Skip to main content

JAZZ by Ken Burns

Re-airing on SO PBS Thursdays at 10 p.m., Jan. 14-Feb. 25, 2021

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet


JAZZ is a Journey Across an American Landscape Divided by War, Segregated by Race, and United Through Swing and Dance

“Jazz music objectifies America,” the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis says at the outset of Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary, JAZZ. “It’s an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves.”

In the hands of the acclaimed filmmaker,JAZZis a journey across an American landscape divided by war, segregated by race, united through swing and dance, and ultimately redeemed through this most American of art forms. “Jazz,” the drummer Art Blakey liked to say, “washes away the dust of everyday life.”

JAZZ is much more than a study of this extraordinary American music,” Ken Burns said. “Jazz offers a precise prism through which so much of American history can be seen. Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in the unfolding drama and parade we call American history.”

While Burns explores these stories, he also celebrates the music, taking it from the background to the foreground. “Making JAZZ was like going from three dimensions involving narration, footage and interviews to four because of the primacy of the music,” the filmmaker said. “The narrative style that we adopted for JAZZ is in many ways dictated by the music. It was incumbent upon us to have the sound up-front, for the images and narration to accent the music rather than the other way around.”

Burns and his team of producers, editors and researchers at Florentine Films, including writer Geoffrey C. Ward and producer Lynn Novick, worked on the film series for more than 6 years. With 75 interviews, more than 500 pieces of music, 2400 stills and over 2000 archival film clips – many rare and never before seen – the series follows the growth and development of jazz from the gritty streets of New Orleans to the Lincoln Gardens on Chicago’s Southside where Louis Armstrong first won fame, from Prohibition-era speakeasies to the wide-open clubs of Kansas City, from the elegant Roseland Ballroom in Times Square where only whites were allowed to dance, to the more egalitarian Savoy Ballroom in Harlem where people of all colors mingled.

Throughout this musical journey, some of America’s most original, most creative – and most tragic – personalities emerge, including: the pianist Jelly Roll Morton, a sometime pimp and full-time ladies man, who falsely claimed to have invented jazz but was the first to show that it could be written down; Nick LaRocca, the white cornetist who landed the first jazz recording contract and insisted until the day he died that jazz was an exclusively white creation; Bix Beiderbecke, who risked the ridicule of his friends and family to dedicate his life to music; Duke Ellington, the pampered son of middle-class parents who turned a whole orchestra of extraordinary musicians into his own personal instrument; Benny Goodman, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants from the slums of Chicago who brought big band swing – the music that had been born in the black community -- to the whole country and became a matinee idol; Billie Holiday, the troubled daughter of a Baltimore house maid whose distinctive style of singing transcended the limitations of her own voice and turned mediocre music into great art; Charlie Parker, the son of a Pullman chef from Kansas City, who came to New York to launch a musical revolution and then destroyed himself at 34; and Miles Davis, a dentist’s difficult son from East St. Louis whose search for new ways to sound made him the most influential musician of his generation.

Among those and the hundreds of other talented figures in the film, however, one musician towers over the rest: the fatherless waif from the streets of New Orleans whose unrivaled genius helped turn jazz into a soloist’s art, who influenced every singer, every instrumentalist – every artist – who came after him: Louis Armstrong. “Each project brings surprises,” Burns noted. “The discovery that has meant the most to me has been the astonishing music of Louis Armstrong. He is to music in the twentieth century what Einstein is to physics and the Wright Brothers are to travel.”

The backdrop for these extraordinary personalities and their music is of course 20th century America: World War I and the booming stock market of Prohibition years, when jazz enters American living rooms through the widespread sale of phonograph records; the Depression, when jazz comes to symbolize a certain kind of American freedom and is called upon to lift the spirits and raise the morale of a frightened country; the Swing era from the mid-thirties through World War II, when jazz came as close as it has ever come to being America’s popular music; and the fifties and sixties when the splintering of American culture and the increasingly vocal civil rights movement was mirrored by the fracturing of jazz into different schools.

Throughout JAZZ is the story of race and race relations in the United States. “I contend,” Duke Ellington once said, “that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day…when the first unhappy slave landed on its shores.”

"Ellington saw as clearly as anyone,” Burns noted, “that African-American history is not at the periphery of our culture but at the center of it, the ironies and paradoxes of which helped to create jazz in the first place and which suggest the redemptive future possibilities of this great but flawed republic for all of us.”