'Jazz' completes a TV trilogy on American life

The maker of 'The Civil War' and 'Baseball' megaseries, Ken Burns, taps into the beat of jazz, the 'soundtrack to America.'

Historians and journalists have fallen all over themselves writing the story of the American 20th century, but few have tried to set it to music.

Yet, as documentarian Ken Burns suggests, music and jazz in particular may be the prism through which the entire story may best be told.

"This is the soundtrack to America," says Mr. Burns, whose 10-part, 19-hour series "Jazz" begins Monday night on PBS (see "What's on TV," page 13).

"It is in our blood; it's the way we've talked to each other," he says. "Jazz is a particularly accurate mirror of the 20th century. In addition to being about this extraordinary music, it is about two world wars, a Great Depression, the soundtrack that got them through. It's about sex, the way men and women talk to each other; it's about drug abuse and its terrible cost."

Most important, Burns says, the music goes to the heart of what he calls this country's most troubling issue. "We've gone into this because it speaks so much about the American fault line of race," he says. "It's in minstrelsy about lynching, about Jim Crow, about the Emancipation Proclamation; it's about positive movements and civil rights; it's about white people learning from black people."

Series producer Lynn Novick says that America has a hard time talking about the subject of race and that the series is one way of opening a dialogue: "It's something that we all shy away from and try to ignore and pretend isn't there.… What we've tried to do is engage the subject in new and much subtler, complex ways so that we're not just going through the same old arguments all over again."

Burns adds, "Jazz was invented by African-Americans, but it was generously shared with the rest of the world."

The series takes the "seminal figure" approach to history, rather than the encyclopedic. Jazz afficionados have been buzzing for months about who Burns chose to include and exclude, but he defends his choices with confidence. "You start wanting to go into the orchard and bring back every single apple. That's an impossible task. As one tries to shape a narrative of the history of jazz, one ends up going back to those seminal influential people."

He adds that many important figures ended up on the cutting-room floor, "because we wanted to focus on the pantheon of jazz."

The leading lights are clearly Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, whom he dubs the two most important people in the history of jazz. Dave Brubeck, a modern jazz great, goes further about Ellington: "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that he was more important than probably any politician or president we ever had."

The choice to explore the first 60 years in great depth, leaving the final 40 years to the last two episodes, has also raised the ire of some jazz lovers.

But Burns says the music's roots are the most important part of the story. "You can see jazz as the underground aquifer that has fed all the streams of American music," he says, pointing to R&B, soul, rock, hip-hop, and rap. "They all owe their major constituent parts to aspects of jazz."

The series contains compelling and rarely seen footage of the development of jazz through its various forms: the New Orleans "gumbo" of blues, ragtime, Baptist spirituals, and the brass-band tradition that launched jazz in Louisiana early in the century; its growth in Chicago and New York after world war I; the explosion of the so-called Jazz Age and the subsequent Swing Era during the Depression; the rebels of bebop during and after world war II; the splits in the jazz world that finally gave birth to fusion; and the avant-garde branches, as well as jazz's return to popularity in the past two decades.

Lindy Hop pioneer Norma Miller, who appears in the series, points out that just as jazz is the only true American music, the Lindy Hop and all its subsequent forms - including today's fling with swing - is the only dance created in this country. "You're dancing our dance," Ms. Miller says. "Jazz is our dance; it is American. And in swing, believe me, it's the one thing that brings all the races together."

Burns says he became interested in jazz as a film subject when he was finishing 1994's "Baseball," the second documentary in what has become his trilogy on American life, which also includes "The Civil War." "The writer Gerald Early told us that when they study our civilization 2,000 years from now, Americans will be known for only three things: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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