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All That Jazz

. . . But Is It Good Television?

By Adele Marley | Posted 1/3/2001


Ken Burns

In the final episode of Jazz, narrator Keith David describes the philosophy of an avant-garde musician who reasoned that since he had to go through all the trouble of practicing for a concert, those in the audience should prepare themselves in advance as well, in order to comprehend and appreciate his heady performance. Immediately, director Ken Burns cuts to commentator Branford Marsalis, whose thoughts on the subject--basically that the performer's pronouncement is presumptuous bullshit--is one of the only things in this 10-episode, 18-hour-plus documentary that genuinely subverts viewer expectations.

Until this point, Jazz's talking heads don't do much besides tell stories and praise the music and its artists, making Marsalis' minor dissent one of the most bracing things in this otherwise curiously lulling, expansive documentary. Marsalis' terse commentary (and the controversy over Burns' decision to dispense with jazz's last 40 years in a mere 90 minutes) demonstrates that the music and the philosophies behind it are still worthy of discussion, debate, and criticism.

For the most part, Jazz's love-in vibe is appropriate. Burns wanted to round out his trilogy of long-form documentaries about the American experience--the first two were 1990's The Civil War (one of PBS' highest-rated series ever) and 1994's Baseball--with an examination of the nation's indigenous musical art form. The film convincingly argues that the improvisation that built jazz reflects America's pioneering spirit and individualism, and that the music's dependence on collaboration shows how the nation's unity empowers us and helps preserve our freedom.

The documentary is structured in a predictably chronological fashion, beginning more than 100 years ago in New Orleans, where jazz came together as an amalgam of musical styles. Over the years, it evolved into swing (the most popular music throughout the Depression and World War II), then bebop, and eventually fractured into various forms in the 1960s. Jazz also features Burns' signature directorial style: vintage photographs brought to life by drawn-out, revelatory pans and close-ups; consistently staged, low-key one-on-ones with commentators; hypnotically edited montage sequences. In Jazz, these montages usually depict ordinary folks going about their business with scratchy recordings scoring the scenes, showing how the music reflects the rhythms of everyday life.

Jazz's soundtrack doesn't merely complement the action--it is the action. Jazz's story is conveyed through the music and the spoken word. One could listen to the entire documentary on the radio and not lose much in the transition. In fact, doing so could help disguise some of the series' flaws with regards to disclosure. Most of the time, the commentators are identified on-screen by occupation (i.e. "Stanley Crouch, Writer"), not by their credentials. (I mean, any random person could probably peel off some anecdote about, say, Benny Goodman, but that doesn't necessarily make him or her an authority.) Another problem is that the viewer is only occasionally told which songs are being played and who's playing them, which seems contrary to this program's supposedly educational thrust.

The narrative gathers steam from its focus on jazz's inventors, which makes biography and personality as crucial to the program's momentum as they are to Behind the Music--that is, if the VH1 series padded out its myopic bios with musical analysis and historical context. And Jazz's profiles are genuinely moving. There's Bix Beiderbecke, the absent-minded, alcoholic cornetist who never quite got over his upper-middle-class parents' rejection of his career choice; Benny Goodman, the son of Russian immigrants who began performing so he could feed his desperately poor family and eventually became America's most popular bandleader; and Charm City-raised vocalist Billie Holiday, tough enough to beat the snot out of two sailors but undone by a life of pain, tragedy, and drug addiction. Two artists in particular show up in each episode: vocalist/trumpeter Louis Armstrong, cited as jazz's most influential performer; and composer/bandleader Duke Ellington, jazz's goodwill ambassador, who seems like he's probably the classiest guy to ever draw breath.

Armstrong's and Ellington's popularity with both blacks and whites helped bridge the gap between a segregated America and the promise of a more harmonious nation. Burns has said that race is one of the common threads that link his Americana trilogy, and Jazz's exploration of the issue is incredibly thorough, showing how America's greatest original art form emanated from the hearts and minds of some of its most mistreated citizens. The film's relentless, predictable focus on race tends to overshadow discussion of the music itself, but Jazz is about more than just a long-ago, faraway musical movement based on formalized impulse. For all its flaws and formula, it's a program that shows how creativity, trust, and a willingness to take risks, together with the inventive spirit of individualism, can help transform an entire society.

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