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Setting history to a beat

Ken Burns' Jazz premieres this week

Put away the Christmas decorations, shake off the New Year's Eve and bowl game hangovers. Y2K+1 has arrived, the true start of the new millennium. It's a time for looking forward and for looking back, for making resolutions that probably will not outlast the pre-game hype of the Super Bowl later this month.
Here's one resolution that will be easy to keep: Learn more about jazz. Why so easy? The long awaited Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, a 10-episode documentary, arrives next week on PBS. Concurrently, Sony/Legacy Records and the Verve label are releasing an extraordinary companion series of CDs that feature many artists and recordings included in the film. Highlighting the releases is the five-CD set, Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music. The labels are also releasing 11 individual artist CDs, among them the works of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie.
In Burns' view, Jazz is the third part of an American history trilogy, following his multi-part documentaries The Civil War and Baseball. "In the middle of Baseball, I interviewed a [writer] named Gerald Early who said that, 'When they study this American civilization 2000 years from now, there'll be only three things Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They're the three most beautifully designed things Americans have ever produced,'" Burns told Gary Walker, a New York-based jazz radio host. "I realized in that instant that I was working on a trilogy."
Burns spent six years on the project. He began as a jazz novice, a listener on the fringe of the music, and came away a convert, someone who now listens to nothing else. "This music welcomed me, and it's been my work for the last six years to welcome everyone in," Burns said. "I didn't make this for the cognoscenti, I didn't make it for the jazz crowd ... I made it for everyone else, and in particular for that person who's a little bit curious and a little bit afraid."
As with his previous work, in Jazz the filmmaker takes care to outline the historical context of its subject, providing viewers with an understanding of the social and cultural impact of the music and its artists. For example, in episode five, "Swing: Pure Pleasure," he details the racial dynamics associated with Benny Goodman's rise to the title of "King of Swing" in the mid-'30s. He also points out the role that the emergence of recordings and radio had on the proliferation of jazz.
Burns highlights a handful of central figures in telling his tale, specifically Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. In particular, the film goes to great lengths to give Armstrong his due credit as a jazz pioneer. Burns recalls that when he began the project, his perception of Armstrong was that of a song stylist who carried a handkerchief and whose attitudes about entertainment were offensive to some in the black community. He soon discovered that Armstrong was far more. He was surprised to discover that jazz experts and musicians universally were in agreement on Armstrong's brilliance, both as instrumental soloist and vocalist.
"Nobody put up an argument with the notion that Armstrong is the most important person in American music in the 20th century," Burns said, "that he is to music what Einstein is to physics and what the Wright brothers are to travel."
Burns also populates his series with equally intriguing, if less significant, characters. One was Sidney Bechet, who once challenged a fellow musician to a duel over a disagreement about a chord change. Another: Chick Webb, a dwarf with a spinal condition who was drummer and leader of the house band at New York's prestigious Savoy Ballroom in the '30s.
As engaging as Jazz may be, however, it's not perfect. At various points, one longs for more film/video clips of performances and interviews with the artists themselves, versus camera-panning on still photos and soundbites from historians, writers and other experts telling us about the artists. Also, as articulate as critic Gary Giddins might be, Burns uses him to tell an inordinate amount of the story.
These are style points, however. A more substantial question concerns the vastly historical — that is to say, not contemporary — scope of the project. While each early episode covers a three-to-six-year time period — for example, episode five covers 1935-37 — jazz from 1961 onward is covered in only the final episode, "A Masterpiece by Midnight." In essence, Burns takes 18 hours or so to tell the first 60 years of jazz history and only two hours to detail the last 40 years.
One might conclude that Burns finds jazz after 1960 less meaningful or less reflective of contemporary American culture than it was in the past. But on the contrary, Burns sees modern jazz as a potentially unifying force in an increasingly fractured, distracted society. "We're waiting for the moment when another Parker, another Armstrong — could be a woman, could be a man — comes along and changes the music again," Burns said. "I feel in my heart that jazz is coming back, that it's climbing up, that we can learn from the past and help heal the present and ensure a future, that Americans are going to re-embrace this music as theirs. How could they not? This is our music, the only art form invented by Americans, and you've got Europeans and Japanese who know more about it than we do."
Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns premieres on GPTV, starting Mon., Jan. 8, and continuing Jan. 9-11, Jan. 14-17 and Jan. 21-22. All episodes begin at 9 p.m. The series will be rebroadcast during late-night and early morning hours. For more information, visit www.gpb.org/gptv or call 404-685-2440.
Jazz venues, performers, radio programmers and other interested parties are encouraged to e-mail or send news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.