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Ken Burns' new
documentary series Jazz completes the trilogy that began with The Civil War and continued with Baseball.
It is less a celebration of a musical idiom than his latest attempt to define the very
essence of America.
"Jazz music objectifies America," Wynton Marsalis says over
the opening montage, and Burns takes this as his thesis. Just as the Civil War was for
Burns the crisis that forever defined our nation's character, jazz is the art form that
captures its spirit. It's an ideal launching pad for his obsessions. Since jazz is a
uniquely hybrid music with deep roots in both Africa and Europe, its history is
necessarily also a history of racial relations. An improvisational art reliant on both
individual genius and cooperative interplay, it's also democracy in action. And since it's
a form that ceased being truly popular in the mid-forties, it can be treated with reverent
Anyone who's seen Burns' earlier work could predict how the film plays
sight unseen. A deep-voiced narrator guides us through montages of thousands of archival
photographs (and occasional performance footage) which document the history of jazz.
Interviews with musicians and historians provide anecdotes, clarification and visual
relief - Burns makes the only documentaries where one longs for talking heads as a change
of pace from the procession of still images.
When he has a subject appropriate to his style, Burns is capable of
extraordinary work. The Civil War contains passages that rival any ever filmed
for their poetic resonance and blunt emotional power. In this case, though, the essential
stillness of his technique undermines the excitement of the music. All too often, he winds
up illustrating a song in an elaborate slide show. This is most unfortunate in a section
devoted to one of the most beloved of jazz tales, Duke Ellington's performance at the 1956
Newport Jazz Festival. It's a great story: Ellington resurrected his dying career with a
blistering performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," sparked by a
woman's spontaneous dance, and climaxing in an epic 27 chorus tenor sax solo by Paul
Gonsalves. Since no footage remains from the performance, Burns must rely on a few photos
and interviews, the song playing discreetly in the background. It's the worst imaginable
way to convey the story. The performance depends on momentum, the band building to a
frenzy in chorus after propulsive chorus. Here, the energy is dissipated with each cut to
an interview, and we're left with people earnestly explaining how great it was while we
hear what sounds like an endless, repetitive sax solo meandering in the background.
More troubling to jazz fans than the occasional stodginess of the
filmmaking is the conservatism of the series' vision of the music. Nine of the ten
episodes cover the years up to 1960; the ensuing forty years get just under two hours of
screen time. Burns covers nearly half the music's lifespan in a quick overview, skipping
many major musicians and just touching on the avant garde tradition that's given the music
so much of its recent vitality. It's a comfortably nostalgic approach, one that's willing
to relegate jazz to a safely distant past. It doesn't so much declare the music dead as
insist upon the primacy of backward-looking musicians and thinkers. He's at his best here
when he avoids contemporary developments altogether: there's a touching sequence of
interviews with high school kids that points towards a future for the music, even if the
present is skimped on.
Whatever its problems, the series is necessary viewing for anyone who
loves the music. Burns has unearthed nineteen hours worth of stunning photographs and a
number of rare filmed performances. The latter are reason enough to watch: three minutes
of Louis Armstrong onstage in the early thirties, reinventing the art of singing with
every delirious phrase, is the very definition of joy. Music doesn't get any better, and
life doesn't get any sweeter, than this.
- Gary Mairs