He Got Rhythm

Ken Burns wants you to know why Jazz is America's music

Ken Burns apologizes for his "filibustering," but it doesn't stop him from talking and talking until the original question becomes a faint memory in the wake of an answer that goes on and on. But perhaps as much is to be expected from Burns, the documentarian whose films begin as small, tidy projects and wind up as sprawling epics that devour hours and hours of PBS' schedule every few years. His 1990 film on the Civil War was, after all, to run about five hours; it wound up taking more than twice that long to tell. Burns originally thought he could tell the story of baseball in nine one-hour episodes; it turned into an 18-hour affair, or as long as it takes to sit through a World Series game these days.

By the time he got around to telling the story of jazz -- "America's music," as the promotional materials remind again and again -- Burns had stopped making promises and predictions. He would take as much time as he needed, and there would be little argument from PBS or sponsor General Motors or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or anyone else. As a result, Jazz will be his longest film yet: 19 hours, spread over 10 episodes that begin airing January 8 on KAET-TV Channel 8. For some, Jazz -- the final installment in Burns' so-called "American Trilogy," though it didn't begin that way -- might not feel long enough. It's a Louis Armstrong scat, an Ella Fitzgerald ballad, a Miles Davis growl, a Billie Holiday moan, a John Coltrane prayer, a Count Basie bomp, a Thelonious Monk bang on the piano keys. It is, quite simply, the song that cuts out while you're still swinging, stomping and sing, sing, singing.

And so Burns goes on and on about it, insisting over and over again that Jazz is his best film yet -- that "it represents a quantum leap as a filmmaker in terms of solving the problems of taking something that's normally background -- music -- and making it foreground." His is a most eloquent and passionate monologue; Burns, for the moment, is jazz's most fervent disciple, a born-again acolyte preaching the gospel into any tape recorder within sight. That is why he has done so many interviews in the months leading up to the film's debut on PBS: He likens it to a political campaign, spreading the word until even the skeptics will feel the need to go to the television and cast their vote for Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong or Sarah Vaughan.

Ken Burns knew little of jazz before beginning work on his 19-hour documentary in 1994.
Ken Burns knew little of jazz before beginning work on his 19-hour documentary in 1994.
"Louis Armstrong," says Ken Burns, "is to music what Einstein is to physics and what the Wright Brothers are to travel."
Driggs Collection
"Louis Armstrong," says Ken Burns, "is to music what Einstein is to physics and what the Wright Brothers are to travel."

To that end, he has also gotten out the word early by releasing this month a mammoth, marvelous companion book, Jazz: A History of America's Music, co-written by Burns and Geoffrey Ward; a five-disc boxed set, Ken Burns Jazz, featuring 94 songs culled from the nearly 500 pieces of music used in the series; a single-disc best-of; and 22 compilations featuring, individually, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and 17 other pioneers featured in the documentary. Featuring contributions from all of jazz's major and minor labels, thanks to a truce between normally warring labels Sony and Verve, the boxed set is the closest jazz has had to an essential primer since the 1987 five-disc Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz boxed set went out of print.

"Jazz used to be America's music, and now it's given birth to all these other forms like rock and R&B and soul and hip-hop, and people sort of think of it as anachronistic," Burns says of the reason he insisted on the release of the 28 CDs. "But they also know there's a huge bunch of people they're curious about and interested in who seem to love jazz, and they're sort of worried they should get hip with it, but it seems like you have to have an advanced degree to understand it. Well, I just spent six years proving that it ain't homework. The only thing you need is the ability to tap your foot if you hear something you like, and that's what we've done."

Yet, by his own admission, Burns knew little of the subject when he began working on the film six years ago. He had but a handful of jazz albums in his mammoth record collection, despite spending his youth working in a record store. There were so few records, he can tell you exactly which ones they were: John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, a couple of Duke Ellington discs, some albums by 1930s big-band leader Ray Noble, Shelly Manne's 1956 album featuring songs from My Fair Lady, and 1963's Getz/Gilberto. It was the sort of collection one inherits from a grandmother who, long ago, gave up trying to be hep.

To hear Burns tell it, he had little interest in making a film on the subject until working on his Emmy Award-winning Baseball series, which drew 45 million viewers to PBS during its run in 1994. While filming Baseball, he began to realize that if the Civil War was the defining moment in all of American history, then baseball -- the most immutable of America's pastimes, nearly unchanged since its inception -- somehow defined the country after the war. After all, in Baseball he could use the sport as a foundation upon which he could build a much bigger story, one about race, immigration, assimilation, the growth and decay of cities, the nature of heroes and villains and fools, the rise of popular culture, the birth of advertising, and the struggles between management and labor -- to begin with. He was no romantic in love with the sound of the crack of a bat, no sentimentalist enamored of the smell of leather and freshly mowed grass. He was, instead, the self-proclaimed "emotional archaeologist" digging up black-and-white yesterdays to reveal America as it is today.

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