Whether it's hot or cool, bebop or blues, big band or a lone guy on a mournful sax, jazz is the all-American musical idiom. In this long-awaited series, documentarian Ken Burns traces the 100-year history of a rich, varied art form and its most influential composers and performers. 6 years in the making, 2,400 still photos, 2,000 film clips, 75 interviews, 500 pieces of recorded music-the numbers behind this sweeping effort are staggering. Equally impressive is the sharp commentary, especially the outspoken narrative of Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter and Lincoln Center's artistic director of jazz. About 19 hours on 10 DVDs.
Accompanied by a menagerie of products, Ken Burns's expansive 10-episode paean, Jazz, completes his trilogy on American culture, following The Civil War and Baseball. Spanning more than 19 hours, Jazz is, of course, about a lot more than what many have called America's classical music--especially in episodes 1 through 7. It's here that Burns unearths precious visual images of jazz musicians and hangs historical narratives around the music with convincing authority. Time can stand still as images float past to the sound of grainy vintage jazz, and the drama of a phonograph needle being placed on Louis Armstrong's celestial "West End Blues" is nearly sublime.
The film is also potent in arguing that the history of race in the 20th-century U.S. is at jazz's heart. But a few problems arise. First is Burns's reliance on Wynton Marsalis as his chief musical commentator. Marsalis might be charming and musically expert, but he's no historian. For the film to devote three of its episodes to the 1930s, one expects a bit more historical substance. Also, Jazz condenses the period of 1961 to the present into one episode, glossing over some of the music's giant steps. Burns has said repeatedly that he didn't know much about jazz when he began this project. So perhaps Jazz, for all its glory, would better be called Jazz: What I've Learned Since I Started Listening (And I Haven't Gotten Much Past 1961). For those who are already passionate about jazz, the film will stoke debate (and some derision, together with some reluctant praise). But for everyone else, it will amaze and entertain and kindle a flame for some of the greatest music ever dreamed. --Andrew Bartlett
See all Editorial Reviews