davis, the “Prince of Darkness”), and many more. The new sound produced by these distinct personalities caused the entire world to get up and dance.
Jazz remains one of the few uniting commonalities among Americans across multiple ages, backgrounds, and points of view.
Telling the story of an American art
From the ragtime tunes played at the turn of the 20th century, through the “hot” jazz of a generation later, to the cool fusion of recent years, jazz is truly, as the documentary’s trailer says, “America’s soundtrack.”
Exploring Burns’ beloved 10-episode documentary series Jazz is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the rich and varied history, the sheer artistry, and the moving human stories of this uniquely American musical form. As the New York Times’ review of the documentary noted at its debut, it is not too far-fetched to claim that, through its ability to mingle and blend a diverse group of people and cultures over the past century and more, jazz has given us a way of “mirroring the ideals of democracy.”
Now, Burns and PBS have made full-length episodes of Jazz available for free on the PBS website, bringing the documentary within reach of home educators everywhere. Fans can also purchase the DVD or Blu-ray set or the accompanying richly illustrated book Jazz: A History of America’s Music, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.
A rich mixture of everything good
The first episode of Jazz, “Gumbo,” introduces us to jazz’s origins. With deep roots in the African American spirituals and work songs dating from the days of slavery, amplified by soul-stirring New Orleans blues, jazz came into its own as a distinct musical voice in the 1890s. In this chapter, we meet the Black musicians who took these elements, mixed in the vibrant local sounds of marching bands, Caribbean beats, Italian opera masterpieces, and minstrel show tunes, and set it all to the quick-time syncopation of ragtime—this was a gumbo unlike anything American had seen.
They named a decade after it
Episode 2, “The Gift,” tells the story of the 1920s Jazz Age as jazz spreads far beyond New Orleans. Paul Whiteman develops a symphonic style of jazz, slower and sweeter, with a new appeal to “mainstream” white listeners. Louis Armstrong comes out of the streets of New Orleans to Chicago and assembles a powerhouse band of both Black and white musicians whose swing style electrifies a new generation, as Duke Ellington sets up his ensembles in New York’s Harlem and introduces his smooth blue style.
Episode 3, “Our Language,” takes us through the rest of the Jazz Age when voices of solo singers like Bessie Smith take the spotlight, and as jazz proves to be the ticket out of limited circumstances for clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, both sons of Jewish immigrants, while Duke Ellington begins his storied tenure at the Cotton Club.
Swing tunes and roadhouse stomp
In “The True Welcome,” Episode 4, we learn how jazz proves one of the few joys left to a nation sunk in the depths of the Great Depression. Swing music and dance take center stage in Episode 5, “Swing: Pure Pleasure.”
Episode 6 shows us “The Velocity of Celebration,” as the 1930s move into the ‘40s, bringing with it a new sound: the pounding, stomping, blues-laden sound that starts in Black American juke joints and roundhouses, soon wildly popular as played by Lester Young and Count Basie. Benny Goodman delivers a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall, Billie Holiday makes the grim lyricism of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” her signature, and a young unknown singer named Ella Fitzgerald steps in front of a mike for the first time. Plus, Duke Ellington takes a triumphant tour of Europe as the events unfold that will soon ignite World War II.
The soundtrack of modern American life
Episode 7, “Dedicated to Chaos,” demonstrates the powerful role of jazz in lifting the morale of the troops overseas as it embodies the spirit of individual freedom and democracy in every irreverent, improvisational note. Arranger Billy Strayhorn joins Duke Ellington’s band, lifting its performances into a new level of sublimity. And Charlie Parker on saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet join virtuoso forces on the now-iconic “Koko,” which opens the floodgates of bebop style.
In “Risk,” Episode 8, jazz changes as the world does. The Cold War brings undreamt-of peace and prosperity in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, as well as a new dissonance, broken rhythm, and sense of tension to America’s favorite musical form. In Episode 9, “The Adventure,” we see how widespread access to the trappings of popular culture and television, along with the other amenities of a comfortable suburban existence, overlay a growing sense of crisis in the music as well as in everyday life.
And in “A Masterpiece by Midnight,” the series concludes in the 1960s and early ‘70s, with jazz quickly losing ground to rock-and-roll. We lose legends John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, while numerous surviving jazz greats struggle to make ends meet. Miles Davis takes his gifts as trumpeter and composer in a new direction, creating fusion, a blend of jazz and rock, and a flurry of blended styles emerge.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose commentary and reminiscences as senior creative consultant expanded and enriched Burns’ series, said in a 2001 interview that jazz is a reflection of the totality of the Black American experience in its ability to improvise, to take a theme and shape and change it, and to expand boundaries and create new possibilities in ways that no one had ever thought of before.