Sunday, February 26, 2017

A review of Ken Burns' “Jazz” (PBS series)



I should preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of jazz music, as well as a longtime fan of both history and the Ken Burns documentaries about it. I freely acknowledge that I am not an expert on music history (jazz or otherwise), and do not consider myself to be a true musician - much as I would like to call myself by this distinguished title. I have played piano for a long time, it is true, and I have played jazz (and other styles) by ear; but I am neither a professional musician nor particularly talented in my performance, and consider myself only an enthusiastic fan with a sometime musical hobby. That being said, I am entitled to my opinion about it as much as anyone else, and so offer this review to any who might enjoy it.




I first saw this series when I was a stressed-out student in my first semester away from home. This series was a way of relaxing and unwinding, and forgetting about the stress of the classes I was taking then. Indeed, I was more motivated to learn about jazz history than I was to learn about any of the things I was studying in school then; and I may have watched this series to the detriment of my studies, spending too many hours watching it, rather than spreading it out enough to leave me sufficient time to succeed in my academics. I still passed all of my classes that semester, I should make clear; but I got through the 19-hour series with such speed that it's a wonder I ever found time for anything else. The series, in short, was a real tour de force; and for someone who plays piano by ear, the exposure to all the different styles of playing jazz left an indelible mark on the way I played music, which I have still felt up to the present day.


Louis Armstrong, one of the central figures of this series

What was it about this series that was so interesting? Part of it was the music itself, which is played in this series with great variety and described with rich detail by interesting commentators (professionals and otherwise). Part of it was the biographical stories behind the people who played it (especially Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington), which give this story a human feel that sometimes rivals the music itself in its drama. And part of it was the visual way that the story was told, with old photographs and video footage (sometimes even silent footage) that bring these periods to life in a way that re-enactments would have difficulty matching. I've always found it interesting seeing the old silent footage from the early days of the 20th century, which give a fascinating look into what life at that time was really like.


Duke Ellington, one of the central figures of this series

Special attention should also be given to the brilliant narration of Keith David, whose booming bass voice brings a certain kind of coolness to the discussion of the music; but the most interesting presenter in the series is the modern trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose multiple hours of commentary in the series provide some enlightening commentary on both the music and its fascinating history - sometimes livened up by his demonstrations of these concepts on his trumpet. The jazz critic Gary Giddins is also quite fun to listen to, and the two of them together are the most important commentators in the series - although they do interview some of the musicians who were eyewitnesses to these times as well, and provide some fascinating insight into both the spotlight and the backstage aspects of a musician's professional life.


New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz - 1862 (during the Civil War)

The first episode is one of the most interesting, as they detail the complex origins of jazz by going back to the time before the Civil War, when African Americans were still enslaved and living under the oppression of white masters. It is from the African American community that this music comes, I should note here, as they blended together the rhythms and improvisation of their African heritage with the chords and musical instruments they encountered amongst the Europeans and their descendants; creating a music that could only have arisen in a completely new world, far away from the world they left behind in Africa, or the world that their white masters and neighbors left behind in Europe. It is one of the ironies of this time's racial politics that the whites actually liked the sound of their slaves' music (and even praised the authentic glimpse that it seemed to give of Africa), even while they considered the slaves themselves to be inferior, and their African heritage to be somehow "uncivilized" (a loaded word with a lot of baggage that I won't get into in this post). Even in this time, the power of the music was breaking down (at least some of) the prejudice; and setting the stage for a more serious respect of both the African Americans themselves and the cultural achievement of the music they had created - the part of their culture that had received some real and genuine respect from whites, long before anything else about their culture gained popular respectability.


New Orleans Mardi Gras in the early 1890's

The episode "Gumbo" (the first of the episodes) also covers two post-Civil-War styles "without which, there would have been no jazz" - which are none other than the styles known to us as "ragtime" and "blues." One of the ironies of the new meaning acquired by the term "blues" is that the word originally meant sadness and depression - an alternative meaning of the word that it still retains today in some contexts - but no one plays the blues to feel "blue." As one of the commentators notes, "you play the blues to get the blues out of your system" - a paraphrase, I acknowledge, but one that's pretty close to what the commentator said in this quote. The blues would be the underground aquifer that would feed all the currents of jazz music, and the music has always retained something of a rawness (and honesty) from its blues heritage - one of the things that continues to make jazz so fascinating for so many people around the globe.


A group calling itself the "Original Dixieland Jass Band," the first jazz band to be audio-recorded

The first episode ends at the time when jazz music was first audio-recorded in 1917, by an (ironically) all-white band calling itself the "Original Dixieland Jass Band" ("jass" being an early spelling of the word "jazz"). The remaining episodes focus on such periods as the Roaring Twenties (often referred to as the "Jazz Age"), the Swinging Thirties (a way of helping people to forget about the Great Depression), and the Wartime Forties - when jazz was seen as a morale-lifting music, which was both quintessentially American and "patriotic" to the United States. (The postwar fifties are also covered in great detail.) Like a number of other documentaries, the series gets weaker as it gets to more modern periods; and the weakest episode is the last one, covering the history of jazz from 1961 to what was then the "present day" (in 2001). If you expect the series to get weaker as you go forward, you won't be too disappointed at how substandard the quality of the later episodes turns out to be; although the earlier episodes are a real masterpiece of storytelling, I should make clear, that give invaluable insights into both the music itself and the broader history of the country.


Jitterbug dancing at a juke joint, 1939

I've read a number of reviews of the series from other people, and it is surprising to see how strongly some of this series' critics attacked it - betraying a mean-spiritedness all out of proportion to the offenses they allege. I find myself scratching my head at the degree to which people attacked Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis, and wonder why they can't enjoy the series for what it is - a good overview of some of the major players (and developments) in jazz history; and not a complete listing of every musician who ever made a mark on the music's long (and distinguished) history. As I said before, I am not an expert on jazz history (and don't claim to be); but from the perspective of a layperson and an amateur jazz performer, I found the depth of this series' coverage to be fairly impressive; and I wouldn't trade the insights I gained into the music for anything. I had enjoyed the sound of jazz before I watched this series, but it became my favorite music by the time I had finished it; and I amassed a considerable collection of jazz CD's afterward that helped me to improve my jazz piano - with the Harlem stride pianists being a particular source of inspiration for me, who helped me to improve my technical skills and impress my listeners better (and I'm enough of a ham to be able to appreciate that).


Fats Waller, one of the giants of Harlem stride piano

Bottom line, this series is the best television history of jazz music that you're ever likely to see, since it uses the old photographs and video footage to tell the story of the music; but the most important strength of this series may be the insight it gives into the music itself, and the countless examples and analyses that it uses to narrate, explain, and actually play various genres of the music as it was performed by the musicians of that time - fresh and new every time, with deep wells of creative energy that brim with human life and human stories.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

How I learned to play piano (the way I play it)

Ken Burns' "Baseball" (including the 10th inning)

Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" (a history of Western art)


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