Jazz: The TV Mini-Series
Directed by Ken Burns
I’ve heard people talk time and time again about Ken Burns documentaries, but I’m actually not sure I’d ever seen one. Burns is sort of PBS’s documentarian extraordinaire, as he has done documentary series on everything America including baseball, the Civil War, national parks, and much more. Burns is so patriotic in his work, I bet there is a 12-part series on apple pie coming soon. Describing jazz as the only true American art form, it makes total sense that Burns would cover it at some point. The series is actually 14 years old, so you may ask why we are covering it now. Well it seems like Netflix grants new life to all sorts of content (old documentaries, classic TV series, and even TED Talks), this nearly 20 hour documentary series is now available to watch in a click from your queue. Jazz is an extraordinary beginner’s to jazz and its importance in American history.
A big part of what makes this Jazz series so wonderful is its narration and commentary. With narration by incredible actor and voice actor Keith David and commentary on by critics like the Village Voice’s Gary Giddins and jazz legends like Wynton Marsalis (who is the real star here for his pure enthusiasm), this series is just a joy to watch.
On top of the wonderful storytelling, Jazz does an excellent job at covering the colossal figures in jazz: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday. They follow each key musician from their breakout point through the end of their life. Specifically the juxtaposition of the careers of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington throughout the ten episodes provides a nice backbone for the series, and continues to reiterate the importance of these two legends.
Since I only own about a dozen jazz records, I would certainly call myself a novice in the jazz realm, so it was interesting to learn more about the monster figures in jazz and to get a better feel for the progression of the art form. Seeing it as a story starting in the 1910’s all the way through the present day gives you a feel for the ups and downs and truly crucial moments in the movement.
One theme that echoes throughout the Jazz series is how truly an African-American form jazz is and how much race played a roll throughout its history. The pure class and civility of figures like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and the crossover appeal of John Coltrane and Miles Davis played an incredibly important role in the civil rights. Sadly, just like rock ‘n’ roll and other American music forms, Black jazz musicians consistently got the short end of the stick with how they were treated, whether it was during World War II when they were treated worse than German prisoners at times, to the Civil Rights movement where they were turned away at their own gigs. The Jazz series absolutely succeeds at iterating how important race was to jazz music and jazz was to race relations in America.
My biggest knock on the Jazz series is in the last couple episodes, the narration gets a little crotchety when it comes to discussing the more experimental strands of jazz music. This is probably to be expected from a PBS series that is primarily going to be viewed by older folks, but I found it a little disappointing how they portrayed Miles Davis’s more experimental side and the music of Cecil Taylor. There were other important experimental artists that went completely uncovered like Sun Ra. I’d almost like to see a younger filmmaker redo the last two episodes (the last 50 years or so) as it would probably shine a better light on these newer strands of jazz.
Small qualms aside, Jazz is a near-perfect and robust 101 course on jazz if you are looking to dig deeper into maybe the most historically important genre in U.S. history.