Jazz: A History of America's Music
Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954–2000
No other act of commemoration in the popular media confers as much authority as the infectious gravitas of a film by Ken Burns. Over the past two decades, Burns has made more than a dozen documentaries on American subjects, such as the Civil War (1990), baseball (1994), Lewis and Clark (1997), and women’s suffrage (1999). Two of those films, The Civil War and Baseball, were monumental in scale and effect—each broadcast on public television in more than a dozen parts—and were hits on TV and best sellers on videocassette, as well as in the form of book tie-ins prepared by Burns and the historian Geoffrey C. Ward. Largely owing to the success of Burns’s documentary, the Civil War became something close to a popular craze in the Nineties, and tens of thousands of new enthusiasts joined the ranks of those who were already costuming themselves as Confederates and Federals in reenactments of historic battles. My teenage son, Jake, joined the 14th Brooklyn and helped defeat the faux Rebs at Antietam. This month, Burns’s third epic documentary, Jazz, begins its run on PBS, broadcast in two-hour episodes for four weeks. The book version was published in time for holiday gift-giving, and ancillary CDs—a five-disc boxed set, a “best-of” CD, and twenty-two discs devoted to individual musicians profiled in the film—were rolled out simultaneously. How long will it be before my son and his friends are reenacting the 1937 cutting contest between the Benny Goodman and Chick Webb orchestras at the Savoy?
Burns has evidently seen jazz as a great subject for some time, although he has acknowledged in interviews that he knew little about the music when he began working on his film in earnest a few years ago. In an early sequence of Baseball, Burns seemed to signal his future intentions with a quote from the scholar and writer Gerald Early: “When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” (Early, an incisive thinker whose presence in Jazz gives the film much of its focus and spirit, has obviously had a substantial influence on Burns; he is the filmmaker’s new Shelby Foote.)
In the music and the culture of jazz, Burns recognized the opportunity to explore some of his favorite themes: American identity, individuality, race, and democracy. “I think that the essence of jazz…is at the heart of who we are as a people,” Burns told the journalist Larry Blumenfeld. “It’s this notion of the tension between the individual and the collective, you know, the solo and the ensemble. It’s this notion of race. It’s very much, to me, the rarefied, purified idea of democracy.” Here we have themes rich and sweeping enough for a nineteen-hour film—and for something equally important to a filmmaker working on Burns’s scale: a grant proposal. (Jazz was funded by endowments from General Motors, the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.