Satchmo and all that

First came The Civil War, then Baseball. Now, PBS Documentarian Ken Burns trains his eyes (and ears) on Jazz.

Louis Armstrong: The George Washington of jazz?

Louis Armstrong: The George Washington of jazz?

Ken Burns knows how to make the past come to life; people can snuggle up at home with his documentaries like they do with good books. That’s how he makes a living. And that’s how he broke ratings records on American public television. His two TV epics, 1990’s The Civil War and 1994’s Baseball, both reached over 40 million viewers. He considers those films to be part of a trilogy that continues when the first installment of his 10-part, 19-hour series Jazz airs on Monday, Jan. 8.The audience size for The Civil War and Baseball is impressive, even when stacked against the theatrical draw of such trilogy titans as Star Wars and The Godfather. But jazz music, which peaked in popularity during the symbiotic communion of musicians, singers and dancers in the Swing Era, is a tough sell in any medium these days. Its intellectual and emotional demands—both real and over-hyped—have long kept the youth and general mass market at arm’s length. So what, besides Burns’ stature as PBS icon, will lure people to a final chapter that focuses on America’s truly native—and criminally neglected—art form? And what links Jazz to two films in which men stab each other with bayonets and hit a ball with a stick? The answers: bigger fish to fry and plenty.

Burns was in the middle of making Baseball when he began to see it as a sequel to The Civil War. He interviewed Gerald Early, a prominent essayist and professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, who made a remarkable statement: “When they study our civilization 2,000 years from now, Americans will be known for only three things: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music.” That comment then worked its way into the introduction of the Baseball series and into Burns’ psyche.

“I dealt with the Constitution in many films—including The Civil War, obviously, which was the Constitution’s greatest test,” says Burns in a phone interview from New Hampshire. “I was working on the history of baseball and knew very little about jazz, but knew how much it was making the Baseball series come alive in the central episodes of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. I suddenly realized that this was not just the story of the definitive moment in our history—as Shelby Foote called the Civil War—and its sequel, but in fact a trilogy that would have to involve jazz.”

Burns further toys with Early’s cerebral catnip. “He’s saying that the genius of America is improvisation,” Burns says. “The Constitution is only four pieces of paper written at the end of the 18th century that are able to adjudicate our most complicated problems in this new 21st century. Baseball is a simple children’s stick-and-ball game. Every culture has one, but this one has transformed itself into this amazing theater with infinite chess-like combinations. And at the heart of jazz is this notion that I do not have to play the notes on the page but I’ll play what I feel, and in so doing I can create a universal art and do something which the rest of us can only dream of—which is create art on the spot.”

Intrigued with these connections, Burns spent six years making Jazz. A preview summary tape of the series, which was entirely shot and edited on film, indicates that he is at the peak of his form. Embracing enthusiasm as the key to understanding, he gets under the skin of both music and musicians, allowing us to feel—as well as hear—a partial soundtrack of the 20th century. He gives thorough fact-finding an emotional resonance, and explores music as a product of time and place.

The story is told using 75 interviews and more than 500 pieces of music, 2,400 photographs and 2,000 archival film clips. It is split into time periods with titles such as “Gumbo,” “Swing: The Velocity of Celebration,” “Risk” and “A Masterpiece by Midnight.” Many of the clips are rare and have never appeared on television. General Motors underwrote about one-third of the film’s budget (“I’ve never told them how to make cars,” says Burns, “and they’ve never told me how to make documentary films.”) and also funded an educational outreach program that will reach six million high-school kids.

Miles Davis: The personification of live/evil

The series takes us from New Orleans to Chicago’s South Side, from Harlem to Kansas City, from speakeasies to ballrooms. It takes us into the inner circles of 40 or 50 figures (from Jelly Roll Morton to Miles Davis and beyond), and another 150 people perform onstage. Personalities emerge who contest the origins of jazz, share their life experiences and artistic achievements, lead musical revolutions, face social and professional adversity, self-destruct and bond into tribal families. We are escorted into isolated pockets and the mainstream of great cities and the heart of an entire nation that—like jazz itself—undergoes severe growing pains. A smoothly integrated narration knits all other disparate elements of the film into an easily digestible flow of information. And, more important, the clips I previewed don’t talk down to their audience. Too often, documentary films are made by people trying to tell you what they know. This film has Burns sharing his process of discovery. He keeps Jazz from becoming a dry essay, an overblown eulogy or a greatest-hits compilation. The result is both entertaining and enlightening.

“It’s about where we’ve been in order to know where we are going,” says Burns. “Not just as an art form and a music, but as a country. I think jazz is a window onto the soul of America. It’s also a mirror that reflects back to us the best and worst of the 20th century, and a prism through which we can see refracted much more than the music and musicians.”

The film talks about war and economic depression, sex and drugs and, in particular, race and American race relations. “The Civil War offers one perspective, which is the tragedy of slavery,” says Burns. “Baseball shows another, the impatience of the separate but athletically equal Negro leagues and how we had to wait so long for it to truly be a national pastime. But in Jazz, you have the only art form created by Americans sponsoring so much great music that it becomes an ironic, kind of poetically just, turning of the tables.”

I ask Burns if he also crossed paths with the chauvinism of jazz during his mission. “Yeah, very much so,” he says. “Jazz likes to pretend, and I’m here spouting the same party line, that it’s a democracy, but for much of its history, with the exception of some female singers, it’s been a fraternity. Fortunately, that’s changing now—and we address that in the film.”

And what was the biggest surprise Burns encountered while making Jazz? “How great Armstrong is. I knew he was great, but I didn’t know how great. He was the single most important person in American music in the 20th century. He single-handedly transformed jazz into a soloist’s art, changing the way everyone would play an instrument from then on, inventing—for lack of a better word—what we call swing or modern time. In fact, in the days of big-band swing, it was called orchestrated Armstrong. And then he would turn around and influence the way everyone would sing after him. He is the George Washington of jazz music, in a way. He’s not there at the founding, but he’s there shortly thereafter to help transform it into an art form.”

That art form includes the work of Thelonious Monk, which Gene Santoro, The Nation’s music columnist, described in 1989: “It shatters expectations about sound and how we process it—and hence expectations about the world. That’s a task music can perform only when it’s not so freighted with nostalgia and so overburdened by its own history that it’s always checking out its own shadow.” It’s a task Burns’ documentary hopes to lighten by bringing yellowed memories into the clarity of broad daylight.

“I made it for everybody who says that they are not interested in jazz,” says Burns. And it appears that Jazz may also appeal to those of us who are.