The Ken Burns Jazz documentary is returning to PBS! WCVE PBS will be airing the film – all 19 hours of it – as back-to-back episodes on Fridays at 9:00 p.m. starting Friday, April 1, and running through Friday, May 20 (omitting 4/29).
When Jazz premiered on PBS in 2001, it was met with praise as well as criticism. If you view the 15-year old work as the definitive history of jazz music from its beginnings to “the present” you might be disappointed. For example, the series spends a lot time on the early years of jazz, relies heavily on the neoconservative views of commentators Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, omits offshoots like Latin Jazz and Western Swing, and disregards the avant-garde and other forms of development since the 1960’s (free jazz, jazz-rock, world fusion).
Jazz the documentary is, however, quintessential Ken Burns. There’s the classic panning in and out over black and white photos, interviews with talking heads, voice over quotes, and (jazz) background music. It’s as much for fans of his film-making style as it is for music lovers.
As a purely historic piece, the film tells the partial story of an American art form in the first half of the twentieth century through the lives of of its leading players, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. Bigger than that, it treats the jazz music of this era as the medium through which the early to mid-1900’s can be seen: the depression, two world wars, prosperity, race relations.
The byproduct of this narrative format is that jazz comes across as heritage music that reached the end of its development some fifty years ago. This may be true for jazz when defined as a distinct style (with apologies to Ornette Coleman and electric Miles), but true creative musical expression exists beyond the confines of titles, descriptions and genres. The innovative pioneers that Burns profiles each left blueprints toward improvisation and self-expression that continue to influence musicians, regardless of what genre they fall under.