'Jazz' Hits a Timely Note

It's particularly fitting, perhaps, that a few weeks after one of the most wrenching political episodes in American history (the 2000 presidential race), Americans can settle in for a long, thoughtful look at the music that has accompanied their evolving national life for the past century.

That's what Ken Burns's latest PBS documentary, "Jazz," provides. His 10-part series, begun last night, traces the development of "the only art form created by Americans" through the lives of transcendent talents such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and the momentous 20th-century events that shaped their times.

Mr. Burns has made a career of looking deeply into phenomena utterly familiar to nearly all Americans - the Civil War, baseball - and finding new significance. He has a knack for making viewers sit back and ponder how a country so riven by conflict, so often prone to division and injustice, has made it through to the relatively comfortable, remarkably stable, and extraordinarily powerful place it is today.

The answer, Burns's work strongly implies, is the triumph of what Abraham Lincoln termed the "better angels of our nature." True, his epic treatment of America's indigenous music looks hard at the dark corners - the racial discrimination that pursued even the brightest jazz stars, and the descent of many musical greats into drugs and self-destruction. But the music ultimately triumphs, becoming its own counterpoint to society's ills - or, as Burns has put it, "affirmation in the face of adversity."

Wynton Marsalis, who supplies much of the commentary in "Jazz," says this of Louis Armstrong: His "overwhelming message is one of love. When you hear his music, it's of joy.... He was just not going to be defeated by the forces of life."

Figures like Armstrong, and the music he popularized, became powerful symbols of American life generally. They were adventurous, innovative, nimble.

Their realm was music, but the message is broader, as Burns points out. "The genius of America is improvisation," says the filmmaker, "our unique intersection of freedom and creativity, for better or for worse, in nearly every gesture and breath."

Thanks for the reminder.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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