Fascinating Rhythms

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Louis Armstrong

Hank Williams? He’s on the juke box, singing about long country roads and broken hearts, and there is Charlie Parker, the man who turned jazz inside out as if he’d just pulled it through the sleeve of his coat, listening. Entranced. A bystander asks Bird to explain what he’s doing paying such close attention to music that is so beyond—no, beneath—the jazz horizon. Parker has an easy answer. “Listen to the stories,” he says, and keeps on listening.

The massive series Ken Burns and his associates have shaped into some 171/2 hours of "Jazz" is full of stories, this one and hundreds of others, all setting out with passionate deliberation, and occasional anger, the history of America’s finest, proudest indigenous music. Its 75 interviews, 2,400 still photographs, more than 2,000 film excerpts and over 500 pieces of supernal music are spread across 10 episodes, which will take up a good deal of the primest time pbs can spare from Jan. 8, when the first segment will air, to the last day of the month, when the final chapter, an accounting of the music’s past quarter-century, a hopeful peek into the future and a fond envoi, will close everything out in fine style. The mighty history Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward have wrested from all this material is many things, including imperfect. But on balance and at bottom, the series not only does jazz proud, it also rises to meet it. "Jazz" is great television about great music.

And, oh, the stories. The unlikely, implacable brilliance of Louis Armstrong, a genius raised on the streets of New Orleans whose mother hooked to survive. The resilience of Duke Ellington, born into comparative comfort, who would rise above race and dwell, as he liked to say, “beyond category,” in a world of transcendent music. The bright, hard radiance of Bix Beiderbecke, dead too soon, and the huge spiritual yearning of John Coltrane, who died believing in the salvation his music could bring. Parker, the greatest and most lyrical and most forbidding pioneer of bop—a word he disliked—who exerted an irresistible force on the music and a more perilous influence on anyone around him. “Bird was like fire,” says John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. “You couldn’t get too close.”

And there is Parker’s pal Dizzy Gillespie, who said Bird was “the other half of my heartbeat,” a formidable spirit and great artist who tried, and failed, to save Parker from the demons that drove and devoured him. Clifford Brown, dead in a car wreck, whose only vice was chess. Miles Davis, who beat back his inner darkness and took jazz to the peak of its last great popularity. Thelonious Monk, a generative spirit of compulsive genius, who applied a kind of circular geometry to the keyboard and gave jazz new contours. Billie Holiday, the beautiful desolation angel, the most ravishing and ravaged of jazz singers, whose rendition of "Autumn in New York" Burns allows to play out here as a threnody for jazz’s last great era. Bird passes, and Billie passes, and Lester Young, and Louis, and Duke, and all of a sudden it seems there are no more giants, and there is only the hard number: jazz, which was responsible for something like 70% of record-company revenue during the swing era of the ’30s, accounts for more like 3% today.

It is a vast and complex saga. Burns may be the only documentary filmmaker at work today who would be entrusted with the time and resources to reckon with it, but he is also one of the least likely to have brought it off. Whatever the considerable merits of his previous epic undertakings like "The Civil War" and "Baseball", they did not have the rich vein of recklessness, the abandon and the humor, the rhapsodic beauty or deep darkness, that are all so much a part of jazz. They may have been terrific, but they sure didn’t swing.

Neither does "Jazz". This is the work of someone taking a long look in from the outside, and this, paradoxically, is its greatest strength. The whole series practically reels from the excitement of discovery. The history is fresh, the music is new to Burns, who, he has said, knew almost nothing about jazz until an offhand remark by a baseball player being interviewed for his previous series set him to thinking and got him listening. The rest of us can hear Ellington play "The Single Petal of a Rose" or Parker lay into "Cherokee" and be stirred by mute wonder. Burns doesn’t have to go the mute route. He gets to extend and explore all those feelings, amplify them and put them all onto what may be the longest documentary pbs, or any other network, has ever shown. Lucky him. Lucky us.

