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Ken Burns returns with a virtuoso — and lengthy — tale of America's music.

The Many Notes of 'Jazz'


"The arrogance of age must submit to be taught by youth." The man who said that, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, had it right, especially with regard to the work of Ken Burns, the long-form television documentarian. Burns burst on the scene in the 1990s with "The Civil War." He went where his betters had never gone and bested them. He told a lengthy, sweeping story using only music, voice-overs and still pictures. It was the latter of his three basic tools that separated him from TV documentarians who came before him: Burns had the courage to tell a multi-hour story primarily through still pictures. He created a masterpiece that can rightfully be termed the definitive TV history of America's Civil War. A few years later he did the same thing for baseball — but this time he didn't have to rely primarily on black-and-white stills. He could draw on film archives as the story progressed. Again he created an authoritative work of history on television. Now Burns has turned his attention to America's music. His sweeping, monumental and sometimes painful story of jazz, the most American of all music forms, will fill 19 hours of airtime on public television this month. Again he will rely heavily on archival stills for much of the story, incorporating film but only reluctantly, it seems, when the documentary nears its end. Once again, Burns has defined his subject in a long-form documentary that will outlive us all and provide musicologists well into the next millennium an accurate and all-encompassing reference work. Do you sense a "but" coming here? There is one: This time, the audience may not follow along so faithfully. Burns' ability to use stills to tell a television story is far beyond any competitor's. As an editor, he's brilliant in matching pictures to narration. His virtuosity is even more on display in "Jazz," because he's matching narration, an organic entity, with recorded music, a fixed entity. Thus, when the name of a song pops up in an interview at the precise moment the underlying music hits the title phrase, or a trumpet solo blares forth at the exact moment the artist's name is mentioned, you know you've seen the hand of a tireless and determined editor. But "Jazz" is long — more than six times longer than "Gone With the Wind" — and its detail is often eye-numbing. The experts Burns has assembled are often engaging, but none stand out the way Shelby Foote did in "The Civil War." Consultant Wynton Marsalis, who explains that jazz is "an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves," comes close, as does writer Stanley Crouch, whose off-handed, warts-and-all approach to storytelling will make you chuckle. But "Jazz" is still as long as the last week before vacation, as long as a Baptist preacher's Easter sermon, as long as an Icelandic Airlines flight to Europe, as long as the time it took you to memorize the periodic table of elements in high-school chemistry class. There are aspects to Burns' story that any good documentarian would have to include: Louis Armstrong's astonishing talent and pervasive influence; Billie Holiday's ability to transcend the limitations of her voice and transform mediocre music into soul-searing jazz; Jelly Roll Morton's false claim that he invented jazz when what he really did was devise a way of writing it down; and Miles Davis' search for new sounds, which made him the most influential musician of his generation. But Burns reaches deeper — historians of the future, take note — and offers a sense of the fear Holiday felt the first time she sang "Strange Fruit"; he reveals the astonishing claim by cornetist Nick LaRocca (a white man who landed the first jazz recording contract) that jazz was an exclusively white creation; and he unflinchingly faces the forces behind Charlie Parker's arc from musical revolutionary to self-destruction. The value of "Jazz" as a work of historical detail and accuracy may prove to be its downfall with Public TV viewers. The subject is not as generally compelling as those Burns has tackled previously, and its length, which rivals that of the recent Florida recount, may make their eyes glaze over. Nonetheless, it's a brilliant piece of work.

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