review by Gregory Avery, 5 January 2001

It seems only natural that, after having dealt with America's most bitter internal conflict (The Civil War) and its most indigenous pastime (Baseball), Ken Burns' should turn his attention to America's most indigenous music. Burns has been working on Jazz for several years, now -- with some time-outs for looks at architect Frank Lloyd Wright and early women's movement founders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony -- and the results, like the multiple courses served at a fine French restaurant, will finally be unveiled on P.B.S., starting January 8, and continuing, in ten parts, until January 31. Aside from the advance tchotchkes -- the coffee-table book, the CDs, the magazine cover stories, the postcard collections, etc. etc. -- only about an hour and a half, excerpted from several episodes, has been made available to members of the press, and I am happy to report that the material thus seen has more interesting stuff in it than a lot of full-length feature films that came out over the last year. I can only imagine, or hope, that the rest of the documentary (seventeen-and-a-half hours worth -- as Judith Crist would say , clear your evenings, or your VCRs, in advance) will be just as good.

Jazz has its origins in the blues and spirituals that were brought to, or created in, the American South; in the honky-tonk music of saloons, chorus girl shows, and bordellos both well-appointed or not; and in the ragtime music that heralded the American "century of progress" at the turn of the 20th century. Jazz accommodated both the extreme highs and lows of the blues and ragtime. (Appropriately, the opening episode of Jazz is entitled "Gumbo.") Louis Armstrong is introduced in the series with an amazing piece of early sound film, stepping forward from his seven-man combo and telling us, "I'm Mr. Armstrong, and we're going to swing one of the good ol' good ones for ya..." Upon which he starts up the group in a rendition of Dinah, his back to us but with his head down and shoulders working as he gets things started, with a conspiratorial glance or two at us. The musician Matt Glasser, over half a century later, gives us some wonderful commentary on how they play this song, elocuting on the recording phrase by phrase as the musicians create something exhilarating. Then we hear Armstrong in a recording of Black and Blue  -- originally written as a song sung by a woman about her wandering man -- and how he turns it into an introspection by an African-American trying to live in the heinously restrictive conditions of the time. Called the "most influential" singer of the twentieth century (and I am not inclined to dispute it), Stanley Crouch puts the capper on things when he says that, anybody who would want to go back to "the old way" of crooning a tune after hearing Armstrong sing, "He'd need to be deported. To somewhere. Not on the Earth. Maybe Pluto."

From Armstrong, there is the evolution, by way of the naughty, bawdy, legendary clubs of Kansas City, Missouri, to swing, probably the single most influential element on Americans fighting in the Second World War -- whether on the homefront, in Europe, or in the blistering Pacific, it was both a morale booster and a reminder of what everyone was fighting for. (The excerpts from the episodes in Jazz devoted to swing virtually burst with energy, and should be knockouts.) Meanwhile, on New York's 53rd Street, Billie Holiday was creating a genuine sensation, starting in 1939, with her renditions of Strange Fruit at the club Café Society (which called itself "the wrong club for the right people"). One of the most surprising, and enjoyable, commentators to appear in Jazz is Buck O'Neil, a former player in the segregated all-black baseball league who was first interviewed for Baseball, and who turns out to have been a jazz aficionado, as well, and he speaks wonderfully about it. Of "Lady Day" (a moniker bestowed upon Billie Holiday by saxophonist Lester Young), O'Neil says, "Anybody could sing [a] song, and when Lady Day sung it, it was a different song altogether.... It just made you feel good all over, or,...she'd make you maybe wanna cry. It might bring back the greatest moments in your life, and it might bring back the saddest moments in your life."

After 1946, musicians broke from the big bands and began playing on their own, in clubs where there was music but no dancing -- the creation of be-bop, the soundtrack music for the "bohemian" and "beat" culture of the Fifties. Charlie Parker, who played with Dizzy Gillespie's group before going it alone, is recalled by drummer Stan Levey, who describes a torturous cross-country tour to play on the West coast (where jazz fans couldn't figure out what this new be-bop freeform was all about): in one instance, Parker walks off a train in the middle of the Southwestern desert, disoriented and looking for a fix of the heroin that he had been hooked on since his teen years. (Chet Baker's recently-published memoirs revealed that all the West coast musicians gave heroin a try, just to see what it was like, without knowing what they were letting themselves in for.) Parker said that a recording he made at the time of Lover Man should be "stomped into the ground"; naturally, it became one of his most popular recordings and still turns up most often on compilations of his music.

Duke Ellington, one of the greatest American musicians, kept his big band together in the Fifties but was in dire straits, until he let tenor-saxophonist Paul Gonsalves riff for twenty-seven choruses on a performance of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue at the 1956 Newport, Rhode Island jazz festival. The audience then demanded four encores. (Gonsalves' bravado high-end notes can be heard echoing through Gerald Wilson's trumpet in Ellington's music for Anatomy of a Murder.) The Newport festival is a good example of what many people in the series repeatedly refer to as jazz's "inclusive" quality -- the 1958 festival, captured on film in Jazz on a Summer's Day, included on its program Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Anita O'Day (whose scattershot rendition of Tea for Two is first seen bewildering, then enrapturing, the audience in attendance), Louis Armstrong, and, as the final performer, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

From Armstrong to the "swingos" (as a lachrymose writer for Variety is quoted as having called swing fans and musicians) to Ellington and Gonsalves, the both inclusive and improvisational music form would continue in the music of Miles Davis (who had no trouble dipping into Spanish music traditions for "Sketches in Spain," or in the emerging rock-and-roll form to help create the controversial "jazz fusion" movement), Thelonious Monk (deeply mysterious in person, but a genius at the keyboard), and Dave Brubeck (whose playing had the clear, precise beauty of an Einstein equation, or a painting by Picasso or Joan Miró); the scat-singing of Ella Fitzgerald (who, like Billie Holiday, has been much imitated, never duplicated); the expansive, crystal, lunar performances by pianist Keith Jarrett (who played just as darn long as he wanted to, and he did so, too); and on up to such present-day icons as Herbie Hancock, Marian McPartland, Pat Metheny, Gato Barbieri, and the Marsalises, "pere" and "fils." To name a few. (You can throw in Kenny G., too. If you want to.)

Some years ago, a friend of mine, who said that his wife played with a local jazz group, was told by someone that, well, that was just fine, if only "everyone played together." My friend was polite but, understandably, chagrined by this response. What's great about jazz is that everybody can play it, that everybody can play it together, and that it can go wherever it goes, be what it will, and the form still holds together. Chet Baker could jam on short notice with Dave Brubeck, as he did at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, or with Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, as he did at Ronnie Scott's in the mid-1980s. Michel Legrand could make recordings with Miles Davis (in both the Fifties and the Nineties), Lena Horne, or Jessye Norman. Davis, in turn, could record, with a quartet of musicians, the music for Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows over the course of two nights, nothing written down in advance, in a screening room (and all the tracks have been issued on CD to prove it).

Jazz is capable of great raucousness and intensely personal expressions. Wynton Marsalis calls it "the soul of our nation," while Albert Murray describes it as music that "always moves in the direction of elegance, which is the most civilized thing a human being can do. The ultimate extension, elocution, and refinement of effort is elegance, where just doing it gives pleasure of itself. That's about as far as we can get by Life."

And, as Keith David says in the narration for Jazz, "Above all, it swings." During the three times I saw the preview tape, my foot never stopped keeping time with the music.

Directed by:
Ken Burns

Written by:
Geoffrey C. Ward







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