Ken Burns’ new documentary series Jazz completes the trilogy that began with The Civil War and continued with Baseball. It is less a celebration of a musical idiom than his latest attempt to define the very essence of America.
"Jazz music objectifies America," Wynton Marsalis says over the opening montage, and Burns takes this as his thesis. Just as the Civil War was for Burns the crisis that forever defined our nation’s character, jazz is the art form that captures its spirit. It’s an ideal launching pad for his obsessions. Since jazz is a uniquely hybrid music with deep roots in both Africa and Europe, its history is necessarily also a history of racial relations. An improvisational art reliant on both individual genius and cooperative interplay, it’s also democracy in action. And since it’s a form that ceased being truly popular in the mid-forties, it can be treated with reverent nostalgia.
Anyone who’s seen Burns’ earlier work could predict how the film plays sight unseen. A deep-voiced narrator guides us through montages of thousands of archival photographs (and occasional performance footage) which document the history of jazz. Interviews with musicians and historians provide anecdotes, clarification and visual relief – Burns makes the only documentaries where one longs for talking heads as a change of pace from the procession of still images.
When he has a subject appropriate to his style, Burns is capable of extraordinary work. The Civil War contains passages that rival any ever filmed for their poetic resonance and blunt emotional power. In this case, though, the essential stillness of his technique undermines the excitement of the music. All too often, he winds up illustrating a song in an elaborate slide show. This is most unfortunate in a section devoted to one of the most beloved of jazz tales, Duke Ellington’s performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. It’s a great story: Ellington resurrected his dying career with a blistering performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," sparked by a woman’s spontaneous dance, and climaxing in an epic 27 chorus tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves. Since no footage remains from the performance, Burns must rely on a few photos and interviews, the song playing discreetly in the background. It’s the worst imaginable way to convey the story. The performance depends on momentum, the band building to a frenzy in chorus after propulsive chorus. Here, the energy is dissipated with each cut to an interview, and we’re left with people earnestly explaining how great it was while we hear what sounds like an endless, repetitive sax solo meandering in the background.
More troubling to jazz fans than the occasional stodginess of the filmmaking is the conservatism of the series’ vision of the music. Nine of the ten episodes cover the years up to 1960; the ensuing forty years get just under two hours of screen time. Burns covers nearly half the music’s lifespan in a quick overview, skipping many major musicians and just touching on the avant garde tradition that’s given the music so much of its recent vitality. It’s a comfortably nostalgic approach, one that’s willing to relegate jazz to a safely distant past. It doesn’t so much declare the music dead as insist upon the primacy of backward-looking musicians and thinkers. He’s at his best here when he avoids contemporary developments altogether: there’s a touching sequence of interviews with high school kids that points towards a future for the music, even if the present is skimped on.
Whatever its problems, the series is necessary viewing for anyone who loves the music. Burns has unearthed nineteen hours worth of stunning photographs and a number of rare filmed performances. The latter are reason enough to watch: three minutes of Louis Armstrong onstage in the early thirties, reinventing the art of singing with every delirious phrase, is the very definition of joy. Music doesn’t get any better, and life doesn’t get any sweeter, than this.