A History of Jazz


Ken Burns Jazz on PBS


Director and acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns released Jazz as a television mini series in 2000 for PBS, in the same lines as his other historical mini series, Baseball and The Civil War. Burns used his film making talent to complete a thorough documentary With thiswith biopic detailing of the history and performers of jazz music, Ken Burns used his film making talent to complete a thorough documentary.. The film combines interviews with both jazz musicians and music critics to create the longest documentary based on the music genre of jazz in the history of film. Interviews were conducted with:

  • Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis
  • Music critic Gary Giddins
  • Music critic Stanley Couch
  • African American historian and music critic Gerald Early
  • Producer Phil Schaap

Ken Burns JazzKen Burns’ Jazz also includes never before seen footage of impromptu interviews and performances from jazz legends, as well as ample amounts of recordings from jazz greats.
Performers Included in Ken Burns Jazz
The television mini series portrays the life and sounds of a culmination of the greatest jazz musicians of all times. With the narration of Keith David, jazz musicians portrayed in the film include:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis ArmstrongS
  • Sidney Bechet
  • Count Basie
  • Benny Goodman
  • Billie Holiday
  • Charlie Parker
  • Miles Davis
  • John Coltrane

Success of the Film
Due to the high interest of Ken Burns’ Jazz, the mini series was released as a DVD in 2001. At the same time, companion CDs featuring the jazz classics and soulful tunes were also made available. Ken Burns’ Jazz was nominated for several Emmy Awards, but the reviews from critics were mixed. On the positive side, music critics stated that the 19-hour long film was so thorough that it could easily be considered the encyclopedia of jazz. The amount of information provided about the sounds, performers and connections of jazz is comprehensive and accurate down to the most finite details. It is also stated that Jazz is a must for any student interested in the history of music or American history in general.

However, other critics, especially those directly involved in the jazz community, felt the documentary was affected by Ken Burns’ personal music tastes, which are noted as being more classical. Rather than appreciating the raw bluesy sounds of jazz, the documentary is focused on the Swing Era of the 1920s when jazz had a more cohesive and commercial sound. For instance, Burns compares Duke Ellington to Mozart, as ifportraying jazz were some sort ofas a work of art instead of the more accurate living and fluid musical genre. This is further illustrated by the lack of interest in the more modern world of jazz from 1960 to today. Only one episode is dedicated to this fifty-year period, thus providing very little space in the documentary for modern jazz artists including Henry Threadgill, Ahmad Jamal, Chick Corea and Chet Baker.

Despite the mixed reviews, it is obvious that Ken Burns’ Jazz is something not to be missed by music lovers and jazz aficionados who can use their sound judgment to supplement the areas that are considered to be lacking in the film.