Lucky too because, even at this daunting size, Burns can’t take everything in. The music is just so vast and its bounty so prodigious that Burns can’t cover all the great ones, even glancingly, which leaves lots still to explore, along with some bad feelings. There has already been griping about who doesn’t get enough screen time (Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Stan Getz) and who hardly shows up at all (many—no, most—vocalists, Stan Kenton, Nat King Cole and his trio, Erroll Garner, Johnny Hodges), which is an inadvertent tribute to the immensity of the legacy that Burns mines broadly, but beautifully. There has also been loud dissatisfaction within the ranks of some jazz players and fans about the orthodoxy of Burns’ taste, the safe selectivity of his classicism, the fact that he kisses off jazz’s past quarter-century rather quickly in the last episode and only suggests where jazz might be heading in a brisk final montage that closes the series out.

Burns is a historian working on film, however, not a prophet. Despite the huge number of jazz reissues carrying the series’ imprimatur that are currently weighing down the record racks, neither is he a promo guy flacking for the future. His object is not to move CDs, but hearts. He means to reinvigorate the American imagination with the glories of this music, and at the same time, to remind and warn viewers that jazz was born out of a fierce challenge to the abiding shame of American racism. If that means looking back longer than looking forward, then that’s the way it should be, and that’s the way Burns and Ward let it play out. Besides, with Armstrong playing "Star Dust", or Young taking a solo, or Holiday singing "Strange Fruit", the weight of history goes airborne. "Jazz" becomes, like the title of that Holiday classic, fine and mellow.

Always fine, anyway. But not invariably mellow, especially when it uses jazz with unapologetic heat to place black history at the vital center of American culture. Burns is relentless on the subject. He has spoken loudly and often about how racism is the thread that binds "Jazz" together with his previous large-scale work. He and his onscreen docents, like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the critics Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch, easily weave the story of the music not only together with history but also with conventional cultural tradition. Mozart and Shakespeare are cited as cultural touchstones for the giants of jazz; the narration refers to Ellington as “America’s greatest composer,” an accolade that may well be deserved but which even the Duke might have found, however satisfying, a little exclusionary.

Marsalis particularly can lay down the jazz gospel with an evangelical fervor, and Burns gives him plenty of time at the pulpit. Probably too much. It would certainly have been better, for instance, to hear directly from some of the musicians who helped make the history besides Ellington or Basie rather than have Marsalis evoking times he never experienced, even if you can practically see the tongue of fire over his head when he speaks. But Jazz’s seventh and finest episode, Dedicated to Chaos, which chronicles the beginnings of the bebop revolution as well as the coming of hard drugs and the deepening scar of racism, eases away at the end on a note of shattering simplicity. Dave Brubeck, whose music, buttressed by the suave and inventive sax of Paul Desmond, is an important rediscovery here, recounts a childhood incident of racial revelation that leaves him weeping. It is an unforgettable anecdote and lays open the conscience as it touches the soul—just the way that much of jazz can do, with a flourish or a solo or an act of lyrical surprise.

Brubeck. Marsalis. Miles and Duke and Louis and Lady Day and Count Basie and Bird and Prez, and Benny Goodman too: it’s folly to rank on Burns for spending so much time on these looming figures because, at the last, they are the ones who made the history he is setting down here. Writer Ward has compared the various warring partisans of jazz to a dysfunctional family, and all the sniping and complaining about short shrift for today’s talent miss the mark that he and Burns aimed for. They are laying a foundation, making this music, whether it’s as old as Armstrong’s "Hot Fives" from the ’20s or Davis’ "Kind of Blue" from the ’50s, not only alive again but also audacious again. Liberating. The sound of perpetual American promise.

But of course it’s Ellington who said it best. “If it sounds good,” he said about music, “it is good.” That definition should stand and serve here too. Nothing else on television has ever sounded as good as "Jazz